BISMARCK — After just one week of being available online to the general public, the North Dakota Supreme Court has moved to pull its expanded state court records from the internet.
The records, which had been made fully available online on Jan. 1 after the Supreme Court finalized a revision to its records rule in 2019, could previously be accessed only by visiting the courthouse.
The State Court Administration pulled the records down at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 7, due to concerns about identity theft, according to state court administrator Sally Holewa. Many records included Social Security and credit card numbers even though that information is supposed to be redacted. The records have been available at courthouses since 2009.
"If things are public, we probably shouldn't be creating obstacles to getting to it, but at the same time we want to be proactive in protecting people's information," she said, adding that while there is not a clear timeline for when records would come back online, the state judiciary system is committed to removing barriers to access.
Before the expanded records were brought online, web users could only view case dockets, which included information like hearing dates, pleas and sentences. Detailed documents like arrest warrants and sworn statements that often included specific details about civil and criminal cases were added Jan. 1.
While the move was seen by some in the North Dakota judicial system as a necessary step toward removing barriers to access to records, details available in some of the documents prompted concern among critics, some who had long warned it could expose many people to identity theft and data mining.
In 2018, Southeast District Judge Brad Cruff said he had “grave concerns” about remote access to court records, calling it “a potential gold mine for identity thieves,” the Bismarck Tribune reported.
It wasn’t just Social Security and credit card numbers that were available after the rule change came into effect. Home users could also access evidence presented in court, including graphic autopsy images from high profile criminal cases. However, Holewa said this was not why state courts moved to pull the information.
It's not clear how many of the documents had information that was supposed to be redacted, as there were millions of records online. However, Holewa noted that there was not a large increase in web traffic in the time they were available on computers outside of courthouses.
State officials urge people to search their own court records to determine if their information may have been exposed during the week it was up.