The frustration of discovery delays has driven me to implement a web-based digital evidence center for the Garfield Heights Municipal Court. Discovery in criminal and traffic cases is one process that did not improve with remote hearings. Even with email exchange, I frequently have to continue cases for completion of discovery. With ten law enforcement agencies and eight municipalities, the evidence retention and exchange systems are varied and sometimes burdensome to both prosecutors and defense counsel.
The Case Center
A central, web-based evidence portal operated by the Court provides rapid access to all evidence for all attorneys, defendants, witnesses, judges and even jurors. We are now using Thomson Reuters Case Center (formerly Caselines) court wide. Thomson Reuters is the Westlaw people.
The process is simple. When a defense attorney files a discovery request pursuant to Ohio Criminal Rule 16, court staff opens a case in Case Center.
Case Center automatically emails the law enforcement agency, prosecutor and defense attorney a notice that the case is open. The law enforcement agency or prosecutor uploads the requested evidence. The defense attorney automatically receives an email notice that the case is updated. The prosecutor can mark the evidence “for counsel only” pursuant to Rule 16(F). The filing of the discovery demand triggers the reciprocal discovery provisions in Rule 16.
The defense attorney can view the evidence, share it and download it. The prosecutor can do the same for witnesses and victim advocates. Attorneys can use the share feature of Zoom or Teams to review the evidence with clients and witnesses.
Benefit to the Court
The burden on the court of viewing and storing evidence is diminished substantially. In a hearing or trial, I can access the case just like the attorneys and view it on Zoom for remote trials and display it for the whole courtroom on digital monitors from a laptop for in person trials. We do not need a tech person in the courtroom or on Zoom. Our IT administrator does not have to test flash drives for viruses or check DVDs in advance to determine if they are operable on our equipment. The Clerk does not have to store the DVDs or flash drives. Case Center is contractually obligated to comply with the Court’s record retention schedule even if we discontinue the service. Case Center is compliant with FBI security protocols.
Case Center is a repository for evidence only is not a platform for filing motions related to discovery or non-disclosure certifications. All motions and other pleadings must still be filed with the Clerk of Court.
Trial attorneys can control the order of submission of the exhibits in Case Center and annotate all evidence with notes not viewable to the trier of fact. I can make my own private notes also. There are many other trial features for but few cases go to trial in municipal court. The main benefit for us is reduction in discovery delays and storage and retention of evidence actually used for a trial or hearing. I have a jury trial next week where the attorneys will be using Case Center. We will see how they manage.
Expanding to All Court Users
I have tested Case Center with Maple Heights cases for several months and found it incredibly easy and fast. The police respond within hours, not days or weeks, by uploading digital evidence. Most cases are resolved at the first pretrial if the defense attorney files the discovery request timely. We included Brecksville and Independence several weeks ago and we are expanding its use to Garfield Heights this week. We will extend this service to self-represented litigants soon. When all municipalities are successfully on-board, we will extend the service to civil litigants as recommended by the Ohio Supreme Court’s Improving Court Operations Using Remote Technology (iCOURT) Task Force on which I served.