Criminal Justice

Miami-Dade's Aging Records System Is Not Just an Inconvenience

Photo by Camilo Rueda Lopez
Need to look at a traffic court paper or pull up a criminal case document?

Across Florida, it's usually an easy task with the advent of electronic case management: Cue up a county clerk's website, and you can view the documents you need with the snap of a finger.

It's a quick, straightforward process — unless you're dealing with a case filed in Miami-Dade, which happens to have the largest county court system in Florida.

Despite advancing technology and the near-ubiquitous digitization of court records statewide, the clerk's office for the Eleventh Judicial Circuit in Miami-Dade does not yet have a system in place for quickly accessing digital criminal and traffic records.

New Times checked Florida's ten most populated counties, and Miami-Dade is the only one without online access to these types of cases. (Miami-Dade does have online access in the civil division, where lawsuits are filed.)

The Miami-Dade circuit court serves the county's more than 2.6 million residents and is one of the largest trial courts in the country.

If you want a Miami-Dade criminal or traffic record, you have to either go to a court office in-person and view the file the old-fashioned way, or make a formal public records request outlining the case numbers and items needed from the docket, which can be a difficult process depending on the volume of records sought.

This a hurdle for members of the general public and legal professionals alike. And it's not just a matter of convenience.

Criminal defense attorneys have been struggling with the outdated system for years. As it stands, their access to their clients' documents is delayed at a critical juncture at the outset of a criminal case.

"Miami-Dade has been behind the times technologically, for certain," says Miami attorney Brett Schwartz of Hager & Schwartz. "It's a real problem. We aren't able to readily view documents such as arrest affidavits online."

Schwartz says that the clerk's office lately has been quicker with turning around manual requests for court documents, as outcry over the outdated system has been growing. But the system is still slower and more cumbersome than the fully digital databases available in other South Florida courts, he says. 

According to the attorney, budget problems have often been cited as the reason for delays in the digital transition.

The clerk's office says it is working with Pioneer Technology Group to develop an online case management system for criminal documents and aims to have the process completed in about three years. The tentative completion date, which local criminal defense attorneys say has been repeatedly pushed back, is October 2025. 

In its adopted budget for fiscal year 2021-2022, the clerk states that it’s banking on $22.2 million in revenue, including $6.7 million from the countywide general fund, $14.7 million from proprietary fees, and $700,000 in interagency transfers. This year's adopted budget is a $1.3 million increase from last year's budget, but slightly less than the 2019-2020 budget.

Since the 2018-2019 fiscal year, the office's expenditures have grown from $18.4 million to this year's anticipated $22.2 million.

According to Schwartz, the county clerk's budget appears consistent with other clerks' operations in densely populated South Florida counties, yet Miami-Dade remains an outlier with its antiquated file-viewing system.
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Naomi Feinstein is a fellow at Miami New Times. She spent the last year in New York City getting her master’s degree at the Columbia School of Journalism. She is also a proud alum of the University of Miami.
Contact: Naomi Feinstein

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