The courtroom clerks of the Superior Court of California in Santa Clara County have a new gadget in their pocket protectors — a digital pen.

In February, the court deployed four digital pens in two courtrooms to help clerks quickly process a large volume of misdemeanor cases. Soon the court expects to fully deploy 60 pens to a total of 30 courtrooms.

The pens designed by Anoto, which are roughly the size of a highlighter, contain a micro-camera that captures a person’s writing strokes on a single-page printout of the electronic form that processes court cases. The pen is placed in a docking station, where its stored information is automatically uploaded to the PC.

“And then the courtroom clerk can review it and make sure it’s correct, print a copy for the defendants, and then we have an electronic copy that’s now available,” said Robert Oyung, the court’s chief technology officer.

New forms were created that work in conjunction with the pen. When the pen writes on the court’s new forms, it records the ink going over a dot matrix pattern, much like GPS coordinate recognition, said Greg Matton, CEO of Rover Ink, the Anoto partner for the digital pen technology.

“The only difference today is that the form [the clerks] are looking at is thinner; it’s one sheet,” Matton said. “And it has a faint dot matrix pattern on the background, and we’ve converted the form into what’s in essence become a smart form.”

In the past, courtroom clerks processed cases the old-fashioned way — by writing with regular ink pens on “minute orders,” the paper forms documenting case results, fines or case judgments. The forms then had to be separated and distributed.

The five-layer carbon form was very dense and required clerks to write small and press hard on the paper. As a result, workers’ compensation claims were submitted from clerks who suffered from repetitive motion injuries, Oyung said.

Since the deployment of the digital pens, the courts using the pens have reduced the number of repetitive motion injury claims. The combination of fewer workers’ comp claims and fewer printing forms is expected to save the court more than $50,000 a year, Oyung said.

But why use a pen at all? For years, government agencies have been trading in ink pens and paper for tablets and laptops to speed up information gathering and data processing.

Oyung said he considered tablet PCs as an alternative, but having a plastic pen writing on a plastic screen didn’t provide sufficient resolution and didn’t feel quite right to the courtroom clerks. Oyung also considered direct data entry into the court’s case management system, but that idea also was scratched.

“We have specialized data entry people who are trained and certified to use that system, and we would not be able to train all of our courtroom clerks to do that data entry,” Oyung said. “Plus they wouldn’t be able to do the data entry fast enough to handle the volume of information and cases.”

The pens need a couple of hours to charge, but can last several days on a single charge, Oyung said. Since the docking station and PC data dock is one and the same, the pens charge every time they’re plugged in to upload information.

Like any small, handheld electronic device, the digital pens are a security endpoint because they can be stolen or lost. Oyung said these aren’t major issues though because the pens aren’t allowed to leave the confines of courthouse. He said if one of the pens were stolen, the information wouldn’t be retrievable because outside computers don’t have access to the customized electronic form the pen is used for.

Sarah Rich, Staff Writer Sarah Rich  |  Staff Writer

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. Since 2010, Sarah has written for Government Technology magazine and covers a spectrum of public-sector IT topics, including cloud computing, transparency, broadband, and other innovative projects and trends. She currently lives in Sacramento, Calif.