Decreasing the paper shuffle in Montgomery County

Although many of Texas’s 254 counties have technologically savvy infrastructures, others have not yet implemented modern, digital operations. Some of these communities are small or remote and less “plugged-in,” while others are more populated but satisfied with or accustomed to their current system. But the permanence of the digital age and the Texas Supreme Court’s e-filing mandate are encouraging many counties to start the switch. The next e-filing deadline—for courts in counties with a population of 100,000 to 199,999—is Jan. 1, 2015.

Montgomery County is one such local government in transition. Encompassing the city of Conroe, about 45 miles north of Houston, and a majority of the Woodlands, Montgomery County has a population of approximately 485,000. In 2012, the county started its still-ongoing move away from paper, “homegrown” computer systems, and outdated software. Like many Texas counties, Montgomery had already been scanning and digitally storing all incoming documents, but until recently it had no way to electronically “move” those files to one location accessible by all departments.

“For the courts, the clerks, and the attorneys, we were using 20-year-old software that was non-Windows based, non-work flow oriented—not really designed to take advantage of efficiencies and productivities that you can attain with current methods,” said Marshall Shirley, IT director for Montgomery County. “We knew we needed to do a refresh on these systems.”

It has been an incremental process, starting with new laptop computers for sheriff patrol cars and followed by new software for courts, clerks, and prosecutors in 2013 and 2014. This summer, the sheriff’s office headquarters and patrol deputies started working toward acquiring new software, which will enable deputies to file crime reports from their cars and communicate with each other as well as constables and municipal police. By 2015, the county aims to have new software for the jail system and to complete the digitizing, mapping, and migrating of district and county criminal data—even though the Supreme Court has not yet mandated e-filing for criminal cases. (Montgomery County met its July 2014 e-filing deadline for civil cases several months early.)

Most departments within the county, including the courts, are now using Tyler Technology’s Odyssey Case Manager, while the district and county attorneys will soon be using the Odyssey Attorney Manager for Prosecutors and Public Defenders. The law enforcement offices, on the other hand, will use Spillman’s Computer-Aided Dispatch, Mobile Records, and Jail Management products. Montgomery County’s IT department will then integrate the Tyler and Spillman systems to enable cross department flow of data, ideally in real time.

Funded through the county’s budget of about $1.57 million each year, the new systems—which include all software, data migration, training, and professional services—have cost just under $6.5 million. But county employees say these efforts are increasing efficiencies and saving time—and will also save money in the long run.

According to Patrice McDonald, judge of Montgomery County Court at Law No. 3, before the transition, she and others in the court system dealt with paper “all the time”—like the paper case files that she would box up at the end of the day for evening homework and those paper dockets that waited for her in the morning. “I’m a family judge, and we have a very paper intensive caseload,” said McDonald. “We would have clerks and coordinators toting files back and forth all day long in, essentially, grocery carts.”

With the recent transition, McDonald’s judicial life has vastly improved. “It’s completely changed the way we work—all for the better in my opinion. And I’m an old judge, and we tend to come a bit more slowly to technology changes. I would say that my learning curve was probably 30 days or so, and now I can’t even remember doing it a different way. I think, too, that because the information is so easily accessible, we do better work. We have better access to data so our decision-making is better informed.”

While Montgomery County has long had the desire to be more digital, McDonald said that the Supreme Court’s e-filing directive helped quicken the pace. “I think the e-file mandate streamlined the process. It did push us along.” Now the courthouse even has a kiosk that attorneys can use to e-file their documents before leaving the building.

County Clerk Mark Turnbull pointed out that while Montgomery County is embracing the available technology, it took quite a bit of time to get everybody in different departments on board—and that the county didn’t blaze the paperless trail first. When the county began its foray into different software and companies, many of its employees loaded on a bus and drove north to Collin County, which has an approximate population of 821,000 and has implemented numerous digital improvements to keep up with its steadily increasing population, including electronic and automated records, the conversion of 10 million paper case files into digital images, digitized felony case files, and more.

For those counties that are just getting started or that are considering moving toward a decreased dependency on paper, Shirley said the key is putting together a group of stakeholders and ensuring everybody has “a common vision” of what needs to be achieved.

“We all talk about integrated justice, and realistically we all want some level of integration,” said Shirley. “But as you look across all the different stakeholders—from law enforcement to the DA to the clerks to the courts—they all have their own business processes that need their requirements to be met. And when you look at the big picture, there are typically some trade offs that have to be decided upon. That common goal—consensus building—is what helps you get through that.”

For more information about e-filing, stay tuned for the Texas Bar Journal’s November issue.

Vehicle used as deadly weapon in animal cruelty case; jury sentences defendant to five-year prison term

Fifteen months after being dragged behind an SUV and left on the roadside bloody and injured, the donkey named Susie Q has fully recovered. Her abuser, on the other hand, was just sentenced by a Montgomery County jury to five years in prison—one of the longest prison sentences ever given to a defendant in an animal cruelty case in Texas.

Prosecutor Rob Freyer argued that defendant Marc Richard Saunders, 30, of the southeastern Texas town of Splendora, used his vehicle as a deadly weapon against Susie Q. On Jan. 15, the jury agreed—elevating the crime to a third-degree felony and increasing the maximum possible prison time from two years to up to 10 years.

“In this case, since the deadly weapon definition does not limit death or injury to a person, there is no restriction by which it could not be used to enhance any criminal offense,” said Donald Feare, a civil litigator in Arlington and council member of the State Bar of Texas Animal Law Section. “By opening up a much greater range of punishment, that deterrence becomes even greater and sends a message that the people of the State of Texas are no longer looking at such [animal] cruelty as something less than an important crime to be stopped.”

Feare noted that he believes this is the first time a vehicle has been used as a deadly weapon in an animal cruelty case in Texas. Though uncommon in Texas, other objects have been ruled as deadly weapons in animal cruelty cases. Knives and box cutters were ruled as deadly weapons in the killing of several kittens and, in a separate case, a hammer was ruled as a deadly weapon against a cat. In August 2013, a judge found that fire was used as a deadly weapon against a dog; one of the abusers received five years in prison—possibly the only animal cruelty case other than the Saunders case to receive such a long sentence.

“This [deadly weapon] enhancement is a direct example of how seriously such cruelty will be treated,” said Feare. “It does not add to the elements of the crime, only the punishment. It has been so with assaults on humans and is now being applied to cruelty as well.”  

Saunders has not indicated if he will appeal. Law enforcement officials revealed to local media outlets that he tested positive for methamphetamines the day after the crime.