The changing nature of evidence and records management by law enforcement requires state and local court systems to follow suit and modernize their business operations
Digital records and evidence are becoming a universal part of modern court proceedings, spurred by both law enforcement’s body and vehicle-mounted cameras and the fact that more than 85% of U.S. adults have smartphones.
The City of Pasadena (California) Police Department issued body cameras to officers beginning in 2016, generating an average of two hours of recorded video per shift. This has culminated in more than one million pieces of digital evidence in the ensuing five years. All digital records must be securely maintained (organized, tagged, and tracked) — even if that evidence isn’t yet related to a case. Indeed, today’s digital artifacts can be tomorrow’s digital evidence.
Beyond digital artifacts captured directly by law enforcement agencies, modernized data systems streamline the processing of external and user-submitted digital records, such as social media histories, cell phone records, and CCTV video footage. The size, complexity, and sheer abundance of digital records have pushed more law enforcement agencies to move away from on-premises servers to more contemporary storage solutions.
Law enforcement shifts push the judiciary’s hand
A 2022 analysis of 100-plus state and local law enforcement agencies indicated that more than half are already using cloud-based digital evidence management systems or plan to implement those solutions within the next three years. Medium-sized agencies (those with between 101 to 500 full-time sworn officers) were the most likely to execute this move.
This shift is pushing the judiciary’s hand to follow suit. The 2023 State of the Courts Report indicated that three-quarters of court systems surveyed said they were not using a digital evidence management system, and the majority indicated that physical evidence is still kept onsite — contributing to storage space shortages for about two-thirds of respondents.
Further, a lack of technology in place for digital evidence viewing in hearings contributed to delays, which then have a domino effect on court dockets — particularly at the state court level. Despite this, most court modernization efforts are centered around e-filing, facilitating remote hearings, and increasing the use of conferencing software — with 40% of survey respondents indicating that they had no plans to implement digital evidence systems in the future.
Despite this reluctance, digital evidence systems can be crucial to streamlining record sharing between law enforcement and judiciary systems, without reliance on dated technology like email, USB drives, and CDs or DVDs.
Digital evidence integrity and greater public transparency
Digital evidence management systems also protect evidence integrity and increase transparency across the criminal justice and judiciary systems. An audit of the Dallas Police Department in 2022 uncovered more than 90,000 uncategorized digital records. Such uncategorized records are at risk for automatic deletion or can be difficult to find later. Records mismanagement directly impacts access to justice — in fact, 18 digital records which were permanently deleted directly impacted a Dallas metro murder case this past winter.
More importantly, a major time and resource expense for law enforcement agencies relates to digital record redaction and fulfilling open record requests. Now, however, digital management systems are beginning to utilize artificial intelligence (AI) to redact personally identifiable data and blur images of minors, which allows for a lower cost and more timely response to record requests.
Finally, digital management systems can better protect evidence integrity and court admissibility of evidence by facilitating automatic file uploads from body and vehicle cameras, limiting access to digital artifacts by role or permission level, maintaining a chain of custody, and eliminating the ability to delete or redact videos with ill intent. Systems are not without issues, of course — a phased rollout of digital case and evidentiary management software for the North Carolina Administrative Office of Courts (AOC) raised some concerns about judiciary access to evidentiary files prior to hearings. North Carolina AOC staff said they feel that the initial glitches are to be expected, and the positive benefits a modernized system offers will outweigh these setbacks.
Court modernization improves access to justice
The COVID-19 pandemic forced judiciary systems to digitize rapidly. Court systems like the State of Arizona’s which quickly implemented new digital practices have had both compelling and positive results, and the state has been highlighted nationally as a success for its quick shift to remote hearings and digital evidence management. A statewide taskforce’s 2022 report on court modernization recommended shifting 49% of hearing types to allow for remote appearances.
The report also recognizes that the digital divide may impact participation and pose accessibility issues in under-resourced areas and encourages the direction of state resources for both technology and training in those locations. Arizona saw a drop to a low of 13% in failure-to-appear rates, from 40%, in initial eviction hearings when remote appearances were allowed. Municipal and county entities nationally mirror the higher failure to appear rate for in-person-only hearings, making this the primary cause of delays within court systems.
Overall, successful implementation of a modernized court system can greatly impact access to justice. In addition to impacting failure-to-appear rates, modernization can also reduce travel time, costs, and lost time from work for attorneys, judiciary staff, witnesses, and defendants.
And while there is still room to improve virtual court proceedings — including better accommodation of special user audio and visual needs, ensuring that all participants can observe evidence digitally, allowing for private communication between litigants with their counsel, and ensuring that the human factor in hearings is not lost — progress is being made.
Nationally, the modernization of court systems speaks to a need for judiciary staff and justices that should be continually trained in emerging technology. For example, Arizona leads nationally in this regard with the highest standard for continuing education; and for the past eight years, state judges have been required to spend some of their 16 annual continuing education hours on computer and network security trainings.