Butte County, Calif., Streamlines Search Warrant Approvals

Thanks to digitized search warrants accessible via iPad and smart phone, law enforcement can create a warrant -- and have a judge's signature -- in 30 minutes.

by / January 19, 2015

The move to digitize signatures for warrants serving rural Butte County, Calif., has saved driving time, manpower and money -- and improved the county's public safety.   

During a large-scale marijuana investigation last year, officers created and a judge approved a search warrant in a half-hour -- enough time for law enforcement to enter additional suspected buildings before criminals destroyed evidence. 

"They were ahead of the bad guys because the bad guys were calling up everyone else saying, 'OK let's dump the evidence, let's dump the evidence,'" said Albert Tong, information systems analyst for the county. 

To deploy its e-signature process in spring 2012, the District Attorney's Office chose DocuSign -- a software-as-a-service provider that specializes in digital transaction management. 

Originally District Attorney Mike Ramsey went to Tong suggesting the office take advantage of a 2010 change in California law allowing electronic signatures to be used to authorize warrants, and to digitize its night search warrants. 

"The pain for them was that they had to physically drive over to the judge's house while they knew somebody was armed in the midst of a crime," said Miles Kelly, senior director of industry marketing for DocuSign. 

The county's after-hours process for approving paper-based warrants required time -- officers paused their duties to get the warrants signed, and judges rose, dressed and met officers at their homes where they swore them in, read the warrants and decided whether to approve them. That was following an initial approval by a district attorney.  

"Basically lots of driving, and it was very time consuming," Tong said. 

With e-signing in place now, the picture has changed: "They just send [an email]. They can still go about their business. When it's signed, it comes back to them -- they get an email. They don't have to sit and wait," he said. 

On the receiving end, judges use iPads to look over warrant documents and electronically sign them. Search warrants can also be created by officers in the field on phones and laptops. 

Tong estimates that the county saves three to four hours of combined officer, judge and district attorney time for each signed warrant. And Butte County now signs more than 500 warrants annually. 

In addition to the wasted work time with the paper-based process, that lost time had ramifications in terms of catching crimes while they were happening. For example, in the case of DUI warrants, officers who were forced to wait for a warrant approval could not get an accurate read on a suspect's alcohol levels, Tong said. That has changed now that all of the county's warrants and their signature processes are digitized. 

"We started out doing nighttime search warrants first and, as that became a success, we rolled that out to day time, full-time search warrants and now we've incorporated three other warrants into the process," Tong said. 

During Tong's original search into e-signature options, he found DocuSign's cloud solution to be a good fit for the county because of the safety of the technology and the support from DocuSign to ensure the correctness of the county's digitized forms. 

Additionally, the transition to digital signatures was eased because the county did not need to address the security of each computer since the process stays in the cloud. "Doing it through the cloud has made it a lot simpler on the IT end," Tong said.  

Like many governments, Kelly said, Butte County at first had questions regarding the security of its documents in a digitized cloud environment, and the authenticity of the signatures on them. 

In terms of ensuring a document is signed authentically, Kelly said: "The first question that we'll ask [governments] to kind of put it in perspective is: 'How do you know that's the case when you're using paper? 'Cause you really don't.'"

The company offers multiple levels of authentication in addition to the initial level of sending the document link to the signor's email -- these include texting four-digit access codes to signors and asking them public record questions. However, two to three levels of authentication is likely sufficient even for the most stringent requirements, Kelly said. 

As for security, DocuSign fully encrypts the hundreds of thousands of documents signed daily on its servers and allows only originators and signors access to them. The company also meets the ISO 27001 standard for information security management.  

In addition, a digital signature leaves an audit trail, Tong said, that can be traced back to the time it was signed, as well as to the account and IP machine used to sign it. "It gives us a lot more information than just a wet signature," he said. 

To initiate the signing process, an officer securely downloads the warrant document from Butte County's site and uploads it to a personal DocuSign portal where it can stay and later be referenced; once the officer indicates the attorney and judge who need to sign it, he or she sends the signors an encrypted email with a link to the document. The signors must then log onto DocuSign to access it.

"You're not actually sending a document," Kelly said. "You're sending someone a link to gain access to the document that's in a secured environment." 

Although officers still touch base with judges via phone given the required swearing-in procedure, the rest of the digitized process can be done without coordination.  

Between beginning its pursuit of e-signature technology in 2010 and rolling it out in 2012, the office spent most of the interim time collaborating with the county's six law enforcement agencies and the superior court on whether and how to move forward with the e-signatures. 

"The technology part was fairly simple," Tong said. "Getting all the law enforcement agencies to agree, all the judges to agree, all the district attorneys to agree -- that was the hardest part." 

To get everyone on board, the office had to prove that digitizing warrants and signatures would provide more security -- not less -- than the paper-based method. "Once we were able to ensure them of the security via DocuSign, people saw the advantages of the whole system," Tong said.  

Although Butte County is not DocuSign's only client using the technology to sign digital warrants, the county was an early adopter in the area.

DocuSign serves customers in a range of transactions -- everything from standardizing vendor contracts and completing internal audits to sharing academic research proposals and submitting travel reimbursements. Even with this diversity of purpose, each case uses DocuSign's platform since signed documents require the same general steps, Kelly said. 

"The beauty of being in the transaction business is that all industries, all businesses, have signatures in them in one form or fashion," Kelly said. 

Although many clients like Butte County use the technology to save time and money, increasingly, a goal voiced by government customers is to optimize and modernize the customer experience, Kelly said, such as the company's prospects looking to use DocuSign in DMVs. 

According to Kelly, the company has 70 percent of the e-signature market share, with 40,000 new people trying DocuSign daily. Although Butte County and DocuSign declined to disclose product pricing, Kelly said customers pay anywhere from $10 per user per month to seven-figure annual contracts for high-volume customers. 

Editor's note: This story was updated at 2:45 p.m. on Jan. 21 to revise the number of warrants Butte County signs per year from 500,000 to 500.

Jessica Hughes Contributing Writer

Jessica Hughes is a regular contributor to Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.

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