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Metro Court software change will limit public access to case info

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If all goes according to plan, a new records management system at Metropolitan Court will go online Monday, offering court staff a new, streamlined software to deal with tens of thousands of criminal and civil cases that pass through the court each year.

However, the switch will mean a vastly reduced amount of case information accessible via the Internet for members of the public, prompting an outcry from a New Mexico transparency group that worries about what the reduced access will mean for employers, attorneys, journalists and countless others who rely on the current system to access case information.

Greg Williams, an attorney and board member for the state Foundation for Open Government, said that, while he understands the court’s need to upgrade its records software, such an upgrade should not come at the expense of public access to public documents. He said having easily accessible case information going back decades benefits the public interest in numerous ways.

But Arthur Pepin, director of the state Administrative Office of the Courts, said the new system will benefit the public by plugging Metro Court into the case-management system used across the state, and that Odyssey, the name of the new software, is far better than the decades-old system AS-400.

“I appreciate that people are concerned about the transition,” Pepin said. “But once we get past the transition, I think the public will find … it is a wonderful system.”

The new system, called Odyssey, is used throughout the state, so the switch will allow Metro Court staff to more seamlessly interact with and access cases from all over the state. It is also a major upgrade to the decades-old AS-400 system, Pepin said, which he described as prone recently to “periodic functionality lapses”.

However, members of the public trying to access case information on Odyssey will be able to access felony cases going back two years and misdemeanor cases going back five years. That public access portal will probably not be online until after the rest of the system is, Pepin said, though he could not estimate when the portal would be available.

Pepin also said that administrators have not yet decided whether that five-year archive will be updated on a rolling basis, meaning case files from 2009 would be deleted in 2014, or if all case information from 2009 onward will be included. That just depends on the resources and storage space required, he said, in addition to whether elected officials decide that old misdemeanor records need not be so easily accessible as to damage a person’s reputation years after being charged.

“I’m not saying that’s the court policy,” Pepin said. “I’m saying… there’s some interest in not making these records a permanent imprint in someone’s history.”

Gov. Susana Martinez has so far vetoed all so-called “record expungement” bills that made it to her desk in past legislative sessions, Pepin said.

At District Court across the street, members of the public can see case information going back to at least the early 1990s, and can get specific case documents by printing them off of lobby computers. Both misdemeanors and felonies are filed first at Metropolitan Court, but felonies are processed from that point on in District Court.

The reduction in cases accessible at Metro Court will mean misdemeanor cases filed before 2009 will not be available to the public over the Internet. Those who want to, say, look up a job applicant or do a background check will have to go to the courthouse and ask court staff to look up a name, Pepin said.

Pepin said the reduced access to case documents comes down to money. He said that carrying all the old cases over to Odyssey is not high on the priority list, especially as the new system is going online.

In the future, Pepin said it’s possible that the public will be able to download case documents from their home computer, thanks to the new system. However, he could not give an estimate about when that might happen, and such a feature would only work for cases going back five years at the most, he said.

 

Pick up tomorrow’s Albuquerque Journal for a full story.

 

 

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