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Monday, March 03, 2008

Hamilton County Court Clerk Greg Hartmann: Wins Public Record/Internet Privacy Ruling

CINCINNATI (TDB) -- A federal appeals court in Ohio says local government officials can't be held liable when public records on the Internet are abused by crooks who steal someone's identity. The 6th Circuit U.S.Court of Appeals declared that information contained in public documents can trump a private citizens expectation of privacy and their property interests. Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Greg Hartmann -- a Republican now running for a county commission seat -- was sued by a citizen who claimed personal identifying information was accessed from the clerk's public website. Cynthia Lambert said the personal data gathered by identity thieves included her Social Security number, which appeared on a 2003 traffic ticket for speeding posted on the court clerk's website.

In Ohio, the traffic ticket forms issued by police departments are uniform across the state. They include standard information like name and address, weight and height and a line for an SSN. County officials now redact SSN's from material before it goes onto the Web. Lambert wanted Hamilton County to create a credit-monitoring fund to limit the risk of financial injury from future identity theft incidents. The complete text of the 11-page ruling by the federal appeals court -- which was issued last week -- is available here (pdf). A three-judge panel said that stealing ID information from a government Web does not equate to the harm suffered by a rape victim who is publicly identified by a sheriff. It said the first is not actionable in court; the rape victim would have a claim for damages and invasion of privacy. Said the court:

"Lambert has provided no support for the proposition that the harm to her credit implicated a liberty interest that any court has recognized as fundamental, and her argument to the contrary is simply unpersuasive. Furthermore, she does not even begin to meet the hurdle required for recognition of a new fundamental right. The protection of a person's credit is a concept relating to one's finances and economic well-being, one that by its very nature bears no relationship to the kinds of interests that are 'implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.' . . . We therefore agree with the district court that Lambert's injuries are more properly described as financial in nature and not truly liberty interests at all.

"Although this court has never acknowledged a constitutional right to privacy based on the infringement of a property interest, Lambert urges us to recognize such a right in this case."

The three-judge panel said that "to constitutionalize a harm of the type Lambert has suffered would open a Pandora's box of claims under 42 U.S.C 1983, a step we are unwilling to take."


  1. Now that the risk of liability is gone, I hope the clerk's office undoes the travesty of blocking the public's ability to view cases online. I moonlight as a landlord, and it becomes necessary from time to time to run names through the clerk's website to make sure I'm not renting to any more deadbeats than I already do. The system worked great under Cissell, but Hartmann took it away. What's the point of having the website in the first place if the citizens can't call up and read documents?

  2. Hi Anon 9:21 am --

    In the end, it might not be Greg Hartmann's call. The Ohio Supreme Court is considering rules about what should and should not be public in court records. I think there's a strong presumption of openness, but some concern about what goes on the Internet because of the privacy issue. I think most records should be available online -- obviously SSNs should be redacted, credit cards etc. But if one is caught in a tax case, the income data should be fair game and online. A little sunshine never hurt.