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Computer glitch is fixed, court says
Police departments throughout the state can once again trust the court's data on misdemeanor arrest warrants, according to the state court administrator.
By ARIEL SABAR Journal Staff Writer
An unofficial amnesty for small-time criminals came to an end yesterday when a computer glitch that cast doubt on the validity of some court warrants was finally cleared up.
State Court Administrator Robert C. Harrall told police officers that as of 7 a.m. yesterday they could trust their computers again. That means an end to a month-long hiatus of arrests of wanted misdemeanor suspects on nights and weekends, when the state's computerized warrants system could not be checked against paper files at the courthouses.
``That's great,'' said Capt. Dennis G. Gerstmeyer of the Providence Police Department, which has had to forgo arresting as many as 150 people a week because of the computer problem. ``I'm sure it's a relief to the uniform officers.''
In the end, computer experts found that the serial numbers of roughly 800 suspects had been mismatched in a new computer network at the heart of the state's criminal justice system. The glitch resulted in the false arrests of eight people in December before panicked court officials ordered the police to check all warrants in their computers against hard copies at the courts.
All but a few faulty records have been weeded out now, court officials said yesterday, and the rest will be history by the end of the week.
But the state's headaches from the computer foul-up may not be over. One man arrested on a false warrant in December has taken a first step toward suing the state.
The man, Paul A. Silipigni, a 33-year-old delivery truck driver, spent a night inside a cold Providence police cellblock before a court clerk discovered he had been arrested by mistake. Silipigni said he has never gotten an apology and has had trouble sleeping since the arrest.
His lawyer, Maurice Caron Jr., said he mailed a letter to the attorney general's office Friday alleging civil rights violations and negligence and requesting $50,000 in damages.
The computer problems that led to Silipigni's arrest were a result of years of data entry errors in a 1980s-era computer network that tracked criminal cases and warrants through the state courts.
Those records needed to be transferred to a new, $12-million computer network, called Justice Link, by Jan. 1 to avoid a potential Y2K-bug disaster. But state workers underestimated the time it would take to root out the bad data, and not all of it was cleaned up before the new system went up in early December.
Within two weeks, Silipigni and seven other people were arrested on erroneous warrants. At least two spent a night in jail before the error was discovered in court the next day.
Alarmed, Supreme Court Chief Justice Joseph R. Weisberger ordered all police departments to check their computers against paper files at the courthouse before arresting anyone on a misdemeanor warrant. (Felony warrants were not affected.)
But because the courts are closed on nights and weekends, police officers were forced to hold off arresting dozens of potential suspects each week.
Harrall said yesterday that about five people worked full-time during the last month to identify and fix the problem, at a cost of about $50,000 in wages. He said the lost time will mean delays in bringing other parts of the new network online, including computer terminals for public use.
Harrall spoke cautiously about the fix, saying that he was ``90 percent'' sure the problems had been solved. ``We were confident enough to bring it back up,'' he said. ``It will take us several days of experience before you really know.''
A memo sent to all police agencies lists a telephone number to call ``in the event of a recurring `bad warrant' problem.''
For Silipigni, however, word that the bug had been quashed offered little comfort. ``Everytime something went wrong my way, I paid,'' said Silipigni, alluding to his stint in jail in the early 1990s for stabbing a man in the leg in a bar brawl. ``They did something wrong,'' he says of the state's role in his recent arrest, ``and we'll see if they pay.''
It would not be the first time. Five years ago, a Pawtucket woman who was arrested on an expired warrant and forced to undergo a strip search settled a suit against the state and the Town of Johnston for $40,000.
James Martin, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, said yesterday that he knew of no other claims or lawsuits from the recent string of bad warrants.
The courts' computer woes have drawn coverage from technology publications as far away as Great Britain. But experts doubted that the problems would erode Rhode Islanders' confidence in the justice system.
``Whether the general public takes note of that, I really couldn't say,'' said Prof. Leo Carroll, a criminologist who chairs the sociology department at the University of Rhode Island. ``I suspect not.''
In an interview yesterday, Justice Weisberger, who acts as the chief executive of the state courts, mused about the changes technology has wrought on a justice system whose record-keeping was once no more sophisticated than 3-inch-by-5-inch index cards.
``When I started out as a lawyer, the most complex thing we had in our law office was a typewriter,'' said Weisberger, 79, whose first day as a practicing lawyer was in 1950. ``Computers have brought about enormous improvements, but nevertheless, when they do not work properly, they can be embarrassing.''
-- Carl Jenkins (Somewherepress@aol.com), February 02, 2000