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From the 17th floor of the Hennepin County Government Center, you can look down on the whole city. This lofty perch is home to the Hennepin County Housing Court, a place filled with people who seem to take their elevated stature to heart.
On a recent morning, a young woman walked in with her black hair pulled back, mascara smeared from tears, and a grocery bag full of diapers under her arm. She wanted to know how she could get her money back from her landlord.
The office assistant greeted her briefly, spreading a fake-looking smile across her face. But instead of listening politely, the assistant turned away and adjusted papers, barely paying attention.
Eventually, the assistant faced the woman and told her to go to conciliation court across the street. The woman's shoulders sank, then she looked up and muttered a defeated "Thank you."
In a nearby office, Lawrence McDonough and other lawyers from the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis offer free advice to low-income tenants like the young mother. Within the sea of bureaucratic indifference, their bare-bones office acts as a tiny atoll of hope.
But last summer, McDonough discovered something that made his thankless job much more frustrating.
It happened when a client approached him about getting an old eviction case expunged. McDonough asked a person in the records department to pull the client's case file from the storage room, known as the "B-Vault."
"I picture it like the very last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark—the one with all the wooden boxes," kids McDonough. "An endless supply room of documents."
But this time, the document was gone. Gone? The response puzzled McDonough. He asked for an explanation. The answer sank him back into his chair: Someone in the housing courts had ordered the record destroyed.
In fact, housing court had recently begun destroying records for any case that was more than a year old.
"It's simply bad policy," McDonough says.
Hennepin County Housing Court sees more cases than any other division: 10,000 to 11,000 each year. That amounts to hundreds of thousands of documents. In the past, the courts stored most of the paperwork in the B-Vault, transferring the oldest cases to an off-site holding station run by Iron Mountain, a private company contracted to maintain government records.
But storing the voluminous paperwork is expensive, and the easiest solution is to recycle it.
"It's really a common practice to destroy court files," says state archivist Robert Horton. "The only ones anyone really keeps are ones with historical significance, like civil rights cases and, more recently, the Senate recount."
Trouble is, the housing courts only recently embraced their ability to destroy documents. "We've been more actively applying the retention schedule than in previous years," says Housing Courts Operations Manager Lynn Fuchs.
Translation: If you want housing records that are more than a year old, you're screwed.
Other local government agencies hold onto their records for far longer. District and county courts keep them for 10 years. The same goes for hunting and fishing rights cases.
It wouldn't be an issue, except the housing courts don't destroy all the records. "That's the thing," says McDonough. "Their cases remain intact on the housing courts electronic records system. Albeit in a skeletal form."
Agencies that do tenant background checks share the left over information with landlords. An eviction case sends up a red flag, even if the renter wasn't at fault. And without court records, the renter has no way to prove his innocence.
So why does the housing court keep the skeletal file? "I don't have an answer to that," admits Fuchs. "To my knowledge, the MNCourt information system doesn't have a purge ability."
But according to McDonough, such deletions are possible, if mind-numbingly tedious. The courts would have to hire a person to delete the information case by case, which isn't likely to happen any time soon.
All of this leaves tenants in the lurch, and McDonough frustrated.
"Housing is a very high-volume court," he says. "But just because there are a lot of cases doesn't mean we should view them with less value."
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