Defendants, Parents And Media Can Get Text Notifications For Florida Criminal Court Hearings

Feb 14, 2020
Originally published on February 14, 2020 10:48 am

A new tool has been rolled out across Florida’s entire court system that for the first time offers text and email alerts to people who want to track local criminal court cases.

Prime beneficiaries could include people who want to get alerts for their own cases, but it goes well beyond that. Worried parents who want to make sure their children show up to court can track those cases through text alerts. Social workers, crime victims, journalists and watchdogs who want to know when specific criminal court hearings are happening will be able to track unlimited cases through the new tool, called E-Notify.

A pilot program for the new technology was tested in Orange, Okaloosa and Nassau counties starting in late 2019. As of the beginning of February, the tool is now available for all of Florida’s 67 counties.

“I’m loving it. I am truly, truly loving it, because I would like to get notified by text message if I had to come to court,” said Broward County Clerk of Court Brenda Forman, whose office just started using the tool. “There’s times in our busy schedules — we forget.”

The previous system only alerted people of upcoming court hearings through snail mail. That method has long been flawed, Forman said.

“If we don’t have that new address, if it goes to the old address, they may not get that information and they will miss their court date,” she said. 

This can lead people to miss key court dates, often resulting in warrants for their arrest.

The statewide court system has not previously collected data on the number of “failures to appear” at court hearings. Several clerks offices told WLRN that they do not specifically track “failures to appear,” while acknowledging that it is a persistent problem, especially with people who frequently change addresses. 

But language in the 2019-20 budget, signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, directs the state court system to track “key metrics” like any decrease in no-show court hearings “in order to assess the performance of the project.” The overall hope is that in the long run this can save postage costs, prevent people from being issued bench warrants, and through that, help the courts system run more efficiently.

The creation of a statewide notification system was first directed by the Florida Legislature in the 2018-19 budget, signed by then-Gov. Rick Scott.

On the back end, nothing has changed for the clerks offices when working with E-Notify. Every county has long sent the relevant data to the statewide court system, but now it has been integrated into a single statewide tool.

“It’s something that all the clerks have been wanting for many years. But the challenge was: You would end up with 67 different solutions in place,” said Ernie Nardo, the director of information technology for the Broward County Clerk of Courts. “The fact that the state took the initiative to put this in place and make it a whole statewide system makes a lot of sense.”

E-Notify only tracks criminal cases now, but an ultimate goal is to eventually let users track civil cases, as well, Office of the State Courts Administrator spokesman Paul Flemming told WLRN. The system is still being refined, he said. Coming updates could include things like adding information about consequences of not showing up to a court date in the alerts, and making it easier to track cases by defendant and not only case numbers.

“Anyone can use this service. We think members of the public with an interest in cases will find it valuable to make sure they don’t miss any hearings,” First Judicial Circuit Judge Linda L. Nobles said in a statement. Nobles was part of a statewide workgroup that developed the program. “Others, including members of the media, now have a convenient resource as well,” she said.

E-Notify was developed by Jacksonville-based company SGS Technologie with a $596,520.00 contract, according to state records.

The cost to taxpayers is less than a cent per text message, and 10 cents per email message once the system exceeds 25,000 monthly message allowance, per the contract.

The impact of the initial pilot program was modest in the participating counties.

“We started out with really a big push from the marketing perspective,” said Orange County County Clerk Tiffany Russell, whose office participated in the pilot program. “We've been trying to loop in judges, attorneys, the corrections department and other people to help get the word out that this is an option now.”

The pilot program in Orange County started in mid-December. By this week, the office only had 37 registered users, according to the clerk of courts office. One hundred forty text and email alerts had been sent to those users for the cases they were tracking.

“People don’t really check their mail a lot of times,” Russell said. “Everyone has their phones, and that’s the most popular way to keep up with information. We expect that as we keep moving forward with this more people will start opting into the system.”

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