NM courts adopt new online records system

The state hopes to build revenue for people trying to access records by offering software with features like tracking court cases and document searches 

By: - April 26, 2023 4:30 am

An image from the new state court records online system. (Screenshot)

New Mexico court records are accessed daily by attorneys, law enforcement and members of the press. The state has allowed these groups the ability to access and download documents from a searchable online database for many years. In early April, that database was moved to a new interface, one that offers the state an opportunity to profit from its use.

The new online records platform, called re:Search, was adopted primarily to allow self-represented litigants to have online access to documents related to their cases, according to Barry Massey, the public information officer for the Office of the Courts. 

It’s a group of users the previous system did not accommodate, and with the development of the new platform, the company who created both will no longer be offering updates to the older system, slated to be shut down May 5.

The new system comes at an annual cost of $250,000, and the New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts has signed a three-year agreement with the system’s developer Tyler Technologies Inc., a software company based in Plano, Texas. After three years, the contract automatically renews each year unless it’s terminated by Tyler Technologies or the state.

A key feature of the new system is the ability to generate revenue from users, another thing absent from the former system. Basic accounts are free to those who qualify for access to the platform, but those users also have the option to pay for extra features, like the ability to search text within documents, save searches for easy access and to track cases and get alerts.

Two pay-tiers are offered. The first-tier limits access to these features to 15 uses of each per month. This costs users $30 per month, or $300 for the year. The highest-tier offers unlimited use of the extra features and costs $90 per month, or $900 annually.

Under the terms of the contract between the Office of the Courts and Tyler Technologies, portions of any revenue generated from these services, which the company calls “value-added features,” are to be shared with the Office of the Courts.

A percentage of revenue is distributed to the Office of the Courts through a tier-based plan that changes as the amount earned increases. Under the terms of the contract, the Office of the Courts receives 25% of any revenue generated up to $1 million. If revenue surpasses $1 million in a year, the courts receive 25% of the first $1 million, plus 35% of revenue up to $1.5 million. The courts would receive 50% of any revenue above $1.5 million in a year.

Massey said that any revenue generated from those value-added features will be used to cover the costs incurred by the Office of the Courts for daily technology operations. Those costs include the computer systems needed for the docketing and processing of court cases, the salaries of IT personnel and internet and email services.

The system was rolled out to all users on April 7, but Massey said an early version of re:Search launched in late 2018 for people representing themselves in civil suits. It was made available to attorneys in civil cases in November 2019 as the platform was still being fine-tuned.

At the start of 2022, attorneys who filed new applications for access to the online system were placed on the new re:Search platform. The option to pay for the extra features was also made available, and Massey said subscriptions to those services generated about $11,400 for the Office of the Courts that year.

“To put that into perspective, about $7.8 million was spent by (the Office of the Courts) on statewide technology in the 2022 fiscal year,” Massey said.

Ease of access

New Mexico law requires that public bodies make documents and other records available for inspection to any member of the public, including members of the press.

By following the guidelines laid out in the Inspection of Public Records Act, or IPRA, members of the public can request to view a wide variety of public records, but agencies have up to 15 days to provide documents once a request is made. When it comes to access to court documents for members of the press, the system put in place by the Office of the Courts provides access to documents in the matter of seconds, far exceeding what is required by law.

Melanie Majors is the executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, a nonprofit dedicated to government transparency. She said because the records system more than meets the requirements of IPRA, and because users aren’t required to pay a fee to access records, NMFOG does not have a problem with the new platform offering enhanced features for a fee.

“Our main focus is that information is made available to the public, and it seems like they have fulfilled that aspect of the law,” Majors said. “Whether or not they charge additional money for what is clearly an additional service, I really don’t have a comment on because they are providing what is required by law.”

A true multi-use system

The re:Search platform is used in different ways by those who’ve been granted access to it, and the paid features are potentially more valuable to certain users.

Brett Phelps is a criminal defense attorney in northern New Mexico. He recently started using the new platform but hasn’t paid for access to the extra features. However, he said it’s something he’d consider because he thinks it could be useful in finding potential expert witnesses for his cases.

“That is a new function that I think would be helpful,” he said. “I don’t know that there’s any other way right now to look up through a database when people have testified as expert witnesses.”

Phelps would consider paying for the extra features at the first tier of $300 per year, but said it would be hard to justify paying $900 a year for access to additional features. But he does think the more expensive tier could be useful to attorneys that handle civil cases.

“For example, if you’re doing cannabis law in New Mexico, that’s going to be a rapidly developing area of the law,” he said. “To have an alert when businesses file lawsuits related to the cannabis industry … I could see a lot of benefit from that.”

While court records are most often accessed by lawyers and people who work in the court system, the press also uses these documents in order to cover important court cases, trials and other criminal justice stories.

Journalists operate under the pressure of a unique time frame, Algernon D’Ammassa said. D’Ammassa is the editor of The Deming Headlight, but he also serves as a reporter for the paper that covers southwest New Mexico.

“Anything that adds time to a reporter’s already busy schedule adds stress,” he said. “The big functional problem I’m having is that I’m getting a lot of error messages when I’m trying to download documents.”

D’Ammassa uses an Apple computer when accessing records, and he said he encountered the bulk of issues while using Safari, Apple’s internet browser. After downloading Firefox, he said things seemed to work a lot better.

A learning curve was expected while adjusting to a new platform, D’Ammassa said, but much of the extra time he’s spent has been submitting tickets to Tyler Technologies’ help desk after receiving error messages. He said customer service is quick to respond, but their solutions to his problems are typically generic ideas like trying a specific link or trying a different browser.

Still, D’Ammassa remains optimistic about the future of the new platform, and what if offers journalists.

“One impression that I’m getting is this is a system that offers a lot of information, it’s just putting it right up on the dashboard, and it’s a lot of information I don’t often, or ever, check,” he said. “But I think I’ll get used to that.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Ryan Lowery
Ryan Lowery

Ryan Lowery is an award-winning independent journalist based in Albuquerque. He covers politics and criminal justice and has reported on New Mexico for the Las Vegas Optic, Santa Fe Reporter, Los Angeles Times and others. Lowery was awarded the 2020 William S. Dixon First Amendment Freedom Award from the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, and the 2021 Sunshine Award from the New Mexico Press Association for his reporting that highlighted lack of transparency from multiple government agencies.