Ohio Keeps Tabs of Court Service Online

By Ron Miller  |  Posted 2006-07-10

Ohio Keeps Tabs of Court Service Online

Debbie Comery, Chief Deputy Clerk at Rocky River Municipal Court in Rocky River, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb, said she considers herself and her court to be forward thinkers when it comes to using technology to improve efficiency at the court. So when her Pitney Bowes sales representative approached her about participating in a new United States Postal Service program to make return receipts electronic, she said she jumped at the chance.

"We have somewhat of a reputation for being avant-garde, technologywise," Comery said. "When the discussion came up with one of the Pitney Bowes sales reps regarding the possibility of participating in the [e-Return Receipt] pilot program, we were very excited about it because we enjoy trying new technology and using it to our advantage for time savings, or to find better ways, in our opinion, to [maintain] records."

And keeping good records, according to Comery, is the purpose of her office at the court-house.

Rocky River Municipal Court is a first-level court system, Comery explained, meaning that the court handles hearings on such issues as traffic tickets up to misdemeanors. The clerks office is responsible for maintaining the court records, and part of that job includes sending out notices to individuals that a complaint has been filed against them and they have been summoned to appear in court.

By law, these notices must be sent by certified U.S. mail with return receipt requested, which involves the recipient signing the Postal Services green return receipt card—legal proof that the defendant in a case has received the notice of a hearing. Prior to implementing the e-Return Receipt system, Comery said that when a Postal Service return receipt card came back to the courthouse, it was manually filed with the appropriate case. Each week, Rocky River sends out approximately 175 notices requiring a return receipt.

"When you file a complaint, especially civil or small claims, that complaint needs to be served upon the defendant," Comery said. "Thereby, there needs to be proof of service. You can do personal service and have a bailiff hand it to the individual. The other type used here for some criminal complaints and all of our civil complaints is the certified return receipt requested."

Comery said that once that return receipt is signed and returned, the court views that complaint as having been duly served, and the case can go forward in the judicial process.

When Pitney Bowes approached Comery about moving to an electronic return receipt system in the fall of 2004, she said she was not having any real problems with the existing mail system, over and above any normal mail glitches.

The U.S. Postal Service is supposedly mulling over plans to deliver letters and packages based on an e-mail address. Click here to read more.

"We didnt have a problem that initiated this. Certainly the prior paper certified green card process was as functional as one could hope, given what it is, and there are pieces of mail that get lost in the mail," Comery said.

But what caught her attention was when Pitney Bowes sales representative Bud Hosey described a new product that Pitney Bowes had created—in conjunction with the USPS e-Return Receipt system—that would move the process online and save users money. Comery said she wanted to hear more.

According to Jeffrey Platt, director of marketing at Pitney Bowes, Pitney Bowes began working with the USPS shortly after they introduced the electronic return receipt product in September 2004.

The two worked together to create a product line of electronic postage meters that would facilitate the electronic return receipt system.

Under the old system, Comery said that a court clerk entered case information into the CourtView case management system from Maximus, of North Canton, Ohio (which provides a way to track case information). This included a case number, recipient address and any other pertinent information about the plaintiff and the defendant.

This information was then printed on special certified mailer envelopes using one of several dot-matrix printers. The mailers cost approximately $1 each. The green return receipt card and postage were applied manually.

When a card was returned in the mail to the court, it was filed by hand in a paper case file, and a note was made in the case management system. Each return receipt card cost $1.85, and there was no way to track the whereabouts of a card until it was actually returned to the court.

Next Page: Taking postage online.

Taking postage online

With the new system, Comery said the clerk begins by accessing Pitney Bowes Label Number Software on his or her PC and then copies the case number from the case management software and enters the ZIP code where the letter is going. The clerk then uses the Pitney Bowes LPS-1 PC Label Printer to print a bar-code label encoded with this information and applies it along with a certified mail sticker (which come in packets from the USPS) to a regular business envelope (saving approximately 95 cents per envelope). Finally, the clerk walks this envelope across the room to the Pitney Bowes DM5550 Series Mailing System, scans both bar codes and then mails the envelope in the normal fashion.

Recent figures show a continuing steep decline for U.S. Postal Service first-class mail, thanks to increased e-mail usage and e-commerce.Click here to read more.

According to Platt, the bar-code information is transmitted via a modem attached to the Mailing System workstation using Pitney Bowes IntelliLink technology.

"PB then uploads the information to USPS nightly," Platt said. "The USPS provides files back to PB four times per day with delivery information on any Delivery Confirmation, Signature Confirmation, Certified Mail and e-Return Receipt transactions which have been electronically processed through a DM series mailing system."

Platt said that when defendants receive the certified letter from the court, they sign a form provided by the carrier. He said this form is then scanned by the post office, after which the paper form is destroyed. It is this scanned version that the court eventually receives in a PDF file.

Rocky Road court personnel can then view updates using the My Account feature at pb.com with the latest delivery status information.

"If the customer wants up-to-the-minute information, then they can click on the tracking number on My Account and PB will make an API call to USPS to get any updates since the last file was sent from the USPS," Platt said.

If court personnel need to track this information, Comery said they can sign onto the PB Web site. In fact, one person is responsible for checking the progress of outstanding return receipts twice a week. When the signature is received, the clerk enters the signature date in the appropriate file in the case management software, and, once a week, the court downloads tracking information into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.

Every Monday, a court clerk downloads signature files (the equivalent of the old green card) onto the courts system. If Comery needs to view a signature, she can access the case management system and locate the case number and the date the summons was delivered. Then, using this information, she can search the PDF files for the signature.

The court has a daily, weekly and monthly backup system to ensure that electronic information wont be lost, and court personnel keep copies of the backups off-site, Comery said.

Also, Pitney Bowes maintains a duplicate set of records for additional backup. Those records are kept for seven years, the time period mandated by courts for documents related to a case.

Pitney Bowes began working with the USPS shortly after the USPS introduced e-Return Receipt in September, 2004, Platt said. The two worked together to create a product line of electronic postage meters that would facilitate the e-Return Receipt system.

The postal service didnt have any products to allow businesses to take advantage of the new electronic system. Comery said that the electronic system devised by Pitney Bowes and the USPS is not only more efficient but that, at $1.35 each, the electronic system saves the court 50 cents per transaction.

One additional challenge: getting the Supreme Court of Ohio to approve this as a legal method of service. And Comery said that even with approval by the state Supreme Court, individual district courts were free to use e-Return Receipt or not.

In the near future, Comery said the court hopes to integrate the Pitney Bowes system with their CourtView case management system so that there is no need to copy case numbers or maintain separate PDF signature files. The court is already working with Maximus and Pitney Bowes to make this happen.

For now, the court will continue to do some work manually, with the ultimate goal, according to Mike Bracken, the courts system administrator, to have seamless integration across the two systems.

Ron Miller is a freelance writer based in Amherst, Mass. He can be reached at ronsmiller@ronsmiller.com.

Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, views and analysis of technologys impact on government and politics.

Rocket Fuel