JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — As Missouri’s judicial system hits a huge milestone with court records being available online, a top state lawmaker recommends people check to see if their private information has been posted.
A FOX Files investigation found numerous court filings that included people’s Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers, and dates of birth available on CaseNet, a web-based search portal operated by the state and available for the public to view real-time information regarding court cases.
Among the filings that included people’s private information was Dawn, a Missouri resident, whose last name KTVI has decided not to release.
“This paperwork was just filed a couple of weeks ago,” Dawn said. “I’m at a loss for words right now. This has all my personal information on there.”
Dawn was unaware her Social Security number, driver’s license number, and date of birth were included in the court’s public filing.
“It’s a little unsettling because I am not an attorney,” she said.
People’s names and addresses are considered public information, but information like Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers, and dates of birth is not and should have been redacted.
“This information shouldn’t be just readily available to the public. Now I’m at risk. I’m not the only one at risk if you found other people’s (info) as well,” Dawn said.
The FOX Files found nearly a dozen records similar to Dawn’s.
Earlier this week, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson signed Bill 103 into law. It clearly states that private information, like Social Security numbers and dates of birth, should be considered confidential and not available online.
Parson told Missouri Capitol Bureau Reporter Emily Manley on Monday that his office had not been made aware of any issues surrounding the issue.
“We’re going to do whatever we can to protect people’s private information—Social Security, date of birth—that is something we are going to watch very carefully in the state, and we always have,” Parson said.
State Rep. David Evans (R-Howell County), the chairman of the Missouri House Judiciary Committee, said Monday he’s a little surprised that people’s private information could be found on CaseNet.
Evans said it’s up to the filer, whether they’re an attorney or not, to ensure confidential information is redacted or blacked out before it’s filed with the court.
“It’s up to the individual person that files it that meets the requirement of the law,” Evans said. “Is it the easiest thing in the world? Probably not, but I think there’s a good-faith effort to try and stop this. The courts are moving in the direction to comply with this new law.”
Missouri courts started posting records online on July 1, 2023, but the state has been discussing the transition to the online database for years.
The Missouri Bar Association held a seminar in June in a last-ditch effort to get lawyers prepared for the redaction process. Attorneys are largely responsible for redacting their client’s information.
In a video posted in June on the Bar’s YouTube channel, Office of the State Court Administrator Legal Counselor Catherine Zacharias told all Missouri lawyers that the rules require confidential information to be redacted.
“The Bar has put together a resource center. One thing we wanted to point, there’s tutorials available on the website on how to actually use your PDF software to redact the documents,” Zacharias said in June.
In Missouri, the court clerk takes the records and files what he or she gets, and it then appears online. Some forms may be redacted automatically if they’re filed online.
In Arkansas, attorneys are also required to redact before filing, but the state also relies on a system that automatically redacts private information, like Social Security numbers. Oklahoma court officials say they’re in the process of implementing Arkansas’ similar-style system.
But what about people who file records with the court on their own, without an attorney?
The state has created an online question and answer section that includes information on who’s responsible for redacting confidential information, what should be redacted, and how a person redacts information from a document. The state’s Q&A section can be found here.
A poster has been sent to all Missouri clerks, warning individual filers of the rule change. FOX Files investigators were able to see the poster posted in the clerk’s window at the 21st Circuit Court in St. Louis, which includes a QR code directing people to the state’s Q&A website.
“It’s a partnership. Everyone, heads up,” Evans said.
Evans is a retired judge and said any person with a court case filed after July 1, 2023, in Missouri should check their online court record and if their private information is available to the public, they should take steps to remove it.
“Check your own file, see if you’re listed there and if you have information that’s private,” Evans said.
According to the state’s website, if someone fails to redact information, they should alert the court to the potential mistake by filing a Motion to Correct Redaction.
The court has 30 days to decide if a mistake was made.
In Dawn’s case, she’s in disbelief because her records were filed by her attorney in an effort to remove a two-decade-old assault charge.
“It was a mistake 20 years ago. Nothing has happened since then. I just don’t want it to reflect, like a job opportunity or anything I have going on in the future,” she said.
Call it Dawn’s attempt to wipe her record clean, only to get an unexpected headache.
“This seems to be a bigger problem than what was filed. Cause now someone can have access to all my personal information,” Dawn said.
Beth Riggert, the communications counsel for the Supreme Court of Missouri, issued the following statement Wednesday:
In Missouri, records of court cases are presumed open to any member of the public. Public case information has been accessible in Missouri via Case.net, a web-based search portal, for more than a quarter of a century.
As technology advanced, citizens of this state requested and expected easier and more convenient access to public records. In response to this demand, the Missouri judiciary has been moving to make public court documents more accessible to the public while putting safeguards in place to protect confidential information. As announced last year, Case.net will provide greater public remote access to courthouse records in tandem with new court rules providing clarity about the confidential information that must be protected from access to the public. Free resources are available online – through both the Missouri Courts and The Missouri Bar – to help everyone understand the expanded access to public records and the new court rules designed to protect confidential information.
Ultimately – as always been true – the duty to protect confidential information in court documents falls solely on the attorney or person filing the document. Court clerks and staff are required to accept documents filed with the court. They cannot attempt to amend or fix a document to ensure compliance with any law or regulation, including rules regarding the protection of confidential information. Like all court staff, clerks must remain neutral, and their role is critical in following the constitutional requirement that the courts are open and accessible to all, without denial or delay.