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Court records system continues to take hits from cops, clerks

SAN JOSECourt clerks say a glitch in a new records system spitting out incorrect traffic fines is a bigger problem than Santa Clara County administrators are acknowledging, affecting at least 1,400 instances involving misdemeanors and infractions going back to last year.

The latest trouble comes as police officers continue to blame the new system for compromising safety with unreliable warrant information.

Earlier this month, the Santa Clara County Superior Court sent out a notice stating they became aware of “an inconsistency between the fees indicated on the website and traffic court courtesy notices and the actual fees owed to the Superior Court based on the charges on the citation.”

Some people trying to pay a traffic citation on the court website since at least Dec.15 got a fine amount that was either understated or overstated, with some citations overcharged by over $100.

The Santa Clara County Superior Court has since halted online citation payments, and directed people to pay their fines in person at the traffic court at 1095 Homestead Road on Santa Clara. Presiding Judge Deborah Ryan issued a standing order March 12 that said anyone who had an undercharged fine would have their citation forgiven for the lower amount, and that anyone with an overcharged fine would get it corrected by the court.

But the court acknowledgement may not account for all the people who overpaid before the problem was discovered. According to a Superior Court statement, the court said the errant charging was determined in mid-February and traced to a problem that was discovered in December.

The court declined to explain the month time lapse from when the error was found in February to when the public notice went out. Court sources corroborated a San Jose Inside report suggesting the issues predated the December glitch.

Those sources maintain that the error affected more than the 1,400 citations the court already has acknowledged. They also noted some people who overpaid online might not show up to traffic court to correct their fines because of general apprehension about the court system or fears about immigration enforcement.

Court workers have advised members of the public to go before a judge or traffic commissioner so that they would receive the correct fine to pay. Unfortunately, most don’t do that and pay the incorrect fine amount,” said Johnny Lopez, president of the Superior Court Professional Employees Association, in a statement.

Lopez said the issue has exacted an emotional toll on employees having to bear the brunt of the confusion.

“This has caused extra stress on (court) workers who know that several hundred dollars to a technology firm or highly paid court administrator isn’t a big deal to them, but for many struggling to make ends meet in Silicon Valley, several hundred dollars keeps folks heads above water,” he said.

Those remarks add to an array of grievances from police departments and unions who want the Superior Court to jettison the Odyssey system that now organizes the county’s criminal and civil court files. Police previously warned of risks to officers, who they said could approach a violent suspect without taking the proper precautions because they did not have the correct warrant information.

A San Jose Police Department patrol officer said the warrant problems led to an instance in January near Willow Glen when he and his partner encountered a man who was naked, acting erratically, and appeared to be under the influence of drugs. The man reportedly told them he was on probation but had no criminal warrants, and when the officers ran his record with police dispatchers, no warrant came back.

But the officer, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak for the department, said afterward he remembered a police bulletin mentioning issues with the Odyssey system and inconsistent warrant lookups. The next day, he requested a hand search of warrants for the man, and it turned up a felony warrant for violating his probation from an earlier robbery conviction.

Two days later, the officer said he and his partner caught up with the man, and found him carrying a hatchet and a quarter-pound of crystal methamphetamine.

“We could have saved someone’s car from getting broken into or a robbery with the ax,” the officer said. “If we don’t get the guy on the front end, who knows what he’s going to do?”

When a group of South Bay police unions decried the system in January, they called for a return to the legacy Criminal Justice Information Center (CJIC), the longtime electronic clearinghouse for warrant and and arrest information for county police agencies.

But court administrators and the software vendor say the problems asserted by critics are among the growing pains of replacing a 40-year-old record-keeping system. The Odyssey system vastly increased availability of online court case information that previously required trips to multiple clerk’s offices just to see what kinds of files might be available.

The issues in Santa Clara County with Odyssey have evoked references to other municipalities with similar experiences, including Alameda County, which blamed the transition to the system for errant arrests and jailings, inaccurate court records, and mischaracterized rap sheets. Last year, Sacramento-area firefighters sued Odyssey’s manufacturer, Plano, Texas-based Tyler Technologies, for breach of contract for taking too long to modernize their dispatch system.

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