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Computer system cuts public access

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Note: An earlier version did not make clear that domestic violence and DWI cases will continue to be available online. The story below has been modified.

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

A new, streamlined computer system at Metropolitan Court that is to go live Monday will vastly reduce the amount of information the public can get online.

Those requesting information on felony cases that are older than two years will have to travel to the Downtown courthouse to get it, as will those seeking misdemeanor cases older than five years. However, all domestic violence and DWI cases will continue to be available online.

“It’s a bad decision, because you’re taking a lot of years of public records – that are now fairly easily accessible – and making them hard to get,” said Greg Williams, an attorney and board member for the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government. “Any time access to public records is diminished, the public suffers.”

Court administrators hail the new software, called “Odyssey,” as a long-overdue change to the way Metro Court keeps its records. It replaces “AS-400,” a decades-old system that has been plagued in recent months with “periodic functionality lapses,” according to Arthur Pepin, director of the state Administraive Office of the Courts.

Williams said he understands the need to upgrade software but worries about what the reduced access will mean for employers, attorneys, journalists and countless others who rely on the current system for background checks and other purposes.

Even the cases that will still be online won’t be available immediately, and Pepin said he could not estimate when they will be.

He said the new system will benefit the public and court staff by plugging Metro Court into the case-management system used across the state and preventing delays and errors that pop up in the old system.

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

Pepin said the reduced access to case documents comes down to money and time. Putting the old cases into the Odyssey system is not high on the priority list, especially as the new system is going online, he said.

Since Odyssey is used throughout the state, the switch will allow Metro Court staff to more seamlessly interact with and access cases from all over the state, Pepin said.

Administrators have not yet decided whether the five-year online archive will be kept 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 depends on the amount of storage space required and a decision on whether old cases should be expunged so a person’s reputation isn’t damaged years after being charged, Pepin said.

Some state legislators have unsuccessfully tried to pass bills and constitutional amendments to expunge criminal records after a certain number of years. Pepin said the repeated efforts show there is at least some political will to do so.

“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.”

Williams, however, said the court’s failure to convert old case information shows it is, in effect, trying to expunge criminal records and limit public access to public documents.

At District Court across the street, the public can get online case information going back to at least the early 1990s, and they can get specific case documents by printing them off of lobby computers. Both misdemeanors and felonies are filed first at Metro Court, but felonies move on to District Court.

The court was closed Friday to accommodate the change to Odyssey. Pepin said the statewide changeover to the new system will cost about $10 million – money generated by fees and legislative appropriations. Pepin could not estimate how much of that went to the Metro Court changeover, except that it was a significant amount.

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