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Two years in the making, Hidalgo County first in Texas to allow e-filing of criminal cases under law passed by Rep. Canales and Sen. Hinojosa

Featured: First row, from left: Martin V. “Marty” Baylor, Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration, The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley; Rep. R.D. “Bobby” Guerra, D-McAllen; Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg; former Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, Vice President for Government and Community Relations, The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley; Elva Jackson Garza, Vice President and Marketing & Business Development Manager, Edwards Abstract & Title Company; Lucy G. Canales, Partner, Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson LLP; Rep. Sergio Muñoz, Jr., D-Mission; Alex Ríos, District Director, Rep. Terry Canales; and Robert McGurk, Senior Vice President, Elsa State Bank & Trust Company. Back row, from left: Edinburg Fire Chief Shawn Snider; Jacob De León, Funeral Director, Memorial Funeral Home; Edinburg City Councilmember David Torres; and Michael Williamson, Market President, PlainsCapital Bank. This portrait was taken at the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce’s Public Affairs Legislative Luncheon held on Thursday, August 27, 2015 at the ECHO Hotel and Conference Center.
Photograph By RONNIE LARRALDE

Chalk up Hidalgo County as the first region in Texas that allows attorneys in all criminal cases to file pleadings and documents electronically – known as e-filing ­– as a result of a state law passed two years ago by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, which will continue to bring the state’s court system into the paperless generation. Effective Tuesday, September 1, the eyes of the state judicial system began looking at the use of e-filing in criminal cases in Hidalgo County, as the rest of the Texas prepares to follow Hidalgo County’s lead beginning on November 1 in implementing a new system designed to improve justice for all. Canales is confident that his measure – House Bill 349, which was sponsored by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, two years ago – will be a resounding success. HB 349 is designed to improve the delivery of justice in Hidalgo County, reduce costs to county taxpayers, attorneys and litigants, and take advantage of the latest technological advances in the state’s legal system, the House District 40 lawmaker contends. “Courts have long been burdened with processing paper, a problem that continues to grow exponentially and largely unabated,” said Canales. “After more than 167 years of processing traditional filing, Texas Court Clerks are awash in the state’s judicial paper trail. Electronic filing offers a means to stem the paper tide.” Hinojosa, citing data provided by the Office of the Hidalgo County District Clerk, reported that in 2014, there were 5,170 criminal cases filed, in addition to 19,341 civil and family cases. “One of the key advantages of the e-filing system, both in civil and criminal cases, is it allows attorneys more time during the day to submit their motions, rather than face a 5 p.m. deadline,” the state senator explained. “The statewide e-filing portal (efiletexas.gov) allows filers to file documents until midnight during regular business days in both civil and criminal cases. As a result, attorneys have more flexibility and are no longer rushed to file documents at the courthouse before closing hour at 5 p.m.” There would be no cost to the county government to use the e-filing system for civil or criminal cases, and there would be no cost to litigants who are too poor to pay for the service, Canales added. Later this fall, Hidalgo County District Clerk Laura Hinojosa (no relation to Sen. Hinojosa) will organize a question-and-answer session for the area’s attorneys to help them better understand the e-filing system for criminal cases. The details of that event will soon be announced by District Clerk Hinojosa. Also under the new state law, Hidalgo County can still allow traditional paper filing as well. Canales predicts that the future is at hand. ‘The era of big paper is over,” Canales said. According to dictionary.law.com, a motion is a formal request made to a judge for an order or judgment. Motions are made in court all the time for many purposes: to continue (postpone) a trial to a later date, to get a modification of an order, for temporary child support, for a judgment, for dismissal of the opposing party’s case, for a rehearing, for sanctions (payment of the moving party’s costs or attorney’s fees), or for dozens of other purposes. Most motions require a written petition, a written brief of legal reasons for granting the motion (often called “points and authorities”), written notice to the attorney for the opposing party and a hearing before a judge. However, during a trial or a hearing, an oral motion may be permitted

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Two years in the making, Hidalgo County first in Texas to allow e-filing of criminal cases under law passed by Rep. Canales and Sen. Hinojosa

By DAVID A. DÍAZ
Legislativemedia@aol.com

Chalk up Hidalgo County as the first region in Texas that allows attorneys in all criminal cases to file pleadings and documents electronically – known as e-filing ­– as a result of a state law passed two years ago by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, which will continue to bring the state’s court system into the paperless generation.

