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Criminal defense lawyers say a new computer system in D.C. Superior Court is wreaking havoc with their cases and in some instances violating their clients’ rights. The attorneys say that since the criminal division of the court moved to a paperless computer system at the beginning of the year, bad information has led to their clients being arrested after warrants have been dismissed and in some cases the opposite is occurring: Defendants with bail violations are walking because warrants haven’t been entered into the system. In other cases, motions and paperwork are getting lost. And some lawyers say they can no longer trust what the court record is telling them. The problems have mainly centered on proceedings in arraignment court and in preliminary hearings � courtrooms with a high volume of cases that are heard in quick succession. In addition, a lag time in scanning documents has meant that some information isn’t being entered in a timely fashion or, in some cases, at all. “The entire system is just abysmal,” says defense lawyer Bernie Grimm. “I used to be able to trust the accuracy . . . I have no confidence my clients’ entries are correct.” Defense lawyer Nancy Allen says a prostitution case against one of her clients disappeared from the court’s computer system. In January, Allen says, her client failed to show up for a court hearing and the judge issued a bench warrant. But for nearly two months the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department wasn’t looking for the woman because, as far as the computer system was concerned, Allen’s client didn’t exist. Until last week, Allen says, she couldn’t find a case number or a record of the warrant. If she hadn’t tried to get paid for her work on the case through the Criminal Justice Act, no one might ever have known that her client simply slipped through the cracks. “I know I’m not the only one who has had this happen,” Allen says. The new case management system was part of a multiyear, $20 million project to upgrade the court’s entire computer framework. The new system integrates 18 databases with the aim of giving court personnel, attorneys, and the public easy access to complete, real-time information about cases. In January all new criminal cases in the court were being housed entirely in the new system, eliminating the need for paper case jackets and allowing multiple users to access the file from any computer in the courthouse. The system is now considered to be the official court docket and official court jacket. Court officials downplay the trouble. Judge Brook Hedge, chair of the court’s technology and automation committee and co-chair of the committee that oversaw the implementation of the new system, says the problems are small glitches common with a startup. She says errors involving warrants and arraignment notices have largely been resolved and that to her knowledge the warrant mix-ups happened to fewer than 10 individuals. “People think that with the computer system everything is going to be perfect and work perfectly, and sometimes it doesn’t,” Hedge says. Still, she says the court is considering returning paper records to case jackets. G. Bradley Weinsheimer, the chief of the Superior Court division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, says his office worked with the court for 18 months preparing for the new system, and though there are some kinks, his office is dealing with them. “I don’t think that it has caused any significant problems. It is more of a culture change than anything else.” Weinsheimer admits there were problems with logging bail violations, but he says those were limited to the first day the system became active and only a handful of defendants weren’t charged for violating court orders. “The things we are dealing with now are the things that were not anticipated,” he says, such as confusion over correct hearing dates. A �PERFECT STORM’ Hedge says the court had been looking to upgrade its case management system for years, but the problem had always been finding money to pay for it. With the passage of the Family Court Act in 2001, the money was finally available. Implementation of the new system began in 2003 in the Family Court. The domestic violence unit followed a few months later. Paternity and child support cases, as well as probate and tax matters, went paperless in August 2004. Last year the system expanded to include small claims court, landlord tenant court, and civil actions. One of the reasons the criminal division was last, Hedge says, was because of the complexities involved with coordinating a variety of government agencies. To prepare, court officials began meeting with the agencies in 2004, in order to give them enough time to get their own systems ready as well. Despite intense planning, the rollout for the criminal division was anything but smooth. One week after the system went up, Hedge says “the perfect storm” hit. The server went down, and the mother board broke. In addition, a transformer blew in Judiciary Square, causing the court to lose power. For four days the division went back to using the manual system. “There is always slowness in the beginning,” says Hedge, adding that the problems were compounded by the events that followed the launch. Regardless of the cause, arraignment notices were not sent out, bench warrants were not entered or cleared from the system, and in some cases judges didn’t know what a defendant was charged with. “It was just leaving things up in the air,” says Betty Ballester, president of the Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association. “No judge wants to put people in jail that should not be there, but they are looking at records that are not accurate. So what can they do?” The court shut down its computer system over the three-day Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend in January in order to install the new system, but that meant there were immediately about 3,000 documents from over the weekend that had to be scanned into the computers plus more than 3,000 data entries to input in the first days of the new system. In total, Hedge estimates that in the beginning about 4,000 to 5,000 documents needed to be scanned, but she says that backlog did not last long. The arraignment court was caught up the following week, she says, and though the case management division took a little longer, she insists everything is now scanned in and up-to-date. Some attorneys, however, say the number was closer to 30,000 documents and insist the problems still remain. “The court says they are working on it, but it has now been two months and things aren’t getting better,” Ballester says. One CJA attorney, who asked not to be identified, says that in two separate cases his clients were arrested on bench warrants after their cases had been dismissed. In both cases the proper notations were never entered into the computer, he says, and police believed his clients were in violation. Attorney Steven Polin had a similar situation with a client. In his case his client was picked up on a bench warrant that stemmed from a marijuana possession charge. After a court appearance in January, he was released and arrested again on the same warrant the following week. Polin says the police refused to let his client go because the warrant was still showing in their system. It took 15 phone calls, he says, to persuade a clerk in the court’s warrant office to remove it from the court’s system. But D.C. police still refused to release Polin’s client. Finally, it was a phone call to the emergency judge, he says, that got his client freed. Hedge, who happened to be the judge who helped Polin, initially said in an interview that the problem in Polin’s case lay with the D.C. police department’s computer system. Later in the week, court officials called back to say that it was inaccurate information in the court system that led to errors in the police department’s system. Hedge says that as far as she knows, only a handful of people were picked up on erroneous warrants. Nevertheless, she adds, “Even one is a big deal.” Defense attorneys say the problem is compounded by the fact that there is no paper trail to catch mistakes. “It creates a paperless system,” Polin says. “If you need to look something up in the jacket, it is not there.” Hedge says that while it is true that papers are not filed in the jackets after they are scanned in, they don’t simply disappear. Each division, she says, has a quality assurance team that double-checks the record, and then the documents are stored in the criminal division. “The paper is not thrown away. It is still there,” she says, “but they were trying to go to a paperless system, and they were trying to get people used to that.” Hedge says many of the problems faced since the new computer system was implemented could have occurred just as easily beforehand, pointing to issues with bench warrants as one example. “You will always have errors,” she says, “because humans are part of the process.”
Bethany Broida can be contacted at [email protected].

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