SAN ANTONIO – It's a crack in the foundation of the Bexar County justice system that is finally being filled.
Judges in the county courts dealing with criminal family violence cases have been unable to communicate with the civil district courts that handle protective orders and custody and divorce cases.
It wasn't until two weeks ago that a county judge and her clerk stepped up to find a solution so judges can make more educated decisions.
When a county domestic violence case is closed, information about the perpetrator is entered into a county computer system called MOCHA. The most important information on the screen blinks red. Those are called flash codes.
There have never been flash codes to indicate someone was banned from owning or buying firearms because of domestic violence charges. That changed on Aug. 12.
"We have a duty to let other judges know when there's an adverse finding in a domestic violence case. That would be a no-firearms order or an affirmative finding of family violence," said newly elected Judge Rosie Speedlin-Gonzalez.
Speedlin-Gonzalez presides over one of the county's domestic violence courts and quickly realized crucial information from her court never made it across the street to civil district judges such as Peter Sakai, who decides on protective orders, custody cases and divorces.
He said transparency is crucial for change.
"Although you would think courts talk to each other, they don't,” Sakai said. “That's why there's a mixed message. The perpetrator's able to say one thing on one side of the courthouse and come on a custody case and say something different, so we're going to basically stop that.”
Speedlin-Gonzalez and her clerk, Teri Benavidez, decided they needed to create two new flash codes. In order to do that, they asked County Clerk Lucy Adame-Clark to request that the IT department create the following new flash codes:
The "AFFIRMATIