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[ The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 3/25/03 ]

Metro counties enter Net era
Cherokee looks at serving papers by e-mail; sheriff isn't thrilled

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Cherokee community page
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Chief deputy clerk Barbara Lowery processes cases at Cherokee County Magistrate Court, where a proposal by Magistrate Court Judge Charles Robertson would have defendants notified by e-mail to come pick up court papers from clerks. Lowery believes 60 percent to 70 percent would come in as requested.

In today's plugged-in society, county governments are offering more online services to take the hassle out of common chores.

Time-strapped residents can pay their water bills online in Cherokee County and, soon, their property taxes.

DeKalb is looking for a way for people to pay parking tickets online and plans new software that will allow residents to get plumbing, air conditioning and electrical permits online. Gwinnett is researching ways residents can pay county fees on the Net.

Now a tech-savvy Cherokee judge wants to take the idea a step further. Magistrate Court Judge Charles Robertson is proposing a new way for the court to notify defendants of court papers -- by e-mail.

He has asked commissioners for permission to deputize four of his clerks as constables to empower them to serve legal papers.

"This is purely an experiment. It may work, and it may not," said Robertson. He said his idea would save hundreds of dollars per month and free up sheriff's deputies' time.

"We've been serving papers the same way for the past 200 years. A sheriff's deputy gets in a car today and drives out to someone's house to sign for papers," he said.

"Sheriff's deputies are nice, but having an armed officer come to your doorstep in the middle of a dinner party or in front of your kids can be a bit unnerving," he said.

Under the plan, an e-mail would notify defendants to come to the courthouse to pick up court papers from the clerks. Plaintiffs would be asked to provide the defendant's e-mail address, he said. Eventually, Robertson would like to be able to e-mail the court papers themselves.

Martha Steketee, a research associate for the National Center for State Courts in Arlington, Va., focuses on developing guidelines for online use by courts. She said she doesn't know of any other court attempting service of papers by e-mail or online.

"E-government is a beginning reality that will be growing more and more," says Benn Konsynski, a business professor at Emory University.

'Baby steps'

Konsynski said e-mail and online service of court papers is "one of the hundreds of baby steps that is changing the relationship between governmental agencies and citizenry by taking on more efficiency and effectiveness."

Konsynski cautioned that mechanisms must be in place to authenticate the parties and validate receipt of the notice. Digital signatures is one way of doing that, but he added, "it's not an easy mechanism."

There's another potential pitfall: "They can say, 'I never got your message,' " Konsynski said.

Robertson said there are services in place to confirm if an e-mail was received. But if defendants want to ignore it, "there are competent, capable sheriffs with guns and blue lights that can go out. It's a matter of convenience."

Woodstock resident Tom Goddard said he thought it was a good idea.

"Serving all those papers seems like an unfair burden on the sheriff's department," said Goddard, 65. "It would free up some deputies to be out policing the community."

Robertson estimates that Cherokee's Magistrate Court serves between 6,000 to 7,000 papers a year. "I would be thrilled if this little experiment saves 50 of them. That would be about two weeks of deputy man hours saved," he said.

Chief Deputy Clerk Barbara Lowery said she expects the response to be much higher. "I'd think that 60 percent to 70 percent of people would come in voluntarily to pick up their papers," she said.

E-mail notification would apply only to misdemeanor cases in Magistrate Court, such as landlord-tenant disputes, garnishments, vehicle abandonments, bad check cases and civil cases involving less than $15,000.

Proposal challenged

Acworth resident Harold Delisio, 30, said he doesn't think the idea would work.

"You could just say you didn't get the e-mail, or that your computer was broken. You could put up a firewall to block messages from government agencies," he said.

Cherokee County Sheriff Roger Garrison isn't enthusiastic over the idea of deputizing court clerks. He opposes creating another law enforcement arm in the county.

"In my mind, service of papers is a function of the sheriff's office," he said. Garrison has six deputies who serve court papers at $15 to $35 each trip, an income producer for the county.

While not opposed to more efficient government, Garrison said the e-mail proposal "is not as simple as it seems."

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