Corrections, Law Enforcement and Clerks of Courts officials hopped between different legislative panels earlier this month, explaining to lawmakers how two inmates were able to walk free using forged release orders and how that practice might be stopped from happening in the future. The state’s top law enforcement official, FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey, confirmed Joseph Jenkins and Charles walker manufactured their bogus release papers in prison and had an associate on the outside deliver the papers to a drop box outside the clerk’s office. Sarasota Clerk of Court Karen Rushing told lawmakers one way to ensure that doesn’t happen again is to take paper out of the equation.
“There has been discussion at the statewide level for judges to use the e-portal for their orders and it has the capacity to authenticate those judges,” Rushing said during one senate panel last week.
President of the Tallahassee Chapter of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Matt Willard has been using the state’s secure e-portal since the Florida Supreme Court mandated lawyers transition away from paper in 2010. Willard said in many ways the new system has made his job easier.
“We got a statewide case, we just got something from them you know, it comes to – when the prosecutor in that case files something, it goes to the clerk, it comes to my email,” Willard said while scrolling through his phone. “And I’m like ‘oh they just filed something’ and I can open it up from my Blackberry.”
The state’s highest court required the changes in order to curb court spending and streamline the judicial process. The changes also had the added benefit of increasing security by giving attorneys individual usernames and passwords based on their bar numbers, thus ensuring court officials always know where a motion originates. Right now the portal only includes attorneys’ motions, but the plan is to give judges a personal identification number similar to a lawyer’s bar number and expand the portal to include court orders, cutting the potential for third party fraud. But, Miami Republican State Senator Anitere Flores questioned how secure the system could really be.
“You know ‘cause I mean this process up until now was incredibly secure and someone’s going to fall through the cracks.” Flores said during last week’s meeting of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice. “You know, our mutual goal here is what do we do to make secure a hundred percent secure?”
The e-filing process has three levels of verification. First, an attorney submits a motion to the system and the Clerk’s office receives it. Then the Clerk sends a confirmation back to the attorney before accepting the lawyer’s motion. Tallahassee lawyer Matt Willard believes adding court orders to the portal will make filing releases more secure. But as a defense lawyer he also knows the lengths some inmates will go to in order to secure their freedom.
“There’s some pretty darn intelligent criminals out there that know how to do stuff with computers and technology that I don’t even comprehend. There’s always a way to get into something if you’re really committed to it. Don’t think this thing can’t be hacked, I mean I don’t believe that for a second,” Willard said.
Not all Florida counties have moved their filings online. Per Supreme Court mandate, those remaining counties have until February to complete the transition. If judges are going to be added to the e-portal system, it won’t be until after the February deadline. In the meantime, corrections officials say they’ll verify release orders by picking up the phone and calling judges.