People in law enforcement are not, unfortunately, perfect. For evidence, see any newspaper in the United States for stories about wrongful arrests or alleged mistreatment by law enforcement officials. Some people, alerted by these serious problems, have turned to technology for a solution. Could sophisticated software programs implemented by courts prevent “wrongful arrests”? According to Public Defender’s Office in Alameda County, California, the answer is a resounding “no.” In fact, the software has made the problem worse. First, what is a “wrongful arrest”? Americans are protected from wrongful arrest by the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The Fourth Amendment states that “No Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation,” and the Fourteenth Amendment states that “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” As such, an arrest is deemed wrongful when a person is detained and/or wrongfully convicted without proper legal authority.[1]

So, what are Public Defender Brendon Woods and his colleagues in Alameda County claiming? In November, Woods filed a motion in Alameda County alleging that the new courthouse computer system, Tyler Technologies’ Odyssey Case Manager, is so unwieldy that it led to the wrongful arrests of dozens of individuals due to the system’s failure to be quickly and accurately updated.[2] Since mid-November, the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office has also filed an identical motion in hundreds of criminal cases, demanding that the court keep accurate records or abandon the Odyssey system entirely.[3] [4] Echoing these concerns, Debbi Pearson, a local representative of the Service Employees International Union, believes that many glitches have been caused by a cumbersome user interface, and a process that might have taken two mouse clicks to complete under the prior system now could take 25 clicks under the new system.[5] As a result, according to the Public Defender’s Office, information is not updated quickly and a backlog of 12,000 files that have not been uploaded is growing by up to 300 files per day--and when relied upon by law enforcement as being up-to-date, these significant delays lead to wrongful and unwarranted arrests.[6]

These court computer system issues are not just in Alameda County—they are quickly spreading at an alarming rate.  In addition to Alameda County, 25 other California court systems in 58 counties use the Odyssey Case Manager software, as well as other courts outside of California.[7] Like the ones filed in Alameda County, scattered lawsuits concerning the Odyssey system have been popping up across the country alleging that information is not being entered into the system quickly enough leading to wrongful arrests and unwarranted, additional jail time for some individuals.[8] Several lawyers in other states have reported problems nearly identical to Alameda County's and have initiated formal legal proceedings.[9] Recently, an activist group in Shelby County, Tennessee filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging similar software problems resulting in false arrest.[10]  According to the Memphis Daily News, in late November, the Shelby County Commissioners discussed the possibility of suing Tyler Technologies.[11] As an earlier example of issues with court system glitches, in an ongoing class action lawsuit which was filed almost two years ago, inmates in Marion County, Indiana sued the county sheriff for a related issue—being incarcerated longer than legally authorized.[12]

This begs the question of what would happen if a wrongful arrest caused by court software leads to the discovery of, e.g., drugs or other incriminating evidence, a.k.a. the ‘fruits of the poisonous tree”?[13]  In other words, “[h]ow do individual criminal defendants identify and challenge the ‘fruits of computerized error’?” asks U.C. Davis Law Professor Elizabeth Joh. Quoting the opinion in the 1994 case by then-Justice David H. Souter, Professor Joh wrote, “[t]he answer is that we don’t have a very good answer. At some point in the future, the Supreme Court may decide to apply the exclusionary rule in a case where systemic software errors violate Fourth Amendment rights.” [14]

Needless to say, a large and growing part of the population, not just inmates and arrestees, are taking notice and demanding immediate corrective action. The flood of legal and constitutional challenges arising from the integration and evolution of technology in our nation’s courthouses is only just beginning.

By Keobopha Keopong, Esq., Barnes Law

Keo Keopong is an associate attorney with Barnes Law, licensed to practice law in California.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

[1] Examples of wrongful arrests include: arrest of the wrong person, arrest of a person without probable cause that person has committed a crime, arrest without law enforcement’s mention of Miranda Rights, arrest without just cause, arrest with an arrest warrant that was obtained with false information given to the court by a law enforcement officer, or when a retail employee or owner holds a customer against his/her will because the employee/owner believe that customer committed a crime in the store such as shoplifting.







[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] The “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine is an extension of the exclusionary rule established in Silverthorne Lumber Co. v. United States, 251 U.S. 385 (1920), which holds that evidence gathered with the assistance of illegally-obtained information must be excluded from trial;

[14]  In an article for Slate, she notes a 1994 U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed prosecutors to rely on evidence seized in an arrest based on an invalid warrant because the police had made the arrest in good faith. However, that decision was based on an isolated error, and some justices suggested the result could be different if a record-keeping system caused routine false arrests.