Alameda County's public defender is moving to force the jurisdiction's courts to abandon their new electronic filing system, calling the Odyssey web portal a "disaster" that "continues to systematically deprive our clients of their constitutional rights."
In a motion filed Tuesday, Public Defender Brendon Woods listed 26 cases impacted by glitches in the system since its Aug. 1 rollout. They include defendants held in county jail days and sometimes weeks after they were supposed to be released, the issuance of erroneous warrants resulting in false arrests for matters already settled in court and at least a few cases of defendants incorrectly required to register as sex offenders.
Woods said the list is just a small snapshot of the constitutional violations rampant in Alameda County courts under the new system.
"The Odyssey court filing system, as it is right now, has had so many errors we can’t even describe them. We can’t count them," Woods said. "We’re going to be making this motion in every case that we represent. This system can’t continue. We’ve got to stop. We’ve got to fix it it. We’ve got to fix it immediately."
Superior Court Judge Tara Desautels scheduled the motion to be heard on Jan. 17.
"That’s the court just turning a blind eye to what’s happening right now," Woods said. "People are being hurt on a daily basis. They’re going to take another two months before we come back and hear this motion? That’s absurd, that’s absolutely absurd."
Alameda County Superior Court Executive Officer Chad Finke said in an interview Wednesday that he "takes issue with the statement that the court is turning a blind eye."
He said problems with the Odyssey system are twofold. First, there were technical glitches with the software's ability to interface with other systems used by the county, sheriff, district attorney and others.
"There are multiple technological problems that have been identified and that the respective IT departments are working on," he said. "At this point, I won't say all, but most of the technical issues have been resolved."
But Finke said there's another problem: "At the heart of a lot of these issues is what I would call a human capacity question," he said. "The Odyssey software that we purchased, the user interface is, it’s complex, and it is in my view cumbersome."
On a system with complicated tabs and sometimes significant lag time, courtroom clerks simply can't keep up with filings in busy Alameda County courts, Finke said. And so there's a backlog of thousands of files, growing by the hundreds every day, according to Woods' motion.
"Every day adds a little bit to the backlog," Finke said. "We’re aware of that, we don’t like it at all, but that’s kind of what we’re stuck with."
He said he's hopeful that an add-on to the Odyssey program called "Clerk Edition," which automates data entry into some fields, will be ready by the first of the year.
"At least then the backlog will stop growing," Finke said, "and we’ll be able to devote staff time to chipping it away."
To understand how the courts ended up purchasing the problematic system, he said, you have to go back to 2008 and the loss of some Superior Court reserve funding as the state searched for money in the wake of the recession. At the time, there was a statewide electronic case management system in the works, but it never materialized. California's 58 superior courts were on their own to modernize their systems with less money to do it.
Many courts bought Tyler Technology's Odyssey system, Finke said, but few tried to use it for criminal courts -- where the stakes are high and the volume of cases can be staggering.
"I don’t know if the system was truly designed to be used in a criminal environment," Finke said. "At least for the volume of criminal cases we see in the county, the system doesn’t seem as efficient as we hoped it would be. ... We did not get exactly what we thought we were paying for."
The courts had planned to use the system in family and civil court, but have since abandoned that plan and are in negotiations with Tyler Technologies "over what that partial termination of our contract looks like," Finke said.
"At this time, we have no comment on specifics of this project," a Tyler Technologies spokesman said in a written statement. "As a standard practice, Tyler Technologies is fully supportive of our clients and we work to resolve any system issues directly with them. We have reiterated our commitment to that approach to Alameda."
UC Hastings law professor Rory Little said administrative errors happen from time to time in superior courts around the country, but the systemic scale of those in Alameda County is "outrageous." He said finger-pointing between the court system, county and vendor is irrelevant as long as constitutional violations are happening.
"None of that matters," he said. "What you have here is a system that you know is resulting in people being held in jail and being otherwise damaged in ways that they shouldn’t be. If I were the court, I would be very worried right now that someone’s going to file a civil rights suit and ask for damages. What they want is another two months of people being held illegally, and they know it’s a problem."
Little said Woods could have filed the civil suit himself and sought a restraining order, but that would require seeking damages as well.
"All he’s doing in this is saying there’s a serious problem, people are being hurt and he wants it fixed," Little said of Woods' motion. "I think the county should appreciate the fact that he hasn’t filed a civil suit, he hasn’t asked for damages for all the people who have been hurt."
Finke said the issuance of erroneous bench warrants is "extremely, largely resolved at this point" because that stemmed from a technology issue that appears to have been fixed. But he said people staying in custody past their scheduled release is tied to the backlog, which is still growing.
"My staff understands that is an extreme high priority," he said. To those who have spent extra days or weeks in jail, he said "I would apologize. I don't know what else to tell them, and I hope to make sure it doesn't happen to anybody else."
Read the motion below: