Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Computerizing prosecutor case files a good use of asset forfeiture funds

Ever since the Harris County DA's office was criticized for stockpiling millions in asset forfeiture money, which was either pointlessly hoarded or used as a slush fund for pet projects by former Harris DA Chuck Rosenthal, interim DA Ken Magdison has been looking to use the money for more legitimate projects, in part to keep the Legislature next spring from dedicating some of that money toward other projects if it appears the big-county DAs aren't using the money effectively.

Most recently, Magdison approved $225,000 for "a uniquely cooperative program to digitally archive about 20,000 boxes of DA felony litigation files."

Archiving old files is a great start, but it would create even greater efficiencies to follow Tarrant County's lead and put CURRENT case files online on a secure system. Tarrant County has an "open file" policy, so the entire DA's file is scanned in and the defense counsel (with the proper password) has immediate, full access, reducing communication delays and time wasted by attorneys (who aren't the least expensive employees on the payroll, after all) haggling over who gets access to what information.

In Tarrant, the ADA and the defense counsel both have access to the exact same information about the investigation pretty much at the same time - a fact that makes the whole process run a lot more quickly and smoothly. In Tarrant, according to the local criminal defense lawyers association:
To access criminal case files of the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney over the Internet, defense attorneys may order the TCCDLA ECFS ACCESS DEVIC, "TEA Device" which allows them access to Tarrant County's Integrated Justice System Online. You must either be a member of TCCDLA or purchase a support contract in order to purchase the TEA Device.
In El Paso, too, DA Jaime Esparza recently told a conference at the Task Force on Indigent Defense, that the DA's Information Management System (DIMS) allowed defense counsel to get access to case files within 24 hours and facilitated more routine cases getting disposed of within three days or less, reducing jail costs, overcrowding, liability, relieving court dockets, and even freeing up space in the jail that's now leased out to house federal inmates and makes extra money.

Harris County already has a cutting edge information management system (El Paso's was modeled in part after Harris County) where prosecutors rapidly evaluate cases. (See excellent bloggerly descriptions of Harris County's system here and here, and a related article from Courts Today.) It shouldn't be a stretch for them to take the next step, following Tarrant's lead, to enact an open file policy and give defense counsel complete online access to the complete case file (with appropriate security - e.g., encrypted and password protected, etc.). Everyone who uses the system in Tarrant County raves about it.

There's no real downside and many benefits for prosecutors to give defense counsel full access to their case files, so why not systematize the practice? Especially now that we know full disclosure up front can help prevent accidentally convicting an innocent person. It can also prevent inadvertently violating Brady requirements to hand over exculpatory evidence if it turns out seemingly inconsequential data later becomes probative.

If the Harris County District has a lot of asset forfeiture money laying around to fund computerization of old records, the next DA, whoever it turns out to be, should definitely invest in a computerized open-file system to make day-to-day records processing go more seemlessly and prevent lawyers from even appearing to play hide-the-ball with exculpatory evidence.


Anonymous said...

Anyone wanta bet against me that the Williamson County DA will criticize this amazingly great idea from prosecutors, and will also resist doing anything like it in Williamson County?

How many other DAs will poo-poo the idea and who are they?

A Voice of Sanity said...

I fail to see how asset forfeiture cannot violate the constitutional prohibition against it. It seems to me just one more example of the courts doing what they want and ignoring the constitution.