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Pennington County Courthouse

Pennington County Courthouse in Rapid City

If a South Dakotan wants to see public court records, they can only do that by looking them up on computer at a state courthouse during work hours between Monday and Friday.

That means a Pine Ridge resident would have to drive an hour to the court in Hot Springs or 50 minutes to Martin. Many people in Meade, Butte and other large western counties also face long drives. 

So to help improve access to court records, the UJS is currently piloting a program that will eventually allow the public to see records from any computer, said Greg Sattizahn, administrator of the South Dakota Unified Judicial System. The website will be similar to the PACER website, which lets people view and download federal court records for a fee.

"We recognize that the (computer) terminals are kind of limited in their functionality," he said.

Lawyers can currently view documents related to their cases on any computer for free and on the new website, Sattizahn said. The new website, which is being used by a small group of lawyers before expanding this month, will allow them to see documents related to other cases for 10 cents per page. The website will then be open to the general public, who will also have to pay 10 cents per page they view, in late 2019 or early 2020. 

The fees will help cover enhanced technology within the UJS, Sattizahn said. 

The public computers at the courthouses only let people search by case number, which can be retrieved by telling a clerk the name of the defendant and their alleged crime. The new website will allow people to search by name if a date of birth or county and date range of the alleged offense are also entered. Requiring the extra information with the name is meant "to ensure the correct person and case is returned and to safeguard against data mining," Sattizahn said. 

To search for someone's complete criminal background, he said, people will still need to pay $20 at a state court or at ujspars.sd.gov. The online court calendar (ujscourttv.sd.gov), which lists hearings the day they happen, is not going to expand to listing hearings that are scheduled further out. Federal courts in South Dakota have a website that lists hearings scheduled in the next five days. 

Printing cost changes 

The new website will improve access to public records and should help cut down on paper and printing costs. But in the meantime, before the website goes live, expect to pay more when printing court documents in Rapid City or at any other court that previously allowed for double-sided printing. 

The public computers at the state courts were recently upgraded from Windows 7 to Windows 10, which requires new security whose software prevents the computers from allowing double-sided printing even if printers are capable of it, said Kent Grode, IT director for the UJS. 

Most documents are free to view on computers made available to the public, but it costs 20 cents to print each page. Before the upgrade, people visiting courts with double-sided printers could print two online pages onto one piece of paper. Now, with only single-sided printing, they will pay twice as much. 

UJS considered both cost and security needs when upgrading the computers, Sattizahn said. 

"Certainly cost was a factor that was taken into consideration. However, the need to meet system security standards for the information held by the UJS was an overriding concern," he said. "The UJS database includes highly confidential information, sealed court records and personally identifiable information in addition to publicly accessible records, and we must be vigilant in safeguarding those records."

Access differs across state

Printing costs can add up, especially because police reports can be many pages long and while listed on the public computer at the Pennington County court in Rapid City can't be opened on the computer. In order to see those documents, the public must pay to have them printed and redacted by a clerk.

That's still how people will have to access police reports filed in Pennington County cases with the new website, according to Kristi Erdman, administrator of the 7th Judicial Circuit, which includes Pennington, Custer, Oglala Lakota and Fall River counties.

"The court clerk receives the documents from law enforcement and the state's attorney's office, who have informed us they do not have the capability to redact the reports in the short time between generation of the report and court," Erdman said.

Instead of law enforcement or prosecutors redacting the documents before submitting them, the clerks redact information — such as Social Security numbers and names of minors and victims — after someone asks for them to be printed. 

If a prosecutor doesn't attach police reports to a case, the public has to request the documents through the records department, which oversees the Rapid City Police Department and Pennington County Sheriff's Office, said police spokesman Brendyn Medina. He said records are usually only provided to those directly involved in a case or their family. 

Other law enforcement agencies, state's attorneys and courts handle police reports and probable cause for arrest affidavits in different ways. 

Police reports aren't attached to cases in the 4th Judicial Circuit, said Administrator Shawn Sorenson, who oversees courts for Butte, Lawrence, Meade, Corson, Dewey, Harding, Perkins and Ziebach counties. She said clerks first redact any private information before filing probable cause for arrest affidavits, and the documents are able to be viewed on the public computer screens. 

These affidavits, which aren't commonly filed in Pennington County, can also be viewed on the public computer, Erdman said. 

Police reports and probable cause affidavits for arrests are rarely attached to cases in the 2nd Juridical Circuit said Karl Thoennes, who oversees the Minnehaha and Lawrence county courts. If an affidavit is attached, the documents can be viewed on the public computer screens. But when police reports are attached to a case, they can't be printed for the public. Instead, someone would need to ask a judge or the relevant law enforcement agency to release the reports. 

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— Contact Arielle Zionts at arielle.zionts@rapidcityjournal.com

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