I appreciate our public servants. The laws under which they labor, however, sometimes drive me nuts.
I called a county register of deeds this morning to check on a couple of federal tax liens. These are public documents, filed by the IRS with local officials as record of the fact that certain individuals and businesses haven’t paid Uncle Sam what’s due. Alas, the nice woman in the register of deeds office couldn’t tell me anything about the liens for which I was looking, couldn’t even confirm their existence, unless I handed her money. So sayeth South Dakota Codified Law 44-7-8.2:
For responding to a request for information from the filing office, including communicating whether there is on file any lien, certificate, or notice affecting any lien filed under this chapter naming a particular debtor, the fee is as follows:
- Twenty dollars if the record is communicated in writing; and
- Fifteen dollars if the record is communicated by another method or medium authorized by filing office rule [SDCL 44-7-8.2, enacted 2005].
And alas, the office I was speaking with isn’t set up to take credit card payments, so the only way I can access these public documents or even get the nice woman in the office to confirm or deny their existence is to mail a check or drive down to this courthouse (and it’s more than an hour’s drive) and plunk $30 or $40 on the desk.
In additional statutory confoundment, I checked with another register of deeds about state tax liens. That office said I could sign in and look through the books myself and even take notes, but if I wanted to snap images of any documents with my phone, I’d have to pay a buck a picture, per SDCL 7-9-15:
The register of deeds shall charge and receive the following fees:… (2) For a certified copy of any instrument of record, including certificate and official seal, the sum of five dollars for the first page plus one dollar for each additional page or fraction thereof, and for an uncertified copy one dollar for each page. The fee applies to each copy whether it is a hard copy, microfilm, electronic copy, or facsimile transmission [SDCL 7-9-15].
Rep. Chuck Turbiville added that language about electronic copies in 2012 House Bill 1130—thanks for nothing, Chuck! I do all the work, use none of the county’s ink and toner, and you still squeeze a buck out of my hide? Come on!
I don’t think it would hurt the state to make its public documents more publicly accessible. I notice that SDCL 7-9-15(6) creates an exception for licensed abstractors to get uncertified copies of recorded instruments for different fees set by the county commission. Perhaps we could create another exception for journalists or anyone else who is interested in researching a lot of public documents. Think of it as a state park pass applied to courthouses: pay $30, and you can enter any courthouse, page through any documents the register of deeds makes available to the public, and make all the electronic copies with your own portable device on site that you want, without further charge.
Or we could just amend those statutes to recognize that our phones are extensions of our eyes and that the county and the state will only charge the public for copies of public documents when public workers themselves make those copies on public printers.
(Now wait a minute—what was Cory doing looking at federal tax liens, anyway?…)