Court Bids Paper Adieu

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In an ambitious effort, Seattle’s King County District Court has gone paperless, with the help of EMC (NYSE: EMC) and other vendors.

KCDC, as the court is known, is rolling out an EMC-based information infrastructure for better management and distribution of court records and legal documents, in the process converting years of paper documents into digital format and making them accessible via the Web.

“Our electronic court records (ECR) system is a big time-saver for KCDC employees and legal professionals who regularly access court records,” said Andy Gilmer, King County District Court’s database administrator. “The cost savings are huge because countless hours and reams of paper have been cut from the process.”

Located on Puget Sound in Washington State, King County serves more than 1.8 million people. As the nation’s thirteenth most populous county, KCDC processes around 230,000 cases each year. These run the gamut, from traffic violations up to civil filings for less than $50,000.

Until recently, this large quantity of cases, as well as a massive annual volume of traffic tickets, were processed and stored on paper. It took a trip to the courthouse to pick up records, or a delay while they arrived via the mail.

“It required a huge amount of space to store our records,” said Gilmer. “A lot of time was consumed hunting for physical files and moving them around the organization.”

The ECR system at KCDC was put together with the help of the Global Services arm of EMC and Sierra Systems Group of Vancouver, Canada. Fujitsu Ltd. of Japan supplied the scanners with EMC providing the rest: Centera servers, Captiva InputAccel and Centera Replicator. This all works in conjunction with six Windows 2003 servers.

Documents are scanned into a Windows 2003 Server where InputAccel software automatically enhances the images, formats them, and builds an index for them before sending them to a Centera content-addressed storage (CAS) server for archiving. Another Centera server is situated about 70 miles away, with Centera Replicator used to provide a complete mirror of the system. KCDC has archived more than 1.7 million court records in Centera.

“Every 12 hours, the Centera servers send me a report on how much data is on them and how much space is available,” said Gilmer. “Currently, the total capacity for each is 9539 GB, with remaining free capacity of 6038 GB on each one.”

One important aspect of ECR is that when original documents are committed to the archives, a digital fingerprint is assigned. If that document is later altered, it receives a different fingerprint. Thus, it is possible to verify the integrity of each court record and trace its history.

Going Paperless

The death of paper was widely predicted during the late 1990s, but a decade later, more paper is consumed than ever before. But the goal of a paperless society persists, and KCDC is engaged in eliminating as much paper as it can. Whenever police arrest someone, for example, they write out the ticket on a laptop, which is then digitally transmitted to the prosecutor’s office and into the system.

“Some of our police agencies now report probable cause statements to the booking facility using their laptops or a kiosk in the jail, and the prosecutor transmits them electronically to the EMC information infrastructure,” said Gilmer. “We’ve automated the process to the extent that human hands seldom have to touch paper documents, and the documents themselves have never existed in paper.”

He said the organization is gradually phasing over other types of ticketing.

“My next big project is to bring more tickets over into our digital system,” said Gilmer.

Old court documents, of course, have to be scanned. Gilmer admits that it will take several years to complete the scanning of paper files into ECR. The good news is that document retention policy means that some documents will be ready for destruction by the time they are ready to be scanned.

“We have to pay attention to various different mandated periods for document retention,” said Gilmer. “Centera can be set to automatically delete certain documents when they reach their end of life, in compliance with policy and the applicable regulations.”

Public Access

Another aspect of the archiving project is to make the database more accessible to the public. Anyone who has ever gone downtown to look into court records knows the hassle of waiting in line, shuffling through vast tomes, or waiting for a clerk to locate a specific document.

The public can now go on the Web to access traffic ticket info and other forms of court records. Anything that is part of the public record can be viewed — about 70 percent of KCDC’s court records in total are online. The other 30 percent are accessible digitally by authorized court employees, prosecuting attorneys, legal aides and probation officers.

“The remaining 30 percent of our records are fully secured using SSL, with each document having a specific security classification annotation,” said Gilmer. “These files are firewalled off from the others.”

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Drew Robb
Drew Robb
Drew Robb is a contributing writer for Datamation, Enterprise Storage Forum, eSecurity Planet, Channel Insider, and eWeek. He has been reporting on all areas of IT for more than 25 years. He has a degree from the University of Strathclyde UK (USUK), and lives in the Tampa Bay area of Florida.

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