South Dakota to Allow Court Records Access From Any Computer

South Dakota UJS Plans a Website Where You Can Access Court Records Outside Courthouses

As things now stand, when a South Dakota resident wants to access court records, it’s impossible for them to do so from anywhere. They are only able to do it if they go to a state courthouse (only during working hours on weekdays) and look them up on one of their computers.

In practice, this translates into someone from Pine Ridge having to take a 50-minute-long ride to reach the closest courthouse in Martin. Or they can take an hour-long ride to Hot Springs. That’s not an isolated affair — people from other western counties, such as Butte and Meade, face the same issue with long-drive transportation.

The Unified Judicial System (UJS) has decided to speed things up and make it more convenient for South Dakotans. They are currently implementing a pilot program which has the end goal of allowing public access to records on any computer in the state. The administrator of the South Dakota UJS, Greg Sattizahn said they will run a website which will make possible for people to view and download records from federal courts for compensation in return. Sattizahn added that the UJS knows of the limited functionality of their current system with computer terminals.

Currently, lawyers can use the new website to view court documents for free from any location so long as they look for documents related to the case they work on. According to Sattizahn, the new website will let the lawyers (a handful of them currently use its beta version) access any other documents for a fee of ¢10 per page.

New Website Plans

The UJS intends to open the website for the general public use some time in late 2019 or early 2020. The price would remain the same —  ¢10 per page. Sattizahn said the fee would serve the purpose of covering enhanced technology costs within the UJS.

With the system that’s now in force, you can only search records using courthouses’ public computers. The procedure has you tell a clerk the alleged crime and the defendant’s name. The clerk gives you the case number which you type into the public computer. When they finish implementing the new system, you won’t need the case number on the website. Instead, it will let you search records by name if you know the date range and the county the alleged offense took place in, together with the date of birth of the defendant. Sattizahn claimed the system requires additional information with a view to preventing data mining or the case files ending up in wrong hands.

If someone wants to access a person’s entire criminal background, they would still have to visit a state court and pay $20. The court calendar found online will still only list hearings of the current day and won’t expand to list those that are scheduled later on. South Dakotan federal courts have a website for listing out hearings for the following five days.

There’s another benefit to this new system. Aside from bringing convenience to the South Dakota residents, the UJS also expects to lower their costs on printing and paper. Until the website gets up and running, you now must pay more for printing out documents in, say, Rapid City or any other court. This comes as a consequence of courts disallowing double-sided printing.

Printing Costs

Public courthouse computers, which until recently ran on Windows 7, have been upgraded to Windows 10. This meant they needed to implement new security software which would prevent people from making double-sided printing copies on the printers which are capable of doing it. You can still view the majority of documents for free on public computers. However, if you wish to print them out, that will cost you 20 cents a page. In the Windows 7 days, you could take out two pages on one piece of paper if a court had a double-sided printer. Now, the cost is doubled.

Sattizahn claimed that the UJS thought about both security needs and cost before they upgraded to the latest Microsoft system. He said they did consider the cost as a factor in the decision making, but the UJS’ concern of meeting the latest security standards concerning information overrode cost issues. As their database has some confidential and sensitive information, they had to do their best to upgrade the security of the records, which include personal information and sealed court records.

Printing costs can easily accumulate. For instance, many police reports usually end up being several pages long. Although they are listed on the Pennington County court public computer, when you go to Rapid City, you can’t open them on the computer. Instead, you have to pay printing costs to see the contents. There’s no other way of accessing police reports in Pennington County cases except for paying up for the printing.

Different Counties, Different Rules

According to the administrator of the 7th Judicial Circuit, Kristi Erdman, the court clerk has access to documents from state attorney’s office and law enforcement, both of which are simply unable to redact their reports between the time they start making them to the moment they enter the court.

Instead, when someone asks for a printed-out report, court clerks have to redact information from the reports, including names of victims and Social Security numbers. Supposing that a prosecutor doesn’t attach the police report to a case, members of the public have to request access via the records department in the Rapid City Police Department, as well as the Sheriff’s Office. Usually, only family members and those involved in the case can get access.

State attorneys, courts, and law enforcement agencies can get police reports and affidavits differently. Namely, according to Shawn Sorenson, the administrator of the 4th Judicial Circuit, their cases don’t have police reports attached. Sorenson claims that clerks remove any private information prior to filing affidavits, while people can use public computers to view the documents.

Police reports and affidavits for arrests don’t usually get attached in the 2nd and 7th Judicial Circuit. In the 7th, you can view them on the public computer nonetheless, but they have a different practice in the 2nd. There, you need a judge to approve the release of the reports.

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