The Real Story About the San Luis Obispo County Clerk’s Office

It is no secret many complaints have been lodged surrounding the activities of the San Luis Obispo (SLO) County Clerk’s office.  It is also no  secret that Riley Parker has done his best to get to the bottom of why it was taking so long to get criminal records or why the fees for obtaining criminal information increased.

We have done our due diligence. As a result, Riley, CALI’s legislative advocate Jerry Desmond Jr.  and I participated in meetings in Sacramento with Senator Bill Monning’s staff and with a representative of California’s Judicial Council. Senator Monning, of course, represents San Luis Obispo County.

As a result of our efforts, we were put in contact with Susan Matherly, the Court’s Chief Executive Officer and the person responsible for all that transpires in the SLO County Clerk’s Office.  After a couple of long conversations, Ms. Matherly invited us to visit and tour her facility. At the appointed time on Friday, October 3, 2014, Jerry, Riley, President Chris Reynolds and I converged at the SLO court building. We were graciously welcomed by Ms. Matherly and her Director of Criminal Operations, Karen Liebscher, and given a tour to enable us to see the operation first-hand.  We were introduced to search statistics, examples of lists they receive and details concerning their daily work.

We know all of the courts are struggling financially; their budgets have been cut to bare bones and they are desperate to find ways to keep the doors open and serve the public as best they can. SLO is not alone. As we have all experienced, hours have been reduced in many jurisdictions and obtaining records is just not as easy as it used to be.

San Luis Obispo County has an additional challenge. It is a small county with a high value university.   Students graduating from California State Polytechnic University, better known as CAL Poly, often apply for positions  where references, including criminal records, are thoroughly checked. The load on the Criminal Clerk’s office is tremendous, often processing in excess of 3000 requests each month. Most of these criminal checks are done through court researchers who may submit a list of 100 names several times each month.

So what, you say? Why don’t the researchers just look up the names on the public computers? The California Drug Courts have changed the face of public access to court records. As you are probably aware, an individual charged with some drug offenses can have their cases adjudicated through a pre-plea diversion program in the drug court. This program allows criminal proceedings to be suspended during the time a defendant is participating in drug testing, education, counseling, education or other court imposed requirements. Upon successful completion, the charges against the defendant then may be dismissed.  Why is that important? It is significant because counseling and medical procedures are not considered a public record and may fall under HIPAA laws.  Therefore, SLO no longer has their criminal records on publically accessible computers. I anticipate we will soon see similar restrictions in other jurisdictions. In addition, San Luis Obispo does not have a computer system capable of redacting this very personal information, removing these types of records from their system, or even the funding available to upgrade.  Consequently, it is up to the clerk to look up a name with the accompanying date of birth when a criminal record is checked.  It is different when the file is a hard copy.  Then, the clerk just removes the confidential information from the file before it is viewed, or the information is sealed in an envelope.

We all came away from the meeting with a new appreciation of the work required behind the scenes in a county clerk’s office and their extraordinary efforts. The best news of the day, however, was finding out if an individual goes the clerk’s window to look up one or two records, the access and response is immediate and it is without a fee. The increase in fees and the delay in getting records many of you are experiencing is a direct result of utilizing a court researcher.  In the event a court researcher is checking for records, the court researcher submits a list of names which then is assigned to a clerk to research. Whether the list is ten names or one-hundred names, the list doesn’t get returned to the researcher until every name is checked.  Since there are a limited number of clerks available to do these checks, the lists create a backlog, therefore causing a delay in you getting your results.  Further, the researchers are being charged a fee for the time it takes to do each list. That fee is passed on to you, the client.

Court researches are a valuable resource and if there is a situation that doesn’t require a timely response, then a court researcher saves time and money.  Conversely, if the record you need is time sensitive, either go to the court yourself or get a private investigator in the area to go for you.

You may have experienced a similar situation in your county if you are using court researchers to check criminal records for you.  If you do, just keep in mind that you always have the option to send someone else to check if it is a time-sensitive matter.

Francie Koehler is a two-term past president, Distinguished Achievement Award and Investigator of the Year recipient, is currently CALI’s Legislative Chair and is the host of PI’s Declassified!, an internet radio show.