Traverse City News and Events

Here’s Why Grand Traverse County’s Online Court Records Database Was Down For A Month

By Craig Manning | Dec. 4, 2022

Did you know that, every day, the Grand Traverse County Court Records Office processes dozens or even hundreds of searches of local criminal and civil court records? Employers use the database to conduct background checks on new hires. Local nonprofits use it to vet prospective volunteers. Lawyers use it to check on prior cases. Journalists use it as a research tool in their reporting. Some locals might even conduct background searches from time to time as a means of learning more about new neighbors, people they meet through online dating platforms, or other acquaintances.

If you’ve tried to run a records search in Grand Traverse County over the past month, though, you probably hit a roadblock. That’s because the system that allows for online records searches through the Grand Traverse County website went down on October 25, and proceeded to stay offline for the entirety of November. The issue sparked confusion and frustration for locals that use the tool on a regular basis, and begged the question of how and when this important resource for public record access and local transparency might be brought back to life.

First, the good news: As of December 1, civil court records and criminal records are searchable again via the county website system. But according to County Clerk Bonnie Scheele, that fix is only temporary – a workaround put in place by the IT team to keep the online search capability functional while the county looks for a more permanent solution.

The problem with the online records search database has to do with the system’s programming infrastructure. As Scheele explains it, the online lookup system the county has used for years is a custom application “that predates anyone in [the county’s current IT department].” More problematic, the application “was hard-coded to run in non-secure HTTP,” which effectively means it’s out of step with modern coding standards. The county’s hosting company, Civic Plus, recently upgraded its own system and no longer supports non-secure websites, which is ultimately what led the county’s records search function to stop working properly in late October. “Since the application is custom-written code, no one is sure if it is possible to work in a secure environment of HTTPS,” Scheele explained to The Ticker in late November, before the county’s IT team figured out a workaround to get the system up and running again.

Thirty-eight days without the online search system underlined for county officials just how much use the local database actually gets. Because county courts are where most criminal records are filed and tried, they are also a core piece of the puzzle for the criminal background check industry. Similarly, many civil cases play out at the local court level. As a result, county courts tend to see their fair share of records searches. Over the years, most county courts throughout the country have put at least some of their records online to make these searches as seamless as possible for the end user (and to keep them from being labor-intensive for court employees). For instance, the database browser on the Grand Traverse County website can search any 13th District Court cases “filed from 1981 to current,” including records from Grand Traverse County, Leelanau County, and Antrim County. While older cases can be viewed on microfilm at the Court Records Office, the 40-plus-year range of the online database is sufficient for most applications.

When the system went offline, the county put a message on its website directing users to email or call in records searches directly to the Court Records Office – or to conduct searches in person via a public terminal at the Hall of Justice at 280 Washington Street. Quickly, Scheele says Court Records Office staff were “swamped with calls and emails from people needing this information,” many of whom expressed “frustration” at the sudden inoperability of the online search. Scheele estimates that the Court Records Office was fielding 50 calls per day on the matter – plus another 15-35 emails – with some records requests “asking us to search up to 50 names.” Since the online search database had no mechanism in place to track how many people accessed the site or how many searches they conducted, those numbers were eye-opening for court officials.

The manual searches also meant a lot of extra work for Court Records Staff, which Scheele says had everyone feeling extra motivated to find a solution. That process involved both looking for a temporary fix and “researching some alternative software” that should, in the long run, allow the county to replace its existing custom application setup. The current workaround, Scheele hopes, will tide the county over “until we migrate to a different operating system.” But she expects the longer-term fix will take “time and money,” and is grateful that the county IT team was able to find a resolution that returns an instant online search mechanism to users while also saving Court Records Office employees from all the extra work they’ve had to do over the past month.

“Staff is thrilled to have [the online search] back up and running,” Scheele says. “Thank goodness for those techie people we have at the county.”

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