Glitchy Case Management Software Getting People Arrested in Oakland

OAKLAND, Calif.—Most pieces of software don’t have the power to get someone arrested—but Tyler Technologies’ Odyssey Case Manager does. This is the case management software that runs on the computers of hundreds and perhaps even thousands of court clerks and judges in county courthouses across the US. (Federal courts use an entirely different system.)

old high-tech

Maybe this is the Oakland Californias Judicial Computer System?

Typically, when a judge makes a ruling—for example, issuing or rescinding a warrant—those words said by a judge in court are entered into Odyssey. That information is then relied upon by law enforcement officers to coordinate arrests and releases and to issue court summons. (Most other courts, even if they don’t use Odyssey, use a similar software system from another vendor.)

But, just across the bay from San Francisco, one of Alameda County’s deputy public defenders, Jeff Chorney, says that since the county switched from a decades-old computer system to Odyssey in August, dozens of defendants have been wrongly arrested or jailed. Others have even been forced to register as sex offenders unnecessarily. “I understand that with every piece of technology, bugs have to be worked out,” he said, practically exasperated. “But we’re not talking about whether people are getting their paychecks on time. We’re talking about people being locked in cages, that’s what jail is. It’s taking a person and locking them in a cage.”

Odyssey is used not only in Alameda County and additionally in 25 of California’s 58 county courts, but also in counties nationwide, from Miami-Dade County, Florida, to Kane County, Illinois. Lawyers in at least three counties in as many states have reported problems nearly identical to Alameda’s and have begun formal legal proceedings as a result. Earlier this month, an activist group in Shelby County, Tennessee, alleged similar issues in a recently filed federal civil rights lawsuit. According to the Memphis Daily News, Shelby County Commissioners discussed on Wednesday possible legal action against Tyler Technologies.

Due to the same glitches, inmates in Marion County, Indiana, sued the county sheriff nearly two years ago in federal court over a related issue—that case is still ongoing.

Tyler Technologies did not respond to Ars’ requests for comment.

“How do you blame software?”

Seated in a windowless interview room at his office, Chorney told Ars on Wednesday afternoon that he and his colleagues would soon be filing a formal appeal to the 1st District Court of Appeal of California. His office remains frustrated that after months of letters to Alameda County’s supervising judges outlining the situation, nothing has changed.

Earlier this week, the San Francisco Chronicle detailed an account of a 24-year-old college student and teacher’s assistant from nearby Fremont who was wrongly arrested in September for an earlier drug possession warrant that had already been dismissed.

“A warrant was recalled by a judge and the warrant was recalled a second time and his entire case was dismissed; nevertheless, three days later he was arrested on that warrant,” Chorney continued, referring to the Fremont case. “I don’t know whether that was an input error or a mistake between computer systems, but I do know that with the old system those types of mistakes were not happening as often. With this new computer system it seems to be magnified.”

Since mid-November, the Alameda County public defender has filed an identical motion in hundreds of criminal cases, demanding that the court keep accurate records or abandon the Odyssey system entirely. That filing includes detailed descriptions of several other similar situations, including one where a person spent an additional 20 days in jail.

“If this is the computer system, and it’s not working and people’s rights are being violated, then you need to stop using it,” Chorney said. “If there’s a way to go back to the old one, then do that; if there’s a way to switch to something else—anything else has to be better than what’s happening right now.”

Elizabeth Joh, a criminal law professor at the University of California, Davis, told Ars that this situation was alarming. “Errors do occur in the criminal justice system, but in the past only people were to blame,” she e-mailed. “How do you blame software, and who is responsible? These kinds of systemic technology problems pose a real challenge to individual criminal defendants, who may sometimes not be aware of the source of the error—and it looks like Tyler Technologies is rejecting any responsibility.”

Status quo ante bellum

So, how did Alameda County get to this point? Alameda County Court Executive Officer Chad Finke explained the saga to Ars from his second-floor corner office in the René Davidson Courthouse, overlooking Lake Merritt. According to Finke, the issue dates back to 2012, when California’s judicial council—the rulemaking entity for state courts—killed a homegrown $500 million project known as the Court Case Management System. Not long after that, the state’s county courts were given the choice as to how to upgrade their case management systems, and over half of California’s counties, including Alameda, selected Tyler Technologies.

Chad Finke is the Alameda County Court Executive Officer and is overseeing the rollout of Odyssey.

Chad Finke is the Alameda County Court Executive Officer and is overseeing the rollout of Odyssey. Cyrus Farivar

Alameda spent some of 2014 and all of 2015 gearing up for the transition to their new system and pushed it back multiple times, until the June 2016 soft launch. The county finally cut ties with its 1970s-era system, known as CORPUS, in August. However, in addition to dealing with new cases—difficult enough for clerks—Odyssey also had to convert older cases into its own database, a process that is cumbersome and remains slow.

Read More: arstechnica

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