Wrongful Arrest by Software

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Other Writing
Publication Date: 
December 13, 2016

Managing information is central to the criminal justice system, and so it’s inevitable that mistakes happen. Names get confused, files lost. When these errors occur, the police can mistakenly arrest or detain people with no legal cause. But what happens when software is responsible for a wrongful arrest or detention?

On Aug. 1, 2016, Alameda County, California, replaced its ’70s-era case management system with new software, Tyler Technologies’ Odyssey Case Manager. This wasn’t a radical decision: Most counties around the country use some kind of software to process information about the people in their courts. When a judge issues or recalls an arrest warrant, when a defendant posts bail—all of this is data that the courts and the police rely upon to make decisions about whom to detain, arrest, or release.

But since the software was rolled out in this Northern California county, the public defender’s office has learned of dozens of cases in which people have been wrongfully arrested, detained in jail when they should have been released, or erroneously told to register as sex offenders. For example, in September four police officers showed up at the home of a 24-year-old man in Fremont to arrest him. An arrest warrant had previously been issued for his failure to appear in court on a drug possession charge but it had been dismissed. Yet the warrant mistakenly remained active in the court’s new Odyssey system, so the man was arrested. There have been so many reported errors—on a “semi-daily basis,” according to the East Bay Times—that the Office of the Alameda County Public Defender has filed hundreds of identical motions asking the court to keep accurate records. Similar problems have been reported in some of the 25 other California counties with Odyssey contracts, prompting the creation of a “California Tyler User Group” for court staff. Alameda County itself has decided not to use Odyssey for its family, probate, or civil matters.

No one seems to yet understand the source of the errors behind Odyssey’s case management software. For the moment, many of the mistakes appear to result from a user interface for court employees that is far more complicated than the previous system. The software manufacturer, Tyler Technologies, has had little comment. Yet this 2016 problem reflects concerns by the Supreme Court from more than 20 years ago.

Read the full piece at Slate