Oswego County suit questions access to criminal records

O swego County has been served with a lawsuit that challenges whether it has a right to charge for access to public documents.

The owner of APS Information Services, Aaron Smith claims that Oswego County Clerk has an unjustifiable policy of charging fees to research criminal court records. APS Information Services conducts criminal background checks for employers, landlords and others. Smith tells CNY Central's Jim Kenyon that every other county in the surrounding area gives the public free access to computerized criminal records, except Oswego County. "They're denying the public access to those records for the purpose of extorting money from companies and the public." Smith said.

Smith claims, County Clerk George Williams is using such services as a "revenue stream" for Oswego County. Smith says his firm has been charged thousands of dollars over the years. He says Williams allows the general public access to other records, but when it comes to criminal records, only the staff in the clerk's office is allowed to conduct the searches for a fee.

Oswego County Clerk Williams was not available to comment. Deputy Clerk Georgiana Mansfield refused to comment. Oswego County Attorney Richard Mitchell said, "I generally do not comment on pending litigation... but I've asked the State Attorney General's office to review the suit to see if the State should take over" because these are court records and the Judiciary comes under State jurisdiction.

The story raises a controversy over whether such a policy violates the spirit of the Freedom of Information Law, or whether municipalities should be allowed to charge a fee for access to public records at a time when local governments feel the pinch of difficult financial times. Leave your comments below.