Members of the public seeking to view Riverside County Superior Court criminal records online now need to pay for access, with services previously available for free canceled based on the outcome of a lawsuit against the court.

Earlier this week, the court shut down its free portal, saying the action was in response to a ruling by the California Fourth District Court of Appeal.

The Superior Court continues to provide access to electronic criminal records, but via a paywall that requires purchasing “search credits” to find defendants using either a case number or name.

Civil records can continue to be searched for free using a case number.

“We are trying to work on a process to balance access to justice, compliance with the District Court of Appeal opinion and cost recovery,” Superior Court spokeswoman Marita Ford told City News Service.

Purchasing search credits costs between $1-$25, depending on the number of searches a user wants to conduct.

The civil suit was filed in 2016 by a prisoner advocacy organization, All of Us or None, which accused the Superior Court of compromising defendants’ personal information by permitting search criteria to include either a driver’s license number or date of birth.

Under a system implemented in 2010, the driver’s license number or date of birth could be entered into search fields along with a case number to find criminal defendant information.

For years, the documents included minute orders to permit users to view all of the relevant summaries of what transpired during hearings. However, that was eliminated in 2013 based on privacy concerns cited under California Rules of the Court 2.507.

The Superior Court then reduced online views to case registries — a summary of actions listing dates and types of hearings — with the names and charges against defendants available, as well as a cross-referenced compendium of other cases involving the same parties.

All of Us or None argued that permitting the use of dates of birth and driver license numbers to initiate a search was a violation of Rule 2.507 and sections of the Government Code. A trial court dismissed the allegations, noting that the details were not published in the electronic criminal index.

As the Superior Court’s attorneys pointed out, “the plaintiffs challenge the fact that one who already knows an individual’s date of birth can use that information to search the index.”

“Nothing in Rule 2.507 prevents the court from allowing users who already know an individual’s date of birth from including that data point as a method for searching the database,” according to the defendants’ brief submitted to the appellate court.

Criminal complaints routinely include a defendant’s date of birth.

The plaintiffs countered that state law bars any input of sensitive personal information “as a data element to be used as a search query.”

The appellate court agreed with the argument. However, the judicial panel did not declare specific corrective measures, instead remanding the case to the trial court last month for resolution.

Superior Court Executive Office staff responded by taking away the free search option altogether.

There is no requirement under either Rule 2.507, or the other guiding provision for electronic court records, Rule 2.503, that mandate fees for accessing records online.

The San Bernardino County Superior Court has maintained a free portal using only name search criteria for the last two decades. To access it, visitors must agree to terms and conditions via an interface before being permitted to conduct a search.

Ford and other Riverside County Superior Court officials have said in the past that electronic access fees were a means of raising funds to support the online database.

In the current fiscal year, the court’s budget was slashed 10% because of cutbacks during the public health lockdowns, which impacted court operations statewide.

Ford said it is possible the Superior Court will get the funds back in the upcoming fiscal year, which begins Thursday. But she did not know whether the restoration would translate to a change to the public web portal that would make some level of free online searches available again.

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