Personal info to be kept off court documents

News Photo by Julie Riddle Alpena County Deputy County Clerk Keri Bertrand shows Gretchen Pardieke, office manager of Michigan Court Reports — a criminal background check company headquartered in Alpena — how to navigate a recent change on the public computer terminal at the Alpena County Courthouse on Tuesday.

ALPENA — Private information will soon be a little less public thanks to a change to court rules that shields birth dates and other identifying information from public consumption — a change that could stand in the way of residents in search of a job or a home, critics say.

Hoping to protect people named in court documents from too-public scrutiny as documents become increasingly available online, the Michigan Supreme Court said dates of birth and other personal information must be kept from the public on court paperwork filed after July 1.

According to the rule change, people involved in court cases must still provide personal identifying information — including full name, Social Security number, driver’s license number, and email address — when necessary for a case, but that information will not be shown to the public on printed paperwork or via computer kiosks, such as those in the Alpena County Courthouse lobby.

That change could throw a wrench into hiring efforts — just as employers are scrambling for workers — and keep renters from securing a home in an already tight housing market, according to the Professional Background Screening Association.

Hidden birth dates mean professional background screeners will struggle to definitely match a potential hire or renter to their court information, leaving those requesting the checks without adequate information to make hiring or rental decisions, background checkers contend.

The state office offered a workaround, saying those requesting background checks can also require a waiver of the hiding of personal identifying information.

Meanwhile, county clerks won’t have to redact information from documents filed before July 1 — a relief, said Alpena County Clerk Bonnie Friedrichs, as more than 90,000 court cases currently fill courthouse storage shelves and computer hard drives.

Even after July 1, clerks are not required to redact identifying information on documents filed by individuals, only those created by the court, putting the burden of keeping private information private on attorneys and other filers.

A new public records system will go live in the Alpena County Courthouse lobby on June 29, Friedrichs said. The new system will provide access to court information without sharing information required to be hidden from the public.

Hiding — or not collecting in the first place — information that could identify people in court documents is a change in the works for a decade, since the state began a move toward electronic filing of court documents, according to John Nevin, Michigan Supreme Court spokesman.

The state court has to ensure the safe handling of court documents as those documents move increasingly online, Nevin said.

The loss of access to personal information is a blow to researchers who enter courthouses to conduct background checks, according to Gretchen Pardieke, office manager with Michigan Court Reports, a criminal background check company headquartered in Alpena.

With “Help Wanted” signs everywhere, the new restrictions threaten to snarl the hiring process, just when employers most need to onboard new employees rapidly, Pardieke said.

The lack of identifying information such as a birth date will make it nearly impossible to differentiate between people with the same name, leaving employers unsure whether to hire, Pardieke said.

“People deserve to know that, when they get into a taxi cab, their driver is safe,” she said. “How else do you check that out?”


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