Iowa counties would have to develop a process for removing the names of judges, prosecutors and police from public records that are posted online if a bill now being considered by state lawmakers becomes law.
Members of the public would be billed for the expense of creating that process through an additional fee they’d be charged on every land-transaction document filed with their county recorder. Collectively, the additional fees could total as much as $800,000 annually.
The proposal is contained in Gov. Kim Reynolds’ “Back the Blue” bill, which she says is intended to support law enforcement in Iowa. Some provisions of the bill, such as those that would limit state funding for municipalities that have reduced local spending on city police, have generated controversy even among Reynolds’ fellow Republicans.
A lesser-known provision of the bill applies specifically to county recorders and would require them to implement and maintain “a process for redacting the names” of any law enforcement officer, state or federal judicial officer, or state or federal prosecutor, that are “contained in electronic documents that are displayed for public access through an internet site.” Names would not be redacted from records that are accessible at the recorders’ offices.
As it stands now, statewide land records pertaining to Iowa real estate — including mortgages, deeds, tax liens, affidavits and associated records — are readily available online through the county recorders’ statewide website, IowaLandRecords.org.
The Iowa County Recorders’ Association already has a formal policy that allows any person to ask that their records be removed from the website if there is “a credible risk to their physical safety and well-being” that is confirmed in writing by law enforcement. To date, no one has ever made such a request, according to the project manager for IowaLandRecords.org.
Asked what the rationale is for the legislation, Reynolds’ spokesman, Pat Garrett, said, “It’s because of stories like this,” citing a news story about a New Jersey judge, Esther Salas, whose husband and son were gunned down in their home last year by a lawyer posing as a FedEx delivery man. Salas has said the gunman “was able to create a complete dossier of my life” through online sources, and had mapped her routes to work and identified the names of her best friend and her church.
Travis Case, the Grundy County recorder and past president of the Iowa County Recorders Association, says bills similar to the one proposed by the governor have surfaced in the past, but the law doesn’t allow singling some people out for records redactions.
“I understand, certainly, the reasoning behind (the bill) because, yeah, there are crazy people out there,” Case said. “But, hey, I’m a county elected official and there are other county elected officials out there — your tax assessors, for example — and they occasionally make people upset with some of the things they do in their job. There are a lot of people who make the public upset in the course of doing their job. So where do you draw the line?”
It’s not clear whether the redactions contemplated by the bill would require individuals to request that their names be pulled from the records. The bill is silent as to whether the redactions would be permanent and follow those individuals into retirement or other jobs, or whether the redactions would be retroactively applied to records that pre-date the individuals’ employment as judges, police or prosecutors.
To pay for the new process of redacting names from records, the proposed legislation would require county recorders to charge all members of the public a $1 fee “for each recorded transaction” with their office. With 550,000 to 800,000 transactions recorded each year in Iowa, the bill could generate up to $800,000 annually in new revenue.
Phil Dunshee, project manager for IowaLandRecords.org, said the legislation could have implications for the many Iowa businesses that rely on statewide access to real estate records to approve loans or facilitate home purchases.
“A lot of folks in the real estate industry, and attorneys and banks and so forth, they’re cautious about taking things out of the public record,” Dunshee said. “The whole point of having a recorder’s office is to put things into the public record. That’s so everybody knows who owns what property. It’s sort of the foundation of being able to own private property — by putting that into a public record, it says, ‘I’ve got a claim to this land.’ So as we get into this business of redacting information, you have to ask, ‘OK, are we taking away from the purpose of having that recorded?’ ”
The bill in question applies only to the online records of county recorders, not to the records posted online by Iowa’s county assessors and other agencies. The recorders’ records typically don’t include street addresses, Dunshee said, and instead rely on a somewhat cryptic legal description of land parcels. It’s the assessors’ records, Case said, that are more often used by individuals to quickly determine street addresses.
In recent years, some of Iowa’s county assessors have adopted a policy of allowing people to “opt out” of online disclosure of their property records. Polk County has taken the additional step of refusing to disclose which property owners have taken advantage of that policy.
In June 2020, an Iowa district court judge ruled the identity of those property owners should be treated as public information. The county is appealing that ruling.