You are a police officer, and today is supposed to be your day off. Instead, you are at the courthouse, waiting to testify. You arrived before 9 a.m., even though your case is not scheduled until 11. The prosecutor subpoenaed you early because he knows the defense attorney won't start plea-bargaining negotiations until she sees your face. The defense knows it's likely that the arresting officer won't show up because of scheduling conflicts. The defense can use a no-show to push the prosecutor into making a deal to avoid continuing the case, or worse, seeing it dismissed for lack of a witness.

It's now 1 p.m. You've missed a lunch date and a trip to the zoo with your son.

The attorneys are still talking.

The scene depicted is a daily occurrence in courthouses across the country. Almost everyone involved loses.

Officers must cancel personal plans to accommodate court hearings set on scheduled days off. Courts and prosecutors are unable to plan which cases will actually go to trial, and when. Police agencies incur huge overtime expenses. The only possible winners are criminal defendants -- they can skate free if their arresting officer doesn't make it to court.

Many courts attempt to coordinate officer schedules with planned court appearances. In most cases, this coordination is done manually from pages of printed schedules. Often, these schedules are badly out of date.

But District Court No. 1, a traffic and misdemeanor court in Tacoma, Wash., has a better method. There, calendars are coordinated by computer via the court proceeding scheduling (CPS) system, provided by the state's Office of the Administrator for the Courts (OAC).

CPS has three components -- the court resource scheduling system (CRS); the law enforcement/court scheduling system (LECS); and the court proceeding scheduling process -- all part of the District/Municipal Court Information System (DISCIS), a statewide case management system for the 185 courts of limited jurisdiction.

DISCIS, a component of the state's comprehensive judicial information system, runs on a mainframe at OAC's state capital headquarters in Olympia, 30 miles from Pierce County's courthouse. Pierce County court schedules, plus those for the county contingent of the Washington State Patrol and the Pierce County Sheriff's Office, are inputted onsite, then transferred by modem to a file server at OAC where it is uploaded into DISCIS.

HOW IT WORKS

When a trial or hearing date is needed, a "proceeding scheduling" screen is brought up on a court clerk's computer. DISCIS accesses both law enforcement and court schedules, determines the best dates for scheduling proceedings, then presents the results on a "court best date" screen.

The system begins searching two weeks from the current date, looking for matching dates up to 60 days beyond that time. Prospective dates are identified and rated from "most desirable" to "unacceptable." The clerk can see how many proceedings are already set at those times for a given judge. Usually, the machine hones in on periods the officer is already scheduled to be in court.

Creation of CPS began in August 1989 with funding from the Washington Traffic Safety Commission (WTSC). Its stated purpose: reduce officer overtime through accurate, computerized scheduling and serve as a model program for other jurisdictions. Pierce County District Court No. 1 was offered the money to sponsor the scheduling system and serve as a pilot site. The court contacted OAC for technical assistance and counsel.

First envisioned as an isolated microcomputer system that would run only in Pierce County, court officials decided to increase benefits to other jurisdictions by making the scheduling system part of the DISCIS mainframe application. Through Microsoft, OAC contracted with Puget Sound Systems Group Inc. to design the law enforcement and court components of the system on Microsoft Access.

Once the system was designed, and data

Alison Sonntag  |  Special to Government Technology