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Very soon, a typical Northern District of California criminal case will no longer mean the deaths of a couple dozen trees. Beginning Feb. 7, instead of filing multiple paper copies of criminal court documents, attorneys will submit items over the Internet using the U.S. district court’s electronic filing system. In 2001, the Northern District became one of the first in the nation to take advantage of e-filing, but only in civil cases. “[Criminal e-filing] marks another significant step toward complete electronic filing in the court,” said Northern District clerk Richard Wieking. “We’re on the forefront of implementation.” About 600 to 700 criminal cases are filed in the Northern District each year, compared with about 5,000 civil cases, Wieking said. But some attorneys are worried that the transition to criminal e-filing, which will be mandatory for most documents, may not go smoothly. Though intended to make life easier for prosecutors, defense lawyers and court clerks alike, the technology has a steep learning curve. “There’s some concern that the criminal bar is just not aware of this,” said defense attorney Edward Swanson of San Francisco’s Swanson & McNamara. “There’s a sense that people are going to be really surprised.” Earlier this month, the federal public defender’s office held a training session for attorneys who handle indigent cases. Attendance was low. First assistant defender Geoffrey Hansen now fears that on Feb. 7, “it’s going to hit the fan.” But Wieking disagrees. “The prospects for a smooth transition are very high,” Wieking said. “We’ve spent a great deal of time publicizing. We’ve done a great amount of training of attorneys and their staffs.” Wieking estimated that 80 people have received hands-on training, at least 200 more have attended group seminars and about 100 have completed online tutorials. “Because our criminal caseload is relatively small, that is a fairly saturated training of the people who are likely to have to deal with e-filing,” he said. Besides the training sessions, the Northern District provides information on its Web site. The Feb. 7 transition date doesn’t appear on the district’s home page, nor under the section labeled “Public Announcements.” But clicking on “Electronic Case Filing,” which appears in smaller type, brings up the necessary information, including online tutorials explaining the ins and outs of e-filing. Defense attorney Swanson isn’t worried about his own mouse-clicking skills. Because he occasionally delves into the civil arena, he’s already versed in the online system. But most criminal defense attorneys don’t have that kind of experience. Filing electronically represents a new procedure in a practice area where success turns in part on law office efficiency, especially savvy use of filing deadlines. Lawyers will have to learn how to register with the e-filing service and then log in to file motions, briefs and other paperwork. Although they still must file at least one paper copy of documents with the court, they no longer have to serve each other — a major advantage of the new system. The system automatically takes care of that via e-mail, as long as attorneys are properly signed up. Most documents will go into the system directly from word processors, and scans of evidence can be submitted as attachments. The advantage for attorneys is less time and money spent on photocopying. But they will take on a new task: entering docket information, a job previously done by court clerks. Clerks will still review dockets for style and accuracy. Wieking said he’s already seeing a big reduction in the amount of storage space needed for paper files because of civil e-filing. While some attorneys are worried about a mess next month, others are already seeing other, more strategic advantages. “One side benefit is that the day no longer ends at 5 p.m.,” said Doron Weinberg of San Francisco’s Weinberg & Wilder. Weinberg, who practices in several federal districts, has not attended any training sessions since most of the technical aspects will be handled by his staff. “It’s not a big deal,” he said, though he added, “I may find out differently.” Others aren’t taking any chances with the new technology. The U.S. attorney’s office has held a couple of in-house trainings, as has Northern District Federal Public Defender Barry Portman, whose staff handles about 77 percent of local federal criminal cases. Portman’s office also administers the panel of about 110 private trial attorneys appointed by the court to handle indigent criminal cases. Dozens more lawyers are privately retained. Earlier this month, Portman’s office held a free training seminar for those people. Trainers booked a large hall at Hastings College of the Law and sent out letters to appointed counsel asking them to bring their staff and colleagues. But only about 40 people — 20 lawyers and 20 staff — attended, and now the federal defender’s office is worried. “We were expecting hundreds to show up,” said Hansen, the first assistant. “We were over there all geared up for a lot of folks.” Although it’s possible lawyers and their assistants don’t need training because they’re already comfortable with the system, “I just don’t believe it,” Hansen said. Even if lawyers are at ease with e-filing, Hansen said, there are bound to be bumps. For example, there will be limits on the size of documents and a special procedure for dealing with sealed cases. Defense attorney Arthur Wachtel, a San Francisco solo, attended the Hastings seminar and believes everyone needs hands-on practice with the new system — and fast. “I remarked on more than one occasion how sorry I felt for all the people who were not there,” he said. “I think that if you haven’t gone [to training], you’re not going to be prepared.” Hansen said his office is prepared to schedule another training session if there’s enough interest from the defense community. But Wieking remains confident that court-sponsored training has adequately prepared the criminal bar. “We’ve had all kinds of training sessions done in house here � and I would think that many people would think that was a superior form of training, quite honestly,” Wieking said. “I don’t have any reason to have any concerns that this isn’t widely out there.” E-filing will benefit members of the public as well, at least those with computer access. Criminal files will be available online through the pay-per-page PACER system. However, interested parties will still have to head to the courthouse to look up certain “protected” documents, such as those containing individuals’ financial data and other sensitive personal information.

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