By Chelsea Yamase
Many people assume that court records are private or, at the very least, hard to access documents. The truth is criminal, civil and traffic court records for most cases filed in the State of Hawaii are easily accessible through the Hawaii State Judiciary website found at http://www.courts.state.hi.us/index.html.
Although the Hawaii State Judiciary website hosts a wide range of information for litigants, attorneys, jurors, the media and the public, only two tools will be featured here: Ho`ohiki and eCourt Kokua. Both can be found on the light blue lower left-hand column of the judiciary website.
Internet access to criminal and non-criminal case information is provided as a free service to the general public through a link called Ho`ohiki. This searchable database hosts information from criminal and civil case filed in the Circuit and Family Courts and certain civil cases in state the District Courts.
eCourt Kokua is the traffic case equivalent to Ho’ohiki. With a limited number of exceptions, any cases in the Traffic Division of the District Court, the Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals or the Hawaii Supreme Court will be listed on eCourt Kokua. Parking tickets, disregarding a stop sign, speeding and not wearing your seatbelt are few examples of the types of infractions found on eCourt Kokua. Basically, if you are ticketed for any violation, parking or moving, that information will be online.
Understanding how to search public records can be very useful for employers, job-seekers and concerned citizens. For instance, an employer can type a potential candidate’s name into this website to run a basic background check. Journalists can check on the status of a case they have been following. Citizens can check their own public record for accuracy, and in some cases, even have information removed.
How to use Ho`ohiki
After clicking on the Ho`ohiki link, users will be taken to a rather barren page listing some minimum browser requirements for people using Windows (version 6 of either Internet Explorer or Netscape) and contact information for help. To start searching click the purple “Enter” button. Before beginning, you will be asked to agree or disagree to a basic disclaimer, which in essence says that the court documents are provided “as is” with no guarantee of accuracy. It also brings up two noteworthy points. First, not all court records are available online. The disclaimer states:
The information displayed is from official records, but does not comprise all information from court records available to the public. Court pleadings, for instance, may be found in case files that may be viewed and copied at a courthouse, but are not currently available through this Web site. Confidential cases, sealed cases and sealed documents also are not available online.
Additionally, the disclaimer explains that website synchronizes in real-time, as the case information is typed into the court computers it also goes online. The information is current within 48 hours of a filing or court proceeding.
Assuming you agree to their disclaimer, a page will open saying “Connecting to Ho’ohiki server….” Be warned, this process may take several minutes and, even while running, the website seems to frequently have errors or close unexpectedly. Additionally, the Ho`ohiki website is shutdown daily between 12:30 a.m. and 3:30 a.m.
You may search using a case identification number, a person’s name or a company name. On average, the Ho`ohiki website receives more than 26,692 on-line inquiries per month, approximately 890 per day, according to a judicial study you can find here (http://www.courts.state.hi.us/docs/docs3/ACT68FINAL.pdf).
Be sure to use the “tab” key to scroll through the different fields as using the mouse to change search boxes will not work. The help tab explains how to enter a case number and the different acronyms used throughout the site. For example, the letters “RC” mean regular claims district court.
Case information available through Ho`ohiki includes: case number, people involved, case type, count/charge (for criminal cases), bail information, document information (title, filing date/time, name of filing party) and list of court appearances (date, time, and description of appearance; minutes of hearing; disposition of hearing; settlement conference report minutes).
Personal information such as Social Security numbers, birth dates, home addresses and home telephone numbers are normally blocked out, but may be available in the paper form if that information was submitted as part of evidence.
How to use eCourt Kokua
eCourt Kokua works in much the same way as Ho’ohiki, but is more user-friendly. You can conduct a search by entering a person’s name, business name, government agency, vehicle license plate, case ID or citation number listed on a ticket. Sometimes, you may get a message saying “Error: input additional parameters.” This usually happens when you only enter a last name and there are too many search results.
Each person or entity (i.e. Department of Education) is assigned a unique identifying code that looks something like “@578924.” Clicking on this code anywhere on the website will take you to a list of cases associated with that ID. Each entry will have a case number followed by the two parties involved. In most cases, it will read “State v. Person X” since it is the state (in the form of a ticket given by a police officer) bringing charges against the defendant.
Each entry has information including: type of infraction, date, in what circuit it took place, the current status, any money owed, the judge’s decision and any docket entries. Docket entries can be thought of as official updates. For instance, if bond was posted, a letter was received from the defendant or the balance due was sent to a collection agency, it would be noted along with the date and time. The site emphasizes that this is not a complete or certified traffic abstract. Those still need to be purchased at the courthouse.
What if my information is wrong?
For both Ho’ohiki and eCourt Kokua information can only be changed or sealed (removed) by court order. If the information is incorrect, you or your attorney may submit a request to the court that originally heard your case. If Person X was sentenced in the Lihue Fifth Circuit Court on Kauai, Person X would have to write to them. The frequently asked questions section on eCourt Kokua also mentions to “include any information or supporting documents that will assist the court in determining whether there is a mistake in the court record.”
The only exception to this rule is the expunging of records for offenders who have successfully completed their Deferred Acceptance of Guilty (DAG) plea, Deferred Acceptance of No Contest (DANC) agreement, or graduated from Drug Court, resulting in a non-conviction.
“These individuals are allowed to expunge their record,” according to a Data Review Committee in a study ordered by the state Judiciary.
However, because of a lack of understanding of the procedure or indifference on the part of the offender, the majority do not, and their records remain on-line. As a matter of record, 2,012 DAG/DANC agreements were successfully completed in 2005. Of this number, only 182 applied to have their records expunged under HRS § 831-3.2.
Why is this information available online?
The Judiciary does recognize that there is a line between giving information to create a knowledgeable citizenry and information voyeurism. To that end, in 2006 the state judiciary ordered a study to “investigate the current status of internet access to state criminal conviction data and recommend to the legislature action necessary to protect offenders balanced against the public interest in access to criminal conviction data.”
Some people may find it unnerving or embarrassing that so many matters they think of as personal can by found by anyone with internet access. While there is no way to have the records removed (besides by court order), understanding that they can help make you a more informed citizen, employer or more proactive job-seekers. If you have a case pending, you can also check what the court’s judgement was in other similar cases.
“The State of Hawaii Judiciary recognizes that public access to records is crucial for enhancing awareness of and participation in government,” according to the Act 68 Conviction Data Review Committee in its report to the legislature. “Ultimately, the Access Policy will strive to strike a balance between providing easy access to records while remaining sensitive to, and safeguarding, the privacy rights of individuals.”