A star-studded college bribery scandal and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s controversial death penalty moratorium dominated last week’s headlines enough that news of a local traffic ticketing glitch registered barely a blip.
In a bulletin dated March 12 and released a day later, the Santa Clara County Superior Court announced a suspension of online payments after officials had “recently become aware” of an error that for the past few months charged either too much or too little for some fines. Until the matter resolves, the statement advised, people must pay in person at the traffic court on Homestead Road in Santa Clara. Court spokesman Benjamin Rada capped off the memo with an apology for the inconvenience and assurance that the folks in charge “are actively working to remedy the situation.”
Why it took so long to address the malfunction is unclear, since officials seem just as intent on obscuring the scope of the problem. Not to mention its ties to scandal-plagued Tyler Technologies, whose Odyssey software incrementally replaced the local trial court’s legacy case management system this past year.
Though Rada suggests the traffic fines bug came to light only recently, sources inside the courts say higher-ups knew about it for months without telling the public. And though he elides reference to Odyssey in his initial statement to the public, those same sources say the mis-charging began as soon as court clerks began using the software in June 2018.
That’s fully six months before Rada claims officials found out about the snafu and nearly nine months before he says they realized it screwed up more than 1,400 citations.
“The clerks received very little training,” according to one court employee who spoke to San Jose Inside on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “Then there were these problems calculating crimes, pulling up defendants’ information and seeing the breakdowns of fines—basically a lot of things we could do in the old system.”
More than being simply annoying to fix, Odyssey’s digital misfires took a human toll that began weighing on the conscience of multiple court employees—some of whom shared their concerns with San Jose Inside. Misdemeanor citations for driving without a license required a significant share of case-by-case corrections, sources say. The moving violation primarily issued by the California Highway Patrol and disproportionately impacting undocumented immigrants should have rang up a combined $483 ($100 base fine, plus fees), but sources say Odyssey invariably set the total to $650.
“This is something that a lot of people just want to get it over with,” a veteran court staffer says. “A lot of people, if they don’t pay online or by mail, come in with cash and don’t even question it. They just want to pay and leave as soon as possible.”
Initially, sources say, Deputy Court Manager Karen Jones advised her subordinates to update the error by hand, knocking the $167 off to bring it back to the correct bail amount. People who paid remotely basically just foot the extra cost, employees say. “I was upset,” a court employee recounts. “I felt like it was unfair. To me, it was another example of how the court wasn’t really rectifying the problems.”
Court staffers say that continued until mid-December, when Jones allegedly directed clerks to just leave the amount as it appeared in Odyssey.
Yet in the official narrative, that’s when the problem began.
When asked why the court took another three months to tell the public about it, Rada replied in an email that it learned about the bug on Dec. 15 and only realized the extent of it—that it resulted in 1,400 miscalculated citations—by mid-February. If that’s the case, San Jose Inside pressed, then why wait another month still to issue the public notice?
Rada has yet to respond to that question. Tyler Technologies has been similarly evasive.
In an email that a company official asked to be credited to “a Tyler spokesperson,” she acknowledged the court “has had an issue with the miscalculation of fines” and that Tyler Tech’s team is “working closely with the court to analyze the situation.” Her email ends with the company’s boilerplate boosterism about how it “successfully serves courts in more than 1,000 counties across 29 states” and values its “strong partnership” with the local court and its “shared spirit of service” for the community.
As usual, Tyler Technologies sidestepped admissions of fault. But its record—documented in news reports and court filings—gives plenty cause for concern.
The rapidly expanding corporation spent the past 20 years acquiring more than 30 smaller firms to become the largest provider of public sector software in the nation. It earned more than $147 million on total revenues of $935 million in 2018, according to company-released figures, nearly doubling its sales volume over the past four years.
Managing systems that impact the lives of millions of people, Plano, Texas-based Tyler Tech’s fast growth has led to numerous public, damaging missteps. Lawsuits and news reports link the company to controversies in more than a dozen states ranging from false arrests and wrongful imprisonment to confusing tax hikes and scheduling mishaps at school districts, courthouses, cities, counties, health districts and other public agencies.
In Sacramento, firefighters sued Tyler Technologies and revoked its $2.1 million contract after accusing the company of putting first responders in danger by failing to update dispatch software as needed. Great Falls, Montana, withheld $500,000 from Tyler and terminated its contract with the company over issues with its public safety software, which city officials claimed never performed as warranted.
In Texas, the Fort Worth Independent School District blamed Tyler Technologies for erroneous calculations on a student information system that led the state to overpay $40 million to the local agency that it then had to return. In Tennessee, 30 plaintiffs filed a $144 million class-action suit against Shelby County, claiming its version of Odyssey left people trapped in jail long after court-set release dates.
In 2016, Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods urged the courts to drop Odyssey after three of his clients spent an extra 50 days behind bars because judicial orders for their release reportedly never showed up in the system. Attorneys throughout the U.S. joined Woods’ call to abandon Odyssey because of the risk of it violating peoples’ constitution rights. The list goes on.
Rewind to 2013: California’s trial courts were desperate. Their central bureaucracy, the Administrative Office of the Courts, began seeking out private vendors after a publicly funded case management system meant to support all 58 counties crashed and burned in what Orange County Judge Andy Banks called a “$2 billion boondoggle.”
Tyler Technologies emerged as one of the top few contenders—high price and trail of litigation notwithstanding—and Robert Oyung, the Santa Clara County court’s chief technology officer, who has since moved up to an equivalent statewide position at the California Judicial Council, positioned himself as one of its champions. Oyung candidly told colleagues to expect growing pains, but some of the bugs turned out to be more challenging than expected. At a Judicial Council IT committee meeting in fall that same year, Oyung admitted the system was rife with malfunctions.
“The main themes in terms of where people are having issues after going live with the product is challenges in working with minute orders, manual data entry, user navigation and some client errors,” the IT director reportedly told attendees.
Clerks who use Odyssey in Santa Clara County courts say they’ve been grappling with some of those same setbacks. But their superiors have allegedly been slow to respond. Soon enough, non-court officials with access to the software began sounding the alarm.
Two months ago, police unions in San Jose and Sunnyvale blamed the company for endangering officers by failing to include up-to-date information about more than 2,500 bench warrants in Odyssey. Tyler threatened legal action against the San Jose Police Officers’ Association, and the courts echoed the company’s wholesale denial of fault. Tyler Technologies and Rada explained the misclassified warrants as more of a data entry backlog, not a system error.
Tom Saggau, who represents the San Jose POA, says news of Odyssey’s fee-ciphering flub vindicates the union’s prior criticism and underscores the need for an objective audit of the company’s work.
“If this latest report about Odyssey being at fault is true, then an independent investigation is warranted to determine how many taxpayers have been ripped off, how they get reimbursed and what entity is responsible for this latest system failure,” he says.
Saggau went on to cite the dictionary definition of odyssey, “a long series of wanderings or adventures, especially filled with notable experiences, hardships,” before adding: “It seems the court’s new system is living up to its name.”