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Sensitive, private information of ND residents potentially exposed

Published: Jan. 6, 2020 at 6:36 PM CST
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North Dakota is now the first state to allow anyone with a computer and internet connection access to court documents from their own home or a remote location, according to state officials.

Yet, there's disagreement on whether this is a good thing with sensitive information being exposed to millions.

The court records can be viewed and printed for free on publicrecords.ndcourts.gov.

This was rolled out on January 1st after the state supreme court adopted new rules for accessing public documents following three years of discussions.

“We wanted to actually remove the barriers to access. This is information... not just documents, but information that constitutes the court record,” Sally Howela, State Court Administrator, said.

What makes North Dakota unique among the other states is the limited amount of restrictions in accessing court records remotely and the fact there isn't a cost.

“I know other states have looked at it, I know they have certain limited access to documents,” Howela said.

There are restrictions, however, to documents related to domestic violence and sexual assault cases. Other than that, nearly everything else is up for grabs, including, divorce records and autopsy photos for murder cases.

Cass County State’s Attorney Birch Burdick declined speaking on camera. But in a phone conversation, he said access to such documents creates unintended consequences.

Birdick also said his office will ask a district court judge if certain documents can't be accessible remotely.

Tammy Oltz, an assistant law professor and the director of the law library at the University of North Dakota, said the benefits of people having access to these documents remotely outweigh any consequences.

“The thing is a lot of this information has already been available, it's just people had to go to the courthouse to get it,” Oltz said. “And so, you can't really call information accessible if not everyone can access it.”

The North Dakota Supreme Court will review the new rule in about a year to see if any changes need to be made.

If you find that your social security number, date of birth, or any information that you consider to be private is available on publicrecords.ndcourts.gov, you can visit your local courthouse and meet with a court clerk to get that information redacted.

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