Report 2007-109 Summary - November 2007

DNA Identification Fund:

Improvements Are Needed in Reporting Fund Revenues and Assessing and Distributing DNA Penalties, but Counties and Courts We Reviewed Have Properly Collected Penalties and Transferred Revenues to the State

HIGHLIGHTS

Our review of the implementation of Proposition 69, the DNA Fingerprint, Unsolved Crime, and Innocence Protection Act (DNA act) revealed that:

  • State law does not require counties to report collections related to the additional DNA penalty imposed by the July 2006 amendment to the DNA act; therefore, interested parties would not be able to obtain a complete picture of all the DNA penalty money collected and transferred to the State.
  • Information available on the Department of Justice's Web site as of June 2007 showed that 22 counties had not transferred any DNA money to the State in 2005 and 24 did not do so in 2006; however, based on the State Controller's Office's records, these counties actually transferred to the State $1.6 million in 2005 and $3.8 million in 2006.
  • Various factors, such as court decisions and state law, may explain why DNA fund transfers to the State were lower than expected; however, transfers have increased since the initial implementation period.
  • Los Angeles, Orange, and Sacramento counties appropriately used money from their DNA funds to reimburse local law enforcement agencies for their expenses.
  • Although there were no significant errors in assessing and distributing DNA penalties at the three counties we reviewed, some weaknesses in the courts' automated case management systems and internal controls resulted in minor errors in the assessment and distribution of DNA penalties.

RESULTS IN BRIEF

On November 2, 2004, voters approved Proposition 69, the DNA Fingerprint, Unsolved Crime, and Innocence Protection Act (DNA act), which expanded the statewide program of collecting samples of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and storing them in a database and data bank (DNA program). DNA analysis is a useful law enforcement tool for identifying and prosecuting criminal offenders and exonerating the innocent. Among the purposes of the DNA program are helping federal, state, and local criminal justice and law enforcement agencies quickly and accurately detect and prosecute people responsible for certain crimes, such as sex offenses, and excluding innocent persons under investigation for such crimes. The DNA act states that, like collecting fingerprints, collecting DNA samples is an administrative requirement for accurately identifying criminal offenders.

To assist local law enforcement agencies in collecting DNA samples, the DNA act requires the assessment of a penalty for all criminal and vehicle violations, excluding parking violations (initial DNA penalty). Each county collects payments of initial DNA penalties, deposits them into a county DNA Identification Fund (DNA fund), and on a quarterly basis transfers a percentage of the money in its DNA fund to the state DNA fund. The DNA act allows counties to retain a percentage of money in their DNA funds to reimburse local law enforcement agencies for costs related to collecting, processing, analyzing, tracking, and storing DNA samples. In July 2006 the DNA act was amended to levy an additional DNA penalty for all criminal and vehicle violations, excluding parking violations (additional DNA penalty). The additional DNA penalty is assessed and distributed in a manner similar to the initial DNA penalty. However, counties must transfer to the State 100 percent of the additional DNA penalty payments they collect.

The DNA act requires each county's board of supervisors to submit an Annual County DNA Identification Fund Report (annual report) to the Department of Justice (Justice) and the Legislature detailing collection and expenditure information related to the initial DNA penalty. Further, the DNA act requires Justice to post data from the annual reports on its Web site. However, state law does not require counties to report collections related to the additional DNA penalty. Therefore, Justice and other interested parties relying on the Justice Web site for information on DNA penalty collections would not be able to obtain a complete picture of all DNA penalty money collected and transferred to the State. In addition, viewers of the Web site information would not have any assurance that the counties are assessing or collecting the additional DNA penalties.

Based on our review of records maintained by the State Controller's Office (state controller), counties transferred to the State about $2.3 million in additional DNA penalties for 2006, an amount that is not reflected on the Justice Web site. However, the state controller's records also show that 11 counties did not report transferring any money from the additional DNA penalty to the State for 2006. We contacted each of these counties and were informed by representatives of nine of the 11 counties that they combined money they collected from the additional DNA penalty with their collections of the initial DNA penalty rather than identify their collections separately on the documentation sent to the state controller. However, three of the nine counties indicated that they failed to transfer 100 percent of their collections to the State, as required by law. Rather they only transferred 70 percent, the amount applicable to the initial DNA penalty. Additionally, an official from one county stated that, although the court was assessing and collecting the additional DNA penalty, due to a coding error, the county did not transfer its additional DNA penalty collections to the State until March 2007. Finally, an official from the court in the remaining county acknowledged that it did not begin assessing the additional penalty until September 2007.

Further, the information available on the Justice Web site related to the initial DNA penalty is incomplete and misleading. In particular, as of June 2007, 22 counties had not submitted the required annual reports to Justice for 2005 and 24 counties had not submitted the reports for 2006. Rather than report that the counties had failed to submit annual reports, the Justice Web site indicated that those counties had not transferred any DNA fund money to the State. Based on data obtained from the state controller, however, we found that all but two counties did transfer DNA fund money to the State from their 2005 collections of the initial DNA penalty and that all but one county transferred funds from their 2006 collections. The 22 counties that did not submit annual reports on their 2005 collections actually transferred almost $1.6 million to the State, and the 24 counties that did not submit reports on their 2006 collections transferred almost $3.8 million. Because the Justice Web site shows those counties as not transferring any money to the State, anyone attempting to use the data might erroneously conclude that many counties were not assessing any DNA penalties and that the State was not receiving money it was owed.

Judicial discretion and state laws can affect the amount of DNA penalties assessed by the courts. Specifically, although an offense may call for the assessment of DNA penalties, courts have the discretion to waive or reduce the penalties. For example, we identified 25 cases in which the courts sentenced offenders to jail time rather than assessing penalties. In those cases the State would not receive any DNA fund money. Similarly, when an individual who committed a traffic violation is allowed to attend traffic school, state law allows the city and county where the violation occurred to retain most of the money collected rather than requiring distribution to any penalty assessment funds, and the State does not receive any DNA fund money.

