Crowing about its “cutting-edge technology,” the county District Attorney’s Office has made at least 4 million paper documents available to lawyers electronically for the legal step called discovery.

They simply scanned them.

“In the … olden days, we used to [photo]copy [police reports and other documents],” Deputy DA Brent Neck says in a video posted March 5. “We would send it to various locations in the county. It was very inefficient. And [District Attorney] Bonnie Dumanis thought there had to be a better way.”

Legal technology expert Jeff Bennion of San Diego hailed the move as a “huge step in the right direction.” But he faulted the DA for labeling the resource “eDiscovery,” which he called a liberal use of the word.

Deputy District Attorney Brent Neck describes eDiscovery system in video. Image via DANewsCenter.com

“Traditional e-discovery involves the collection of data from electronic sources, the review and production in an electronic format,” said Bennion, 35, a civil litigation attorney and technology columnist. “It seems like what they are doing here is more ‘paperless’ than ‘e-discovery.’”

(Discovery records aren’t public — but must be made available to opposing attorneys to assure legal fairness.)

At the same time, Dumanis is rolling out a website devoted to highlighting her office’s work — replacing another site and sidestepping San Diego County’s existing County News Center.

Called DANewsCenter.com, the site, registered in late October, is replacing what a spokeswoman called “the old, outdated and very user-unfriendly page on the DA’s public website.”

Tanya Sierra, the DA spokeswoman, told Times of San Diego that County News Center does a great job covering county departments. 

“Occasionally they’ll do a public safety/DA-related story,” Sierra said Tuesday. “DANewsCenter.com focuses on the DA’s Office, telling the stories that the county — and San Diego media — may not have the time, resources or inclination to cover — but that we feel the public should be aware of. It’s an effort to increase transparency and tell our stories directly to the people we work for.”

Answering the critique that the eDiscovery system is merely about “going green,” Sierra said, “We are beginning preliminary planning to work on allowing police agencies to submit their reports in electronic form,” which she called ePolice Reports. “Also, some agencies already submit reports on disc on various cases, and our eDiscovery system can import these documents.”

Bennion, a USD Law School graduate who also serves on a state Bar technology committee, said he’s confident the new resource is secure from hacking, saying: “It’s just like how banks and credit-card companies have information online. Hospitals and other health care organizations have strict compliance laws for security protocols for anything stored online. I’m sure this database would be the same.”

Legal technology expert Jeff Bennion. Image from jeffbennionlaw.com

Spokeswoman Sierra said: “Working with the DA’s IT Department, we feel comfortable with the level of security.”

The DA NewsCenter, using open-source Drupal software (the same employed by WhiteHouse.gov), also is considered solid (despite recent hacking reports).

“We are using the latest version of Drupal and, working with our IT staff, we are comfortable with the security [it] provides,” she said.

Using the DMV as an example, Bennion noted the efficiency of the county’s new system.

“Imagine every person in line at the DMV has thousands of pieces of paper that need to be reviewed and sent to various places by DMV employees,” he said. “It would be an unbelievably inefficient way to serve the public. That’s what the DA’s office is like. Paper means storage warehouses for archives, copy charges, shipping charges, and wasted employee time doing all of this.”

He recalled working on a homicide case.

“We had to send several thousand pages to one of our experts,” he said. “We had to drive 20 minutes to the authorized copy vendor’s office to drop off the documents to be copied, then come back the next day to pick them up, then pay about $100 to ship the records.”

He rued the “expensive and time-consuming process.”

“Now it can be done in seconds for free,” Bennion said. “This is going to free up a lot of resources. I remember when I used to work in the records department of the El Cajon Police Department 11 years ago. We had a staff of four people who spent a large portion of their day dealing with the processing of document requests. In retrospect, that is just so inefficient.”

He’s not aware of such systems being hacked, and “I would be surprised if they would be, though. It’s not a very high-value target. Someone would spend a lot of trouble just to get thousands of pages of phone logs to or from someone’s business. It’s not like hacking Sony or a bank.”

Any downsides to the county’s system?

The biggest problem is what he calls “upfront charges” and training necessary to carry out the new protocols.

“Then you have old-school attorneys who are not used to using computers,” he said via email last week. “They might not know what to do with an ftp username and login. So it’s going to require a little catching up … for staff and attorneys.”

Sierra said the DA’s Office had “a well-planned process that involved lots of training,” benefiting from staff who helped design eDiscovery, “so once we trained them, they already knew about it.” She said a staged roll-out took place, starting downtown (unit by unit), then to branches (one at a time).

“We improved the eDiscovery process on each rollout,” Sierra said. “We replicated the hard-paper process in our eDiscovery process (so staff did not have a big learning curve). We simply gave staff the tools to do electronically what for decades we did by hand and foot.”

The website roll-out also reflects a trial-and-error approach.

Being mothballed is sddanewscenter.net, another domain registered for the DA NewsCenter.

And why use a “.com” domain instead of the traditional “.gov” for government websites?

Sierra said .com is easier for the public to remember, “so we went with that, just as county communications chose CountyNewsCenter.com.”

The price is right, at least.

“No additional personnel or resources were required to stand up the page,” she said, noting the money comes out of the DA’s general budget. “It cost $9.95 each to register three domain names, DANewsCenter.com, .net and .org. Annual renewal is running somewhere between $12 and $17, depending on the domain.”

And how much money might eDiscovery save? 
“It’s hard to put a number on it,” Sierra said. “We know it saves a lot of man/woman hours on our DA end and on the defense end. The entire criminal justice system in San Diego County is more efficient because of our eDiscovery project.”