The city of Charleston will start posting information on its Web site today about the tens of thousands of cases that go through its municipal court every year, a move that will make it easier for people to do background checks and track court proceedings.
The city's action follows a Post and Courier Watchdog investigation that found the three largest municipalities in the Lowcountry -- Charleston, North Charleston and Mount Pleasant -- don't put their data online.
Before today, if members of the public wanted to find out the disposition of a Charleston municipal court case, they were required to fill out a Freedom of Information Act form. That form was then hand-carried to the city's legal department, which had three weeks to respond under the state's open records law.
Barbara Vaughn, director of the city's media relations department, said Friday that the city would post data from Jan. 1, 2007 through March 31, 2010.
Municipal courts are sometimes referred to as the "people's court," because they handle most of the judiciary's workload, as much as 90 percent of the nation's criminal cases, according to some studies.
All told, municipal courts in Charleston, North Charleston and Mount Pleasant handle more than 100,000 cases a year, from minor charges, such as disregarding a stop sign, to more serious ones, such as driving under the influence and child endangerment.
To get a better understanding of how these courts operate, The Post and Courier submitted requests under the state's open-records laws for information about cases handled during the past three years.
North Charleston provided three years of data about municipal court cases, and Mount Pleasant provided data for 2009. Charleston officials declined at first to provide the information in electronic form, saying they were concerned that the data might be "manipulated."
Other towns, meanwhile, post their court data on the Web in an easily searchable database, in part, because of a multi-year program by the S.C. Judicial Department. Charleston County's magistrates have long put their data online.
Reach Tony Bartelme at 937-5554 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information
The information from Charleston's municipal court will be posted in a PDF format. People will need document readers, such as Adobe Acrobat, to read and search for names and keywords in the document. The data will be on the city's Web site, www.charlestoncity.info.