New York Law School student Steven Cohen wrote an article in The New York Times last weekend about how digitizing some aspects of the legal process could streamline cases and enhance efficiency. My favorite part was the opening:
“I LIKE my cases to age as long as possible, like a fine wine.”
The Legal Aid lawyer was articulating a basic principle of criminal defense practice: delay helps the accused. People forget, they get scared, they move, and things get lost.
He's absolutely right. Cases do get better for the defense and worse for the prosecution with age, generally. There are a few exceptional cases where it is to the advantage of the defense to force the case to trial as quickly as possible, such as when witnesses are missing. But other than that, a defendant is better to be patient and hope that time passes in his favor.
What Cohen overlooks, though, are the hidden agendas. For example, he writes:
One of the biggest sources of delay — and case dismissal — involves prosecutors’ getting signed statements from victims, witnesses and police officers. Last year, more than 58,000 cases — 15 percent of all misdemeanors — were dismissed or not pursued by the district attorney’s offices, many because of difficulty in reconnecting with victims and witnesses. It is exasperating because the police typically collect these same statements on the scene, but without signatures.
Cohen seems perplexed by this. What Cohen - who isn't an attorney yet - fails to understand is that the police and witnesses all have agendas. Perhaps the statement that a witness gives doesn't really help the cop's case. By neglecting to get a signature (or an address, or telephone number), the officer makes that witness more difficult for the defense attorney to find. Or perhaps the cop is reluctant to get a signed statement because such a statement can be used against the witness later by a defense attorney.
What if the cop thinks the witness - a battered woman, let's say - will likely refuse to testify later or change her story? If so, then the cop is cutting her a break by not getting her to sign a statment that she will later say is untrue.
It's much more complicated than Cohen paints it to be, but there's one thing he is correct about: technology makes everything easier.
In this firm, I am always looking for newer, better, faster technologies that will improve the speed and efficiency of the office as well as the client's experience. Clients like to know what's going on with their cases, which I completely understand. In coming years, I hope to add video calling (probably Skype) for clients, faster servers, and updated case managment software that will allow clients to check up on their own cases anytime they want, including court dates and account balances.