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Public Documents Costly to Access; State Even Charges Me to Make Copies with My Phone!

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:

  1. Twenty dollars if the record is communicated in writing; and
  2. 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.

$30?! Jeepers—I can pay that much to Game Fish and Parks and get access to every state park in South Dakota for a full year! By comparison, $30 just to access two public documents seems a bit steep.

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?…)


  1. Curt 2017-06-19 12:23

    Interesting anecdotes. Today in Pierre, the Legislature’s “Government Accountability Task Force” is convening. Their agenda is focused on campaign finance reporting, but it seems that if they are interested in “accountability”, they might consider making it a little easier for people such as Cory to access essential documents.

  2. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-06-19 13:27

    Easier access, Curt? Simple: everything goes online, searchable from any computer on the Web. Cuts down cost for the public and for the office, as folks who would otherwise trundle down to the courthouse and bother the staff can do all their searching from home, thus leaving the courthouse staff free to handle other tasks.

  3. Susan Wismer 2017-06-19 13:48

    But the records are there for you to copy; they wouldn’t be there if the government didn’t provide a repository and process for them to be accessed. If you are interested in the records, you are a user, and South Dakota is a fee for service state. We (as in the legislators who have been elected for the last 40 years in our gerrymandered system) don’t want the taxpayer to pay for something that they don’t need or want, if there is a population that can be identified as a user that has means to pay for what they want. That’s one of the hundreds of ways this state has maintained its “low tax” status. Some of them are less obnoxious; most are far more so.

  4. Vance Feyereisen 2017-06-19 16:20

    It seems the cost and inconvenience of obtaining information would tend to make folks less inquisitive. Fits right in with the repub hide and sneak agenda.

  5. Joe Nelson 2017-06-19 17:13

    Easy fix; every filed doc is automatically scanned into the system, and readily available for public view. Many county office jobs are on the brink of becoming obsolete, considering some of the primary duties are filing paperwork and sending it to Pierre.

  6. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-06-19 18:28

    Joe, as the gal in my local register of deeds office explained (and as statute also notes), these fees are supposed to go toward modernization of records. Theoretically, modernization should mean records are being put in electronic form. So that ready public availability should be just one public server and two mouse clicks away.

    Rep. Wismer reminds us how we get into this fix. Part of it is the GOP desire Vancy mentions to keep our eyes off government information, but part of it is the cheapness of state government, piling all sorts of quiet fees on separate segments of the population but rarely mustering the courage to ask all votes to support investments in public goods.

  7. grudznick 2017-06-19 19:19

    Don’t be so lazy and get down to the courthouse and dig through the books like everybody else. We don’t need more government employees sorting and putting things on the internet for nosy busybodies.

  8. John 2017-06-19 22:33

    Hhm, what’s grudz have to hide?

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