N.C. Public Records Case Opens up Access to Agency Database

by Brooks Pierce
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The North Carolina Court of Appeals recently decided a landmark case for public records law in the state. In that case, the panel of three appellate judges determined that the Automated Criminal/Infraction System (“ACIS”) database is subject to public disclosure under the North Carolina Public Records Act.

The North Carolina ACIS database is a database of criminal records compiled in real time maintained by the Administrative Office of the Courts (the “AOC”) for the clerks of superior court across the state. The database contains real-time criminal records entered by clerks in all 100 counties in North Carolina. In 2011, a group of news organizations and information aggregators (including Lexis) sued official representatives of the AOC and the Wake County Superior Court to demand disclosure of an index of the ACIS database. A lower court ruled in favor of the government and denied disclosure, and the plaintiffs appealed.

On appeal, the North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed the lower court and unanimously held that the database qualified as a public record maintained by the AOC that must be disclosed to the public. The decision is a win for newsgathering organizations.

The court concluded that the ACIS database is an electronic data-processing record and a compilation of individual county records. The ACIS database compiles and maintains each county’s individual records entered into a centralized database. The parties did not dispute that individual clerks of court could provide the criminal records for his or her county in response to a request, but the clerks could not provide the records from any other counties or make a copy of the entire ACIS database.

The AOC created, maintains, and controls the ACIS database and is the only entity with the ability to copy the database. Thus, according to the court’s opinion, the AOC, as the custodian of the ACIS database itself, is therefore responsible for providing copies of the ACIS records.

The case is an important precedent for the notion that electronic databases that compile and index public records are subject to disclosure by the agency that maintains the database—in addition to the individual public records held in such databases. According to the court, each database, itself, is a public record. The court concluded that while clerks maintain county criminal records, the ACIS database itself is a distinct public record of the AOC and in the agency’s custody. The AOC is therefore responsible for providing public access to the database under state public records law.

The court also reasoned that the fact that the information in an existing county record also exists in the electronic database does not relieve either agency of its obligation to disclose. So, an individual county clerk must still provide access to the public records in its custody, and a statewide entity in charge of a database must also separately provide access to the records in its custody. In other words, it does not matter if the records are duplicated in more than one location—each custodian has a unique obligation to provide access to public records that are within its control.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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