Glitch in new computers causes erroneous arrests (RI) : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread

Link 12.17.99 06:53:04 Glitch in new computers causes erroneous arrests While consultants work to fix the problem, the chief executive of the state courts tells police not to rely on computers when making arrests on misdemeanor warrants.

By ARIEL SABAR Journal Staff Writer

Because of a glitch in the state courts' computer system, at least eight people have been arrested in the last two weeks for misdemeanor crimes they did not commit, state officials said yesterday. At least two of those people were held overnight in a jail cell before the mistakes were discovered in court the next day.

Yesterday afternoon, Chief Justice Joseph R. Weisberger cautioned every police agency in the state to not arrest anyone on a misdemeanor court warrant without first checking their computers against paper files at the courthouses.

As a consequence, the police will be unable to arrest misdemeanor suspects on warrants at night, when the courts are closed. But law enforcement officials say they see little threat to public safety because most of the scofflaws have committed minor offenses, such as petty theft, simple assault or failure to appear for a court date.

Court officials said that, if the computer bug is not rooted out in a week, they would arrange for the courthouses to be staffed around the clock.

Computer consultants are working intensely to fix the problem, but state officials could not say how long that could take. ``Obviously, it's a great concern,'' Weisberger said in an interview yesterday. ``As soon as it came to my attention, we took steps to preclude the likelihood of this happening again.''

Legal experts said that the mistaken arrests could expose the state to lawsuits from people claiming their civil liberties were violated.

The computer gaffe points to an irony in the rush to ready computers for the year 2000. In the scramble to get the courts' new ``Y2K compliant'' system up and running before Jan. 1, court officials did not have time to fully weed out long-standing errors in the serial numbers assigned to criminal suspects, they said.

Those errors are mostly the result of data-entry mistakes and software problems over the years. Though they very occasionally led to false arrests on the old computer system, they have tripped up the new, more sophisticated one in a much broader way.

Since Dec. 6, when the new multimillion dollar Justice Link system went online, 8 to 10 people have been arrested and in some cases jailed overnight. Court Admnistrator Robert C. Harrall said that mismatched serial numbers have caused the computer to confuse the identities of potentially hundreds of people who at one time or another had passed through the crimnal justice system.

``It's very disturbing,'' said Steven Brown, the executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. ``These types of mistakes can traumatize people, people who have not committed any wrongdoing and suddenly find themselves arrested and being hauled off to jail.''

The mistakes have enraged District Court Chief Judge Albert E. DeRobbio, officials said. But Weisberger, who acts as the chief executive of the state courts, said that problems are to be expected with any new computer system. ``No such system ever goes into effect with out some glitchs appearing,'' Weisberger said.

FOR PAUL A. SILIPIGNI, a 33-year-old delivery-truck driver from Providence, those glitchs meant a fitful night's sleep on a metal bench at the Providence Police Department.

Silipigni and his girlfriend had been driving back to their apartment Dec. 6 after a night of Christmas shopping at the Providence Place mall. Silipigni wanted to be home in time to catch the Monday Night Football game, Tampa Bay versus Minnesota.

But just two blocks from their apartment, a police officer stopped him for running a stop sign. The police officer came back with a traffic ticket, a pair of handcuffs, and unsettling news: Silipigni, the officer said, was wanted by the Woonsocket police for failing to appear in court on a suspended license charge, according to Silipigni and court officials.

Silipigni knew he was no angel. He had spent three years in state prison for stabbing a man in the leg in a brawl outside a Johnston bar in 1992. But after he got out of prison, in 1995, he vowed to stay clean. He got a good job, which he still holds today, met a woman, and moved with her into an apartment on the city's North End.

So when the officer handcuffed him last week, Silipigni was quick to protest. ``I said, `It's not me,''' he recalled. ``They made fun of me. They said, `Everybody says that.'''

He was handcuffed and locked in a cell at the police department. The next morning, after a jailhouse breakfast of a cold cheeseburger and milk, he was brought to the courtroom of Judge DeRobbio at the J. Joseph Garrahy Judicial Complex. A clerk reviewing the paper court file there realized then that they had the wrong man. In the new computer system, Silipigni's old criminal case was assigned the same serial number as that of another man wanted for driving on a suspended license.

The ordeal angered Silipigni's boss, who needed him to make deliveries that day, and cost Silipigni a day's pay. ``I wish I had the 150 bucks I lost that day, and I wish I did get an apology,'' he said.

He may not be the only one. Another person, a 51-year-old Coventry man whose name could not be confirmed yesterday, was stopped on Route 4 in North Kingstown last Sunday for a traffic violation. A state police officer saw in his computer that the man was apparently wanted for failing to pay court fines. The man spent the night at the Adult Correctional Institutions before the blunder was brought to light in District Court the next day.

THE NEW COMPUTER system is being installed by the SCT Corp. of Kentucky and Oracle Systems Corp. of California as part of a $12-million, four-year project to modernize the 1980s-era technology at the heart of the state's criminal justice system. The network is used by the police, the attorney general's office, the public defender's office, the state prisons, and by lawyers, to track criminal cases.

Harrall, the state court administrator, said the new system marks a technological leap because, among other things, users can now see a suspect's court history, warrants, and fines all on one screen. It is also Y2K complaint, meaning that the system should be immune from problems expected to beset some computers when the date changes from Dec. 31, 1999 to Jan. 1, 2000.

The computer system holds the records of 342,000 criminal court cases and 40,000 bench warrants, those issued by judges for offenses such as failing to appear in court.

Using computer lingo, Harrall describes the glitch as a product of ``garbage in, garbage out.'' The computer was fed bad data and as a result listed some people as wanted who in fact had done nothing wrong.

-- Homer Beanfang (, December 17, 1999


Wow! That is more than an inconvenience. At least the article admitted it was Y2K related.

Homer for President :-)
(Sorry, Arnie)

-- Ashton & Leska in Cascadia (, December 17, 1999.

*sob* Does that mean I don't get the matching funds?

-- Arnie Rimmer (, December 17, 1999.

Add this kind of foul-up to the following posting (embedded identification and tracking chips in humans) and you have a really scary scenario!

-- Mad Monk (, December 17, 1999.

It happened to a quest of ours in Calaveras Cnty, CA. Feds arrested him for shooting on Federal Land, never was illegal to do so, took him to the sheriff because the computer said so. Sheriff held him for about 5 minutes and let him go.

-- Mark Hillyard (, December 18, 1999.

... with a year for testing...

er, well, with six months for testing

ummmm, maybe three months for testing

would you believe 25 days for testing


-- Jerry B (, December 18, 1999.

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