Swifter Justice

Judges, lawyers and clerks are taking advantage of instant access to court files to speed court procedures.

by / June 4, 2002
A new electronic imaging system is making life easier for Martin County, Fla., court system personnel. If the plan reaches fruition, a faster, near-paperless court could be the future.

The Martin County system had been live for about a month at press time. Judges who rotate within the 19th Circuit now have access to all cases from three of the four counties within the circuit, which consists of Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River and Okeechobee counties (Okeechobee had yet to link up to the system at press time). The system links the three county sheriffs offices, the State Attorney's Office of the circuit, the public defender for the circuit and judges.

When an arrest is made, an arrest affidavit is scanned and goes into a queue at the clerk's office. It's then assigned a court case number and is available for judges to peruse for first appearances, which by law, must occur within the first 24 hours after arrest. With the arrest information, such as criminal history or the results of a Breathalyzer test, on an electronic filing system, and with the availability of video conferencing, judges can execute first appearances without transporting suspects from the jail to the courthouse and without asking clerks to hustle paperwork from county to county.

Local public defenders typically juggle about 20 cases at a time and are excited about what the system can do for them, according to David Goodman, system administrator for the Martin County Courthouse. Public defenders stay busy keeping up on all the new information added to each case. The new system allows them to do that electronically rather than make a trip to the courthouse.

"They know right away what's going on with a case. There's no lag time," Goodman said. "If we do the notification, they get an e-mail saying this stuff's been added to the case. They have it immediately and don't even have to leave their office. Same with the state attorney."

The state attorney has 21 days to file charges in a case and the new system could quicken the process by a couple of days, according to Francine Beckstead, director of information management at the Martin County Courthouse. "As soon as that arrest affidavit is scanned in and the case number is assigned, it goes into a queue for the state's attorney and they can start their process," she said.

Record Security

Because of security concerns, the imaging of criminal records has been limited to adult cases in the Martin County system. Beckstead said plans to include juvenile cases have been shelved temporarily.

Florida is still figuring out the privacy and security issues. There's some controversy in the Legislature about what should be a public record. Right now, Social Security records are public in Florida, but some in the Legislature would like to change that. "So many records have people's Social Security numbers on them and they're not always in one spot, which means you have to read the whole thing," Beckstead said. "It's going to be a lot of work."

However, Martin County has figured out a system for masking information that shouldn't be online. Victim's names are not public record in the state, so arrest affidavits sometimes can't be scanned online in their entirety. If an officer mistakenly lists a victim's name on an arrest affidavit, the name has to be redacted. That's done by using a mouse to draw a box around the information, then clicking a redact prompt, which will block out that portion of the document.

Personnel in the Martin County Court System have high hopes that once everything is ironed out with the Legislature, the system will be opened up to the Internet and provide an even more streamlined process -- moving the county ever closer to a paperless system.

The Martin County system was funded through a $478,000 grant awarded by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement with help from the 19th Circuit, which kicked in $60,000, and the county clerk's office and the sheriff's office, which pitched in $10,000 each.

Easing the Load

Martin County is just one of the latest systems to ease the load on court clerks, attorneys, judges and citizens by imaging court documents and making them available electronically.

In Miami-Dade County, Fla., which has the fourth largest traffic court in the nation, the Clerk of Courts has gone to a near-paperless system, allowing staff to electronically schedule an average of 15,000 cases a week for 14 traffic divisions and 22 traffic courtrooms throughout the county. The system also incorporates scanning and imaging technology to transfer paper documents to digital files, improving file security and allowing judges, attorneys and traffic personnel to simultaneously access hundreds of thousands of case files. The program has yielded some tangible results, including a reduction in overtime costs for the Traffic Division of around $207,500 for fiscal year 1999-2000.

The system may soon be accessible on the Web, allowing citizens access to case information, electronic filing of documents and online payment of traffic fines and fees.

Meanwhile, Iowa is providing online public access to basic court information from all of the state's 99 counties and appellate courts via its site. The site provides access to traffic records, criminal records, child support payment histories and the disposition of cases that have come before the courts. The state's court dockets had been computerized for years and getting them online was just a matter of creating a link that citizens could access from home. Previously, court records could be accessed only at a court office.

In Iowa, only basic, non-sensitive details are shown online. The full text of the document is not available, and users get information only on specific cases. Broad searches aren't possible.

The Iowa system costs about $300,000 a year to operate. It's expected to be paid for through a $25 subscription fee charged to users.
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor