- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 24, 2002

RICHMOND County clerks of courts have told state lawmakers that they should create legislation to stipulate what information from court records, such as Social Security numbers, can be posted online and in courthouses.
The clerks told the joint subcommittee studying the protection of court records on Tuesday that they are torn between a state law requiring records to be posted on the Internet and the privacy concerns of residents whose personal information is made public.
"I believe we have a responsibility to follow the code," said Charles V. Mason, clerk of the King George County Court. "We don't pick and choose what we do with the code. All we are asking for is some direction, because we do not have that now."
"On-site clerks know what can and cannot be shown to the public. Well, the same needs to be done for remote access. We cannot have 119 different rules," said Frank Hargrove, clerk of the Hanover County Court.
"We have never studied access to court records in Virginia before," said Delegate Jeannemarie Devolites, chairman of the subcommittee.
Virginia law requires clerks to make court records available by remote access or lose their share of the Technology Trust Fund administered by the State Compensation Board.
Counties such as King George, Fairfax, Wise and Arlington have posted the information. Others, such as Hanover, Henrico and Chesterfield, have not.
"I am opposed to the information being available online, but on the flip side, I can see the legitimate need for this information. I would like to say who can and cannot use it, but I am afraid if I do that, I will get sued," said Judy Worthington, clerk of the court for Chesterfield County.
Information from land records, marriage licenses, divorce proceedings, traffic violations and other documents is available in public courthouse files and on the Internet. A savvy researcher can easily access the Social Security numbers, signatures, dates of birth, maiden names, credit history and other personal information of any individual whose records are online.
"The issue is with the medium," said state Sen. Leslie Byrne, Fairfax Democrat. "You can see who comes into a courthouse, but you can't monitor 3 billion [Internet users]."
The committee is scheduled to meet once more before the General Assembly reconvenes in January about drafting legislation that could address both the concerns of clerks who want to get the money they are owed from the compensation board and the fears of private citizens.
One suggestion that seemed to have wide support would be to allow for an attachment to Internet records that would include necessary but sensitive information and would be accessible only to certain individuals. The attachment could be referenced in the document but would not be available to the public at large.
But some cautioned that what seems like a good idea now might be frowned upon later.
"Lots of good ideas eventually do not pass First Amendment muster," said Delegate Robert B. Bell, Charlottesville Republican.
Clerks told the legislators that they do not want to be police officers of privacy, saying personal information should not be placed on certain documents in the first place.
"Social Security numbers are now required on marriage licenses. Why?" said Yvonne Smith, clerk of the Henrico County Court. "Because somebody thought that would help with deadbeat dads down the road. Well, come to my county and I will show you that the deadbeat dads aren't marrying the mothers [to begin with]. There is no need to have Social Security numbers on that license."

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