Database of Pa. Court Records Now Available via Mobile App

From Betty Ward, Law Librarian

Monday, October 31, 2011

A new mobile app allows smartphone users to search for crimes people have committed in Pennsylvania, from illegal parking to murder.

Docket In Your Pocket, which is available for iPhones, iPads and Android devices and sells for $2.99 on all platforms, allows users to search by name through a database of 32.5 million court records dating to 2000.

The records, drawn from the state judiciary's database of court dockets, include information about minor offenses, such as traffic tickets and noise violations, in addition to robberies, drug charges, assaults, rapes and murders. The app's inventor, Matt Haindfield, 40, said the app may be useful to singles for vetting dates and to parents for checking up on baby sitters.

The app also includes data about civil disputes of $12,000 or less, allowing users to search to see if, for example, a company was sued for violating a contract, Mr. Haindfield said. He is working county by county to make civil disputes of more than $12,000 available.

Mr. Haindfield, a civil litigation attorney in Iowa, said he thought of the app when he suspected a witness in a case to be lying about his criminal background. During a break in the witness's deposition, Mr. Haindfield attempted to search for the witness's criminal records on his iPhone.

"When operating in the mobile environment, it was very difficult, almost impossible, to get the information I needed," he said. Unable to find an existing app, he originally devised Docket in Your Pocket to be a tool for lawyers before realizing its potential general applications.

He started with Pennsylvania because the state's criminal data was already easily available and because the state has a large population of smartphone users, Mr. Haindfield said. He plans to launch similar apps in each state over the next few months, starting with other states with large populations of smartphone users and accessible court data, such as California, he said.

After that, he plans to release a "master app" that will search criminal records in all states, and possibly create similar software for other platforms in the future, such as a browser-based application, he said.

"We do have some ambitious development goals," he said.

The app does not include records about juveniles outside of traffic offenses. It also does not include expunged records. Because of judiciary policy, court records appear in search results only about a month after their filing.

To those who might be uncomfortable with the increased availability of their own records, Mr. Haindfield said that convenient access to criminal information benefits everybody.

"We ought to shine the light of day on these records so people can make smarter choices about the people they associate with," he said. He added that the information available in the app is already available on the state judiciary's website, where users can search dockets for free.

If the website is any indication, Docket in Your Pocket will prove popular. People have grown increasingly interested in accessing court records electronically, said Steve Schell, communications coordinator of the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

"Each year the number of web docket sheets accessed from our web portal has increased," Mr. Schell said. Users accessed about 32 million court cases on the judiciary's website last year, up from 26 million the year before and double the number of cases accessed four years ago.

He said other companies like Docket in Your Pocket have approached the judiciary interested in purchasing the records. Currently, there are 20 vendors regularly paying for data. Docket in Your Pocket pays about $600 a month, he said.

Mr. Haindfield said that fee as well as other operating costs mean the app is not currently profitable. He said he may eventually require a subscription or develop an ad-supported "lite" version of the app, or both.

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