Technology helps 'discovery' up to a point

By Heather Cobun
BridgeTower Media Newswires
 
BALTIMORE, MD — The ability to provide discovery electronically, either through a designated program or simply via email, represents a double-edged sword to public defenders. When the technology works, it’s a good way to facilitate speedy turnover of information. But technology in the Office of the Public Defender is not always up to the task of downloading large files, such as video footage.

Donald Zaremba, the district public defender for Baltimore County, said the lack of support staff to deal with e-discovery causes problems, but his office is working to upgrade its systems as much as possible for faster downloads.

“We’ve certainly gone to the legislature and laid out our requests and our needs,” he said. “We’re doing the best we can in the interim.”

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger said the district court sees approximately 25,000 criminal cases each year and there are occasional technical problems with e-discovery, but he is committed to making discovery work.

“I think it’s the way to move forward,” he said.

Montgomery County uses e-discovery in all district court cases and the majority of circuit court cases, according to State’s Attorney John McCarthy.

“I think the IT people are the smartest people in my entire office,” McCarthy said. “The IT people are absolutely critical in terms of providing discovery.”

But large quantities of documents and large files provided electronically, particularly in circuit court cases, tax the county’s public defender’s office, according to Samantha Sandler, the office’s circuit court supervisor.

“It’s been a little bit hard to get everything we need,” she said.

Hard copies of discovery can be made available upon request if e-discovery is not practical, McCarthy said, adding that is not a common request.

McCarthy said he welcomes questions or concerns about his office’s practices from defense attorneys. A district court study group formed in the county was prompted by a private attorney reaching out to the prosecutor’s office to raise issues about discovery.

William Davis, the district public defender for Anne Arundel County, said e-discovery there “seems to function OK” and prosecutors forward evidence through it when it’s available, for the most part.

Electronic discovery does not exist in Prince George’s County as a formal system, according to John Erzen, spokesman for the Prince George’s County State’s Attorney’s Office, but an email program that allows for sharing of large files is used by prosecutors and encouraged.

“We will always adjust and adapt with the technology and with everything else to make sure we are doing all we can to meet our discovery obligations,” he said.

Baltimore city also does not have e-discovery, according to spokeswoman Rochelle Richie, but evidence is shared electronically when possible.

Natalie Finegar, the deputy public defender in Baltimore, said electronic discovery in the city could streamline the process and cut down on delays.

“Prosecutors do get busy and they forget to do things,” she said. “You have to build a system that has little room for human error in it.”
 

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