Plugging a Hole in the Justice System

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For judges the feeling is alarming--and all too frequent. They're sitting on the bench, looking down at somebody arrested for selling crack, and they have absolutely no idea if the suspect is who he says he is.

Maybe he's given the police a false name to shrug off his violent past. Maybe he's rattled off a fake birth date--confounding attempts to see if he's wanted for other crimes. Or maybe he's skipped from town to town, leaving a trail of investigators searching for him--each unaware that others have pegged him as a menace.

"We need to decide--like that," said Los Angeles Municipal Judge Kenneth Lee Chotiner, snapping his fingers briskly, "whether to release him or what to set for bail. . . . [But] we don't know who is in front of us."

Infuriated at such lapses in the justice system, Chotiner set out eight years ago to develop a foolproof way to link bad guys with their criminal pasts. No more tricks, he vowed; no more beating the system. Judges, prosecutors and probation officers deserved to know the complete history of every defendant before them.

Chotiner's passion proved contagious. The county backed his proposal with $5.2 million, and representatives of various law enforcement agencies swarmed to develop a solution. The team will unveil the result later this year, when the new Consolidated Criminal History Reporting System (or CCHRS, pronounced "cheers") finally goes on line.

The system's major innovation is to assemble rap sheets and other information on 3.3 million criminals and suspects dating to the early 1970s, compiling the files of nine agencies into a single database.

Currently, an investigator or judge seeking full details on a suspect's past must tap into multiple databases--checking for outstanding warrants on one system, juvenile offenses on another, probation conditions on a third and jail sentences on a fourth. Local police and sheriff's departments maintain their own computerized records as well--and then there are state and national systems.

Investigators acknowledge that they don't have the time or money to search every database on every case. As a result, they may not find out that a man picked up for domestic violence is wanted on rape charges, or that a woman arrested for prostitution has a previous conviction for armed robbery.

"We send people to court [even though] we can't provide a complete criminal history on them," Los Angeles Police Cmdr. Tim McBride acknowledged. "We have people released on minimal bail when we don't really know who they are, don't really know if they present a danger to society. That's why we're anxious for this system"

As soon as it is up and running by December, officers will be able to scour most available databases with a single electronic query. The only major system out of their reach will be the state and national warrant repository, which requires separate access.

"It basically gives you one-stop shopping," said Sgt. John Aerts, the CCHRS system administrator for the Sheriff's Department. "It's an awesome tool for investigators."

Slated to serve some 5,000 law enforcement officers, judges and prosecutors in Los Angeles County, the system will go beyond the dry, often hard-to-decipher jargon of traditional criminal records.

Instead of the brief descriptions used on rap sheets, a CCHRS criminal history will include at least one color mug shot, and possibly photos of tattoos or scars as well. Red flags popping up on the computer screen will alert the user if the suspect is a suicide risk, a flight risk or a multiple offender under the three-strikes law. Chotiner dreams of one day adding special-effects technology to "age" photos and show what a suspect with a decade-old mug shot might look like today.

With myriad details encoded in its database, the system offers detectives a chance to do their investigating in front of a computer screen.

A cop working a home-invasion assault case, for instance, could type in everything she knew about the perpetrator--from hair color to weight to a propensity for wearing cowboy boots--and the computer would sort through its profiles of people previously arrested on assault charges and spit out a list of possible suspects. Or an investigator could ask for the names of everyone in the system who has "mom" tattooed on his left biceps, and come up with a six-pack of mug shots for a photo lineup.

Although engineers have been working for months to merge old records into CCHRS, they acknowledge that the system's historical data will be somewhat spotty.

They do not have the resources to type in every scar and tattoo noted on every person booked by the Sheriff's Department for the last 20 years, for example, so detailed descriptions will appear mostly on the profiles of recent arrestees. And although they are trying to consolidate the records for criminals who have two or three profiles--each with a different birth date or alias--they know they will not be able to track down every scam artist.

"It won't be perfect," said John Carr, data administrator for the county's Information Systems Advisory Body, which is coordinating the CCHRS project. "But we think we can meet the needs of a broad group in the justice community in a very efficient way."

County agencies participating in the project will pay $286,000 a year to tap into the system. Yet administrators predict they will end up saving funds because of increased efficiency. "It's going to be well worth the money," Sheriff's Capt. Roy M. Pugh said.

System officials have not yet set fee structures for local police agencies, but plan to invite them into the network as well.

Indeed, the system is designed to encourage cooperation between different law enforcement agencies.

Under the current, disjointed system, officers from various departments rarely swap data on the names or appearances of people they're looking to interview as suspects or witnesses. With CCHRS, however, they can.

Say, for example, a Northridge-based police officer has been hunting for a convicted burglar on probation. He can "flag" the burglar's profile in CCHRS. That way, if a sheriff's deputy in Temple City arrests the fellow on disorderly conduct charges and runs a routine computer check, the Northridge officer's name and phone number will pop up. And the suspect will soon have a date for interrogation in the San Fernando Valley. Investigators can also electronically link the files of bad guys known to carouse together; that way, if one emerges as a suspect, officers can more easily track down cohorts.

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To prevent repeat offenders from squirming away from their records, the system relies on high-tech fingerprint technology known as livescan.

Under the old ink-blot system, technicians had to count every ridge and swirl of a smudgy fingerprint to classify it. Human error made it possible for the same criminal to rack up a different fingerprint identification number with each booking--so detectives found it tough to match the bad guy with all of his past arrests, Chotiner said.

The livescan process, in contrast, uses a laser to read and catalog fingerprints. If the technology is as reliable as its boosters believe, it should thwart fraud by creating a unique identifying tag for every person arrested.

Years later, that tag will remain in the computer system. So a woman rearrested a decade after her first booking would not be able to claim a clean record by fudging her birth date; her livescan prints would inevitably link her to her criminal past. The system cannot convert old ink-blot prints to laser scans, however.

Despite limitations, Chotiner said, it is "the first system like it in the world--not just in Los Angeles or the state or the country, but in the world." And he firmly assures that CCHRS will help save citizens from predators like Douglas Kelly.

Kelly was arrested on a domestic violence charge in August 1993 and gave a false birth date. Detectives ran his name through several systems but because of the incorrect age did not peg him as the chief suspect in a Florida rape. Without livescan fingerprints to link him to the Florida warrant, police let Kelly go after one night in jail.

A few days later, Kelly killed 19-year-old Sara Weir.

To Weir's mother, Thousand Oaks attorney Martha Farwell, such tragedies signal the need for CCHRS and even more far-reaching databases.

"Ever since my daughter was killed . . . I've thought we really, really need to put so much more effort into upgrading the connections" between police departments nationwide, Farwell said. "It's not a real sexy issue, but it's been on my mind. Any system that would make it possible to catch these horrible monsters would be an improvement."

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