Cape County circuit clerk placing restriction on public access to court documents

The Cape Girardeau County Circuit Clerk’s Office will no longer allow the public or news media to print out court records from a public access computer in the Common Pleas Courthouse.

Requested documents now will be printed by clerk staff and redacted to mark out any personal identifiers such as date of birth and Social Security and driver’s license numbers, Circuit Clerk Charleen Biester said Monday.

But Missouri Press Association attorney Jean Maneke said it appears under state law and a Missouri Supreme Court rule circuit clerks are not required to redact such information.

Missouri’s Sunshine Law states no state entity shall publicly disclose a Social Security number unless it is in connection with “any civil or criminal proceeding” in court, Maneke said.

The law also states any person receiving a Social Security number from any entity is subject to the same confidential provisions as government entities, she said.

Maneke and Biester differ over what is required of circuit clerks under Missouri Supreme Court Rule 2.05.

The rule states Social Security numbers and personal information may be disseminated if such records are otherwise open to the public, Maneke said.

“Unless required by statute, court personnel are not required to expunge or redact Social Security numbers or personal information that appears in case records,” the rule states.

Biester, however, cites a provision of the rule stating clerks shall not provide personal information verbally, or by fax or email.

Personal information, according to the rule, includes Social Security numbers, motor vehicle license numbers, victim information, witness information and financial and credit card account numbers.

The state’s highest court does not list birth dates in its list of what constitutes “personal information,” but Biester said birth dates could be considered personal information.

The change in printing of court records doesn’t apply to attorneys. They have complete access to computerized court records from their law offices.

Biester was elected circuit clerk last year, replacing Patti Wibbenmeyer, who retired.

Under Wibbenmeyer, a printer was connected to the public access computer at the Cape Girardeau courthouse, primarily for use by employees of real estate title companies.

Wibbenmeyer “decided it would help clerks out tremendously” because they would no longer have “to stop and print all those copies,” Biester said.

“But across the state, it is generally frowned upon to have a printer connected to the public access terminal,” she said, explaining her decision to disconnect the printer.

As Biester sees it, the Missouri Supreme Court rule requires circuit clerks to mark out personal identifiers before providing court records to the public.

The public still will be able to view personal identifiers in court records on the public access computer. But she said, “I can’t print it on a piece of paper and hand it to you.”

Those requesting documents still will be charged a fee of $1 per page, a fee set by the circuit’s judges.

Removing the printer at the Common Pleas Courthouse will allow the clerk’s office to control what information is released to the public in an effort to prevent identity theft, she said.

“I don’t want to get sued down the road,” she said.

Biester said she contacted other circuit clerks before deciding to disconnect the printer. She said those clerks told her to “remove it immediately.”

The change will mean more work for the clerks in the Common Pleas office who will have to print out copies for the public, including title company personnel.

At the circuit court office in Jackson, which handles criminal records, there has been no public printer. Clerks print out requested documents, Biester said.

Biester said she believes the public is best served by not allowing court records to be copied without an opportunity for her staff to review the documents.

“I don’t think anybody in the community would be upset that I am not just going to hand out that information,” she said.

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