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When Westmont, N.J., criminal lawyer Morris Pinsky gets a new case, the client often doesn’t know the charges he faces, much less when hearings are scheduled or the name of the judge or prosecutor. Obtaining such basic information means getting on the telephone, being shunted from Superior Court to the prosecutor’s office and hoping someone will look up the case for him, Pinsky says. Prosecutors and public defenders face no such obstacles. They can tap into the state’s vast Promis/Gavel criminal database of state court cases, which lists an array of details like bail status, court dates and names of co-defendants. They can also run down criminal backgrounds of witnesses. Promis/Gavel access is also available to the Attorney General’s Office, state and municipal courts, police departments, probation, corrections, judges and the Division of Youth and Family Services. Only private attorneys are denied access, and Pinsky, as co-chairman of the Camden County, Pa., Bar Association’s Criminal Practice Committee, is asking the Administrative Office of the Courts to level the playing field. “It comes down to one element in the system being treated differently and being discriminated against,” Pinsky says. Pinsky says his frustration over access to case information has been building for several years but that he decided to press the matter after his committee discussed it twice in meetings with Camden County Presiding Criminal Judge Linda Baxter. She expressed sympathy but said there was nothing she could do, he says. Pinsky says defense lawyers bringing appeals could raise due process or equal protection claims over the data-access situation. “The state always has answers why they can’t give you what they want,” he says. “The only thing I get out of this system is what I force out.” The AOC says it is taking steps to expand access to the private defense bar and the public. There is at least one self-service Promis/Gavel terminal for public use in every county courthouse. (The public terminal in the Camden County courthouse is in an out-of-the way spot in the basement.) And, as the AOC concedes, the terminals offer less data than that available to state employees. They do not list hearing dates or criminal charges, for example. Mary Ann Byrne, the AOC’s assistant chief of automated court systems, says that by next spring, the public terminals will offer more information, but the court is wrestling with whether the upgraded version should include parties’ Social Security numbers, which are now available to other users of the system. Remote access to Promis/Gavel is not yet in operation, though a civil-case counterpart is accessed remotely by about 150 parties, including law firms, credit bureaus and title search companies, says AOC spokeswoman Winnie Comfort. A party seeking access needs to set up a special interface, which is “not an inexpensive thing to do,” she says, adding that until now no one has asked for the service. The AOC plans to switch Promis/Gavel to a Web-based system that would make remote access much easier, but limited financial resources are hampering the effort. “As we continue trying to move forward with our information technology plan, we have been to the Legislature looking for resources,” says Comfort. “Having Web-based [databases] is where we want to go. But can I tell you we have a date in mind when the entire judiciary will have been transformed to all Web-based? No.” RELYING ON KINDNESS OF CLERKS In the meantime, private defense lawyers say that getting basic case information is unduly laborious. “It takes a lot of time and a lot of hassle,” says Robert Obler, a Trenton solo practitioner. He says court employees in Mercer County “help us out all the time, but it still is asking a favor. It is an inconvenience to them.” Court staff should be able to answer telephone inquiries about cases on Promis/Gavel, although at busy times they may need to take down the caller’s telephone number and respond later, says John Wieck, chief of trial court services in the Law Division, Criminal Part. But many times, court employees will be unable to do so when a newer case is not yet entered on Promis/Gavel, Wieck says. Prosecutors’ offices are in charge of entering new cases on Promis/Gavel after they get information from local police departments, but Byrne says the time elapsed between an arrest and a case’s entry on the system can vary widely. John Arseneault, of Chatham’s Arsenault, Fassett & Mariano, gets case information from prosecutors’ offices but says it’s often time-consuming. “Rather than a lack of cooperation, it appears county prosecutors’ offices are so busy that a request for information is not given the same priority as some of their other work,” says Arseneault, adding that he would gladly pay a reasonable fee to access Promis/Gavel from his office. That view is echoed by John McDonald, president-elect of the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey. “Criminal histories are where the defense attorneys are at a big disadvantage,” says McDonald, of Somerville’s McDonald & Rogers. “The state runs criminal histories on whoever they want to run them on. I think that’s something that’s unfair and needs changing.”

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