We also found that the time between the date of the offense and when the county collects and transfers DNA fund money to the State can be extensive. One reason for delays is that some court decisions may allow several months before individuals must pay the required fines. Another reason for delays in transferring money to the state DNA fund is that state law allows individuals to pay fines in installments. Finally, state law allows up to 90 days before counties have to transfer to the State its share of DNA penalty collections. These factors, along with early delays in implementing the requirements of the DNA act, may explain why we noted that DNA fund transfers to the State were lower in the first few quarters after the DNA act's implementation than in later quarters. In the three counties we visited, DNA fund transfers have increased as the time since the effective date of the DNA act has lengthened and the money from penalties assessed shortly after the implementation date has been collected.

The counties we visited appropriately used money from their DNA funds to reimburse local law enforcement agencies for the expenses incurred to collect DNA samples and submit them to Justice. However, because the DNA act stipulated that in 2005 and 2006 counties could retain only 30 percent of the money they collected from DNA penalties in their DNA funds and had to transfer the remaining 70 percent to the State, counties had to use alternative funding sources to pay some DNA program costs. More funding should become available to counties as their share of DNA fund money rises in accordance with the DNA act: counties can retain 50 percent of their DNA funds in 2007 and will retain 75 percent beginning in 2008.

Our review of individual transactions at the three counties we visited did not reveal any significant errors in assessing DNA penalties and distributing penalty collections to counties' DNA funds. However, we did note weaknesses in courts' automated case management systems and internal controls that resulted in errors in the assessment and distribution of DNA penalties. For example, because of rounding errors caused by the automated case management system in Orange County Superior Court (Orange court) that ranged from 1 cent to 9 cents per case, the court did not properly distribute DNA penalty payments to the county DNA fund. The financial impact of the rounding errors was minimal on an individual case basis. However, the case management system used by the Orange court is a precursor to the system under development for statewide implementation by the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), the administrative arm of the Judicial Council of California (Judicial Council). Therefore, unless the rounding errors are corrected, small errors occurring in the courts in all 58 counties could result in large monetary losses to county and state DNA funds.

According to a report compiled by the Judicial Council, the Orange court alone processed 569,000 criminal and traffic case filings in fiscal year 2005-06. Further, the report shows that in that same year courts statewide processed more than 6.4 million dispositions—the final outcomes of cases.1 Although not all case filings result in dispositions and not all dispositions result in penalty assessments, the sheer number of annual dispositions strongly suggests that rounding errors could have a significant fiscal impact on the counties and the State if not corrected. Another error we noted in the Orange court case management system was its failure to consistently distribute installment payments to the various fines, fees, and penalties according to the priority order established by state law.

Additionally, we found that a Los Angeles County Superior Court (Los Angeles court) made several data entry errors related to a specific type of motor vehicle violation. Although the errors appeared to be isolated to one court employee who processes payments, the errors covered a period of at least 12 months. Further, we found that in three cases at another Los Angeles court location, the court overassessed DNA penalties. According to an official at the Los Angeles court, the excessive assessments were caused by manual errors. Finally, we found that because of a misinterpretation of the guidance provided by the state controller, Sacramento County Superior Court (Sacramento court) incorrectly transferred $292,000 in traffic school fees, and an additional $210,000 in fees related to red light violations, to the State rather than to the city or county general fund where the infraction occurred, as required by law.

RECOMMENDATIONS

To provide a full accounting of the DNA fund money counties collect and transfer, the Legislature should consider revising state law to require counties to include in their annual reports information on the additional DNA penalty established by Chapter 69, Statutes of 2006.

Because state law requires Justice to make county-reported data available on its Web site, Justice should do the following to ensure that data on county DNA fund activities are accurate:

  • Annually notify counties that they are statutorily required to submit reports on or before April 1 to the Legislature and Justice.
  • Contact each county that does not submit an annual report by the deadline.
  • Establish policies and procedures for posting county data on its Web site.
  • Clearly indicate on its Web site any county that failed to submit an annual report.

County boards of supervisors should ensure that they promptly submit annual reports to Justice and the Legislature as required by the DNA act.

To ensure that the distribution of payments for all fines, fees, and penalty assessments charged to offenders comply with all applicable laws and regulations, the AOC should do the following:

  • Work with the Orange court to estimate the total dollar effect of the rounding errors in calculating the penalty assessment distribution to determine whether it will have a significant financial impact on the State. If the AOC determines that the impact will be significant, it should ensure that the Orange court makes the necessary modifications to the distributions calculated by its case management system. Further, as it proceeds with developing the statewide case management system, the AOC should ensure that the system correctly distributes payments to the appropriate funds in accordance with all applicable laws and regulations.
  • Ensure that the Orange court reevaluates and makes necessary corrections to the distribution priority order programmed into its case management system.
  • Ensure that the Los Angeles court corrects any manual coding errors and strengthens internal controls over data entry.
  • Ensure that the Sacramento court continues its efforts to correct any overpayments made to the state DNA fund.
  • Contact the courts in the counties that did not report transferring to the State any money or only part of the money for the additional DNA penalty to determine whether they are appropriately assessing the penalty.

The state controller should contact the auditor-controllers in the counties that did not report transferring to the State any money or only part of the money for the additional DNA penalty to ensure that counties and courts correctly assess, collect, and transfer the money to the State.

AGENCY COMMENTS

The state agencies and county superior courts we reviewed generally agree with our recommendations and will take steps to address them.


1 The Judicial Council of California was not able to provide us with the number of dispositions for the Orange County Superior Court.


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