Effective Tuesday, September 1, the eyes of the state judicial system began looking at the use of e-filing in criminal cases in Hidalgo County, as the rest of the Texas prepares to follow Hidalgo County’s lead, beginning on November 1, in implementing a new system designed to improve justice for all.

Canales is confident that his measure – House Bill 349, which was sponsored by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, two years ago – will be a resounding success.

HB 349 is designed to improve the delivery of justice in Hidalgo County, reduce costs to county taxpayers, attorneys and litigants, and take advantage of the latest technological advances in the state’s legal system, the House District 40 lawmaker contends.

“Courts have long been burdened with processing paper, a problem that continues to grow exponentially and largely unabated,” said Canales. “After more than 167 years of processing traditional filing, Texas Court Clerks are awash in the state’s judicial paper trail. Electronic filing offers a means to stem the paper tide.”

Hinojosa, citing data provided by the Office of the Hidalgo County District Clerk, reported that in 2014, there were 5,170 criminal cases filed, in addition to 19,341 civil and family cases.

“One of the key advantages of the e-filing system, both in civil and criminal cases, is it allows attorneys more time during the day to submit their motions, rather than face a 5 p.m. deadline,” the state senator explained. “The statewide e-filing portal (efiletexas.gov) allows filers to file documents until midnight during regular business days in both civil and criminal cases. As a result, attorneys have more flexibility and are no longer rushed to file documents at the courthouse before closing hour at 5 p.m.”

Later this fall, Hidalgo County District Clerk Laura Hinojosa (no relation to Sen. Hinojosa) will organize a question-and-answer session for the area’s attorneys to help them better understand the e-filing system for criminal cases. The details of that event will soon be announced by District Clerk Hinojosa.

There would be no cost to the county government to use the e-filing system for civil or criminal cases, and there would be no cost to litigants who are too poor to pay for the service, Canales added.

Also under the new law, Hidalgo County can still allow traditional paper filing as well.

According to dictionary.law.com, a motion is a formal request made to a judge for an order or judgment. Motions are made in court all the time for many purposes: to continue (postpone) a trial to a later date, to get a modification of an order, for temporary child support, for a judgment, for dismissal of the opposing party’s case, for a rehearing, for sanctions (payment of the moving party’s costs or attorney’s fees), or for dozens of other purposes. Most motions require a written petition, a written brief of legal reasons for granting the motion (often called “points and authorities”), written notice to the attorney for the opposing party and a hearing before a judge. However, during a trial or a hearing, an oral motion may be permitted.

REP. CANALES: “THE ERA OF BIG PAPER IS OVER”

Among the advantages of allow e-filing of criminal cases are the following key points, according to Texas Lawyer, a professional publication that closely reports on the legal profession in the state.

That newspaper outlined several of the key benefits of e-filing in a feature story published in January 2014:

• Quicker access to e-filed documents;
• Increased efficiency for attorneys and litigants;
• Reduced printing and mailing costs;
• Reduced storage costs for clerk;
• Greater security of court documents in the event of disaster;
• More efficient use of court staff; and
• Increased transparency and access to the courts.

Canales noted a passage from then-Texas Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson’s “State of the Judiciary Speech” delivered on March 6, 2013, in which that Republican leader impressed the need to move to electronic filing.

“Our courts operate much like they did in 1891 with paper, stamps on paper, cabinets for paper, staples, storage, shredding of paper,” Canales quoted Jefferson.

Canales agreed with Jefferson’s concerns that “one of the more intractable barriers to justice is antiquity.”

During his speech before state lawmakers two years ago, Jefferson also noted “with e-filing, document storage expenses for court clerks decrease. Staff that formerly spent time sorting and file-stamping paper can be assigned to higher-skilled tasks. Important court documents are less likely to be damaged or lost. Attorneys can file their pleadings across the state without the need to master various filing systems. And litigants can more quickly access documents online.”

Canales predicts the future is at hand.

“As Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson said, ‘The era of big paper is over,” Canales said

NEW LAW SUPPORTED BY HIDALGO COUNTY LEADERS

The Canales/Hinojosa measure, when it was making its way through the legislative process in 2013, was endorsed by Hidalgo County Judge Ramón García, Hidalgo County Clerk Arturo Guajardo, Jr., and Hidalgo County District Clerk Laura Hinojosa.

