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From traffic tickets to murder convictions, we mine online court records across the United States for clients. But for routine matters, one shouldn’t have to hire a private investigator just to look up a court case. This information ought to be accessible to everyone. Unfortunately, it’s not. Blame a patchwork of confusing and sometimes prohibitively expensive policies that make online access to these important public records all but impossible in some places.

First, the good news. Some states like Maryland provide the public with free and easy access to court dockets. So does Washington, DC. But other places offer no online access at all. While there’s certainly a good argument to be made that courts ought to be able to charge a reasonable fee to pay for the cost of keeping online databases running, some states take this too far. If you live Nebraska, for instance, be prepared to fork over $15 just to search a single name.

I recently wrote a freelance piece for the Alexandria Times taking a look at the situation in Virginia. In most places in Virginia, you’re able to look up Circuit Court cases fairly easily here. By contrast, Fairfax County charges hundreds of dollars a year to access its own court filing system, but only after users fill out a lengthy application form to access records that are, after all, public. Alexandria’s aging system has been offline for months now. While city officials say they’re studying what to do, residents have to go to the courthouse to look up records on their own for now.

So why does it matter? Meg Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government said it best when she told me, “It puts a great burden on the citizens who can’t easily make it to the courthouse to look up records,” she said. “But it also makes it much more difficult for the general public, including the media, to oversee our judicial branch.”

– By Jim McElhatton