Modernizing court record storage reveals Berkeley Co.'s colorful past

March 14, 2012|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD |
  • Bud Spencer, an employee with HMS Technologies in Martinsburg, W.Va., scans court records from 1910 through 1912 for electronic archiving purposes.
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — The stories found within the hundreds of white file boxes of Berkeley County Circuit Court records from years past are much more colorful than their containers.

For example, there is an account of a legal fight that erupted when a man refused to marry a woman. A jury ultimately found him guilty at trial, because the woman had a baby by him.

And when the Norwalk Motor Car Co. went belly up in Martinsburg in the 1920s, the entire inventory of the luxury car maker — “every nut, bolt and nail” — was compiled among multiple civil proceedings that spelled out the company’s financial demise.

“A lot of the companies sued the Norwalk (company) for nonpayment,” said Betty Hutsler, a deputy circuit court clerk and former president of the Norwalk Antique Car Club.

While Hutsler has been working to obtain copies of all of the Norwalk-related court action to preserve the story of its unraveling, the records are also among millions of circuit court records dating back more than 150 years that are being digitally preserved as part of an ongoing scanning project.

The scanning operation is under way where the records are being stored in the former county administration building in the 100 block of West King Street. The county awarded the records project to Martinsburg-based HMS Technologies Inc. in December 2010.

And it has been a grimy job at times, said Circuit Clerk Virginia M. Sine, who is the custodian of the court records.

“My hands were black. I mean black! That’s how dirty they were,” said Sine, recalling her work on some of the larger cases to be scanned.

Since starting the work last year, Sine said the scanning process has proved to be tedious and complicated by unexpected discoveries.

“They opened up a box (of records to be scanned) the other day, and it was wet,” said Sine, recalling “several leaks” in the building.

And Sine said some of the papers have been so fragile that once you touch them, they start to disintegrate in your hand.

The duplication of the records does not mean the county can automatically dispose of the paper files, because state law still requires that any record of court actions involving real estate be preserved, according to Sine.

“Eventually, down the road you could get rid of some,” Sine said.

But you have to have someone literally review every document to do that, she noted.

Juvenile records, for example, can be disposed after 20 years have passed, but the county still has to transfer certain information about such cases to a card index system, Sine said.

While the scanning project is expected to be done this summer, Sine said she expects it will take several years for all of the old records to be docketed and available for the public to research via the county’s computer system.

While the circuit clerk is responsible for recording and maintaining all circuit court records, the county commission is obligated to provide adequate storage space, according to state law.

And Sine said she is rapidly filling space in the county’s judicial center, which opened in 2006.

Faced with growing storage space concerns, county officials have been lobbying the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia to allow counties some relief from having to keep paper records, which has been recognized as a problem statewide.

At least with the digital copies, Sine said has some comfort in knowing there is a backup to the paper files, which she said are not being properly stored in a fireproof vault as required by state law.

“I’m responsible for these records. What if we have a fire?” Sine asked.

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