Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Texas: Hays County courts accidentally put expunged cases online!

When Hays County courts put their records online in April, San Marcos lawyers were pleasantly surprised that the county Web site let any Internet user look up court cases and jail information.

But as some defense lawyers began typing clients' names into the system, they got another surprise, this one much nastier. Their clients' expunged cases, which were supposed to have been erased from the system, popped up on their screens.

The county's $12.4 million software package from Dallas-based Tyler Technologies had a bug: a stray line of code that could leave the county bombarded with lawsuits from people who had lost a job or a license, or were otherwise hurt by the release of information that was supposed to have been erased.

"It caused a small uproar," Hays County information technology director Jeff McGill said. "Even though technically it was a minor issue, legally it was a major issue."

The Hays County information technology staff shut down public access to the site for searching records two days after finding out about the problem, and it remains down today. Tyler Technologies went to work fixing the bug and other problems with the software.
Anyone trying to search court records has to go to the district clerk's office, but McGill expects the Internet site to be back up later this summer.

About a dozen counties, including Williamson, Tarrant and Fort Bend, are planning to move their court records to the new Tyler Technologies system.

In Texas, almost anyone acquitted of a felony or misdemeanor, or whose charges have been dismissed, is eligable for expungement; afterwards, every law enforcement agency, jail, court and state criminal history database must destroy all records related to the case.
It's as if the whole case never happened.

Tyler Technologies programmers traced the problem of Hays County's not-so-expunged cases to a quirk in the way the county's old court record system deleted records.

In the old system, also supplied by Tyler Technologies, when the clerk's office expunged the computer record of a case, the case disappeared from screens and searches. But it lived on in the computerized database for about six months as a remedy for accidental deletions.

When the court's files were transferred to a new system last year, those expunged cases from the past six months came into the new system whole and turned up in searches, he said. About 25 cases, ranging from hot check charges to child molestation, were affected.

Tyler Technologies workers fixed the problem by manually removing the cases from the system. The county is now testing the corrected program.