By Mark Gutglueck
Just a little more than four months into his tenure as San Bernardino County Superior Court’s presiding judge, Raymond W. Haight III is facing a major challenge that for more than two months has defied solution and has reportedly resulted in an exodus of court personnel that will potentially exacerbate an already deteriorating situation.
The problem is a pervasive technical glitch with the court’s computerized information system that has rendered the digital records pertaining to criminal matters virtually inaccessible in much of their aspect.
The decision to revamp San Bernardino County Superior Court’s online case information system was not made by Haight, but by former presiding judge Marsha Slough in accordance with a bidding process authorized by the California Judicial Council some two years ago. Haight replaced Slough as presiding judge in December, when she was elevated to the appellate court. At that point the die was already cast, as a commitment to make the transition to what has been touted as an upgraded data collection and management system provided by Tyler Technologies was in place. The Tyler Technologies system, known as Odyssey, carried a price tag of more than $4 million,
Users of the previous system – members of the district attorney’s office, defense attorneys, defendants, victims and journalists, in other words, those most interested in knowing what is going on at the courthouse specifically or in general – almost universally considered the system the court had in place to be a good, if not absolutely perfect, one. Indeed, San Bernardino
County’s online court information system enjoyed a reputation of being as or more comprehensive and accessible as the systems used in neighboring Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties. Nevertheless, the decision to transition to the Tyler Technologies version 3.02.20.3 Odyssey system was made.
Haight had been in place for just about a month and a half when on February 11, the criminal side of the Superior Court of San Bernardino’s open access website went offline to make way for the initiation of the 3.02.20.3 Odyssey version.
Precisely what happened thereafter is not entirely clear. Some have described it as a massive computer crash. Others have said what resulted was actually a series of recurrent and persistent mini-crashes. What is known is that access to the digitized minute orders on criminal cases ended. One unconfirmed report was that half of a million files which were transferred out of the old system’s data banks into version 3.02.20.3 were erased. A further report was that those files are permanently lost, that is, unrecoverable. Officials have not commented on that report.
Officials responded to inquiries by indicating that what was occurring was a normal byproduct of making such a digitized transition and that in short order technicians would “get the bugs out of” the new software and all of the information previously available in an even more easily accessible format would soon be available.
A month passed and the minute orders were yet unavailable. By that point, further deficiencies in the new system were apparent. Court records for hearings of criminal cases were no longer available. Follow-up information pertaining to fines paid or restitution made by defendants was no longer being entered into the system or otherwise could not be retrieved. In response to an inquiry in March, Superior Court officials acknowledged that not all elements of the information that had gone into the case management system was at that point available but that Tyler Technologies was working with court personnel “to make the criminal cases component fully operational as soon as possible.” In time, court officials said, “There will be full access, which will include all case management information that may be disclosed under the law and in accordance with judicial policy.”
On April 14, Christine Volkers, the executive officer for San Bernardino County Superior Court, was been placed on administrative leave. There were suggestions that her abrupt exodus was related to the failure of the Odyssey system but there has been no official statement in that regard.
At the beginning of May, approaching three months after the Odyssey program transition was initiated, information that was routinely available on the predecessor version cannot be accessed and minute orders in criminal cases cannot be viewed.
Court officials would not confirm reports that a full-blown panic had descended over court staff upon learning that the approximate 500,000 documents that had been lost or deleted could be reentered into the system only through the painstaking process of rescanning them individually. Another report was that when an effort to begin scanning just a fraction of those missing documents into the system was begun, they were “eaten,” that is, rendered into a scrambled digital form that could not be translated or unjumbled back into any semblance of their original form. Several court clerks saddled with handling the tasks of reentering the lost information, overwhelmed with the enormity of the work, were reported to have simply quit, making the pending workload even more nightmarish. Court officials did not respond directly to inquiries about the accuracy of those reports.
Gary Wenkle Smith, a criminal defense attorney who is currently handling a murder case, told the Sentinel, “They’ve lost 99 percent of the minute orders. You can’t view them. They put in a flawed and untested program. There is some kind of virus that keeps crashing the system. The documentation on fines that were paid has been lost. People are going to prison or back into jail because they cannot prove what action they took. The court hasn’t gotten around to giving the benefit of the doubt to the defendant when he says he paid a fine or did weekend time and the court has no record of it. In the courtrooms, the clerks and the judges are relying on the system that is malfunctioning. I can’t believe someone allowed this to take place.”
Dennis B. Smith, the risk and safety administrator and media relations director for San Bernardino Superior Court, told the Sentinel, “I cannot speak first hand as to what is happening with the Odyssey System. I’m not using it and that is not part of my job.” He acknowledged some information relating to criminal cases is not available at present but said that on balance the system is on the way to working well. “Apparently, the system is functioning like it is supposed to minus the minute orders,” he said. “That is correctable.”
Smith explained, “In 2014, the San Bernardino Superior Court recognized that to provide efficient, transparent, accessible service to the public, a new case management system was required. After an intensive selection process, the industry leading Tyler Technologies ‘Odyssey’ case management system was chosen as the best fit to serve the needs of San Bernardino County residents.”
Dennis Smith continued, “On February 16, 2016, the San Bernardino Superior Court launched the use of the Tyler Technologies ‘Odyssey’ case management system to manage criminal and traffic cases across the entire County of San Bernardino. As part of the migration to the new case management system, information from more than four million existing cases was converted. Case data became available through the website on February 20, 2016. The initial availability of case information did not include detailed minutes of individual hearings. The court worked diligently within the parameters of the California Rules of Court to provide remote access to minutes in criminal and traffic cases. These detailed minutes for hearings prior to February 16, 2016 became available on March 4, 2016. The court is currently working to provide access to detailed minutes for hearings held after February 16, 2016 and anticipates having these records available through its website shortly. The court has maintained an ongoing commitment to provide the public with no-charge, online access to case information as permitted under the California Rules of Court.”
An inquiry as to whether Judge Haight is concerned that some individuals are perhaps being sent to jail or prison improperly because of the ongoing failure of the court information system did not elicit a response by press time. Nor did the court’s executive office say if there was any prospect that Judge Haight will reconsider the decision to transition to Tyler Technologies’ Odyssey system and jettison it in favor of a return to the previous system if the shortcomings in the Odyssey program cannot be redressed.
By Mark Gutglueck