Laura Hinojosa, daughter of U.S. Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, testified in 2013 before the House panel in support of House Bill 349, which was eventually signed into law by then-Gov. Rick Perry on June 14, 2013, and went into effect on September 1, 2015.

Laura Hinojosa has developed expertise in e-filing for the courts system as a member of the Texas Judicial Council, which studies methods to simplify judicial procedures, expedite court business, and better administer justice.

She noted that the Texas Supreme Court has already ordered the full implementation of electronic filing for all civil cases in Hidalgo County by January 2014, so the infrastructure is already being set up to allow for e-filing for all criminal cases.

“We highly encourage criminal attorneys and /or legal staff to visit our e – file section on the county webpage (www.co.hidalgo.tx.us) where they will find additional information regarding criminal efiling, including the statewide criminal e-filing rules, technology standards and links to resources such as tutorials, webinars and other helpful information,” the district clerk said.

“CLOSING THE PAPER TRAP”

The need for an effective, state-sanctioned e-filing system, including for poor Texans, drew significant attention about a decade ago, with the report, titled Evaluating the Impact of Direct Electronic Fling in Criminal Cases: Closing the Paper Trap.

Issued in July 2006 for the Office of Court Administration Task Force on Indigent Defense by the Public Policy Research Institute Texas A&M University, the executive summary captured the needs and goals for e-filing in criminal cases .

The research was sponsored by the State Justice Institute and implemented in partnership with the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University. Tony Fabelo, Ph.D., national criminal justice consultant and former director of the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Counsel, served as an advisor on the project.

Among its findings:

• Texas courts are seeking efficient and effective ways to improve the delivery of indigent defense services as set-out in the Fair Defense Act of 2001. In 2004, the Office of Court Administration, Task Force on Indigent Defense applied for and was awarded funding to test information-sharing technologies as a strategy for helping counties reduce costs and improve efficiency in court processing.

• Criminal case processing depends on a variety of local actors: judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, law enforcement officers county officials, and court clerks.

• Most counties rely on the physical transfer of defendant records from one office to another. Where automated file management systems are available, they tend to be designed for individual departments with limited ability for transferring information to other users electronically. Integrated information systems shared among multiple users offer a promising new approach for reducing costs, improving efficiency, and achieving better court processing outcomes for individual defendants and the criminal justice system as a whole;

• The term “direct electronic filing” has been used to describe the transfer of motions and case documents from attorneys to the clerk of courts in civil cases. The concept is relatively new and has thus far not been extensively applied in the criminal arena;

• Unlike civil filings, many different departments within the local justice system are required to participate in the disposition of criminal cases. Furthermore, technology must be supported by complementary work practices. Therefore, the definition of direct electronic filing applied in this study is considerably broader than that used in the civil context;

• Direct electronic filing in criminal cases is defined as a case management strategy to automate the flow of information for the screening and filing of criminal cases directly from law enforcement to the prosecutors to the court system; and

• This strategy uses a variety of technologies to document case-related information, support decision-making, and monitor the progress of persons arrested through the system.

The chief advantages of direct electronic filing systems examined in this research were conceptualized around four key propositions:

• Where all actors in the criminal justice system have current information on case status, they are able to make the most efficient use of time and limited resources, resulting in faster, more appropriate and more cost-effective case outcomes;

• Electronic document management is an effective means of making current case information available to key actors, facilitating more informed and data-driven decision- making;

• Automated information systems enhance public trust and confidence in the criminal processing system through early identification and release cases with insufficient evidence to file charges, faster defendant notification of charges, faster disposition, and more public information about the location and status of detained defendants; and

• Costs of implementing direct filing systems are offset by the value to the public through faster case disposition, reduced court dockets, fewer jail days, personnel relief for public offices, and less defendant time away from work and family.

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Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, represents House District 40 in Hidalgo County. HD 4o includes portions or all of Edinburg, Elsa, Faysville, La Blanca, Linn, Lópezville, McAllen, Pharr, San Carlos and Weslaco. He may be reached at his House District Office in Edinburg at (956) 383-0860 or at the Capitol at (512) 463-0426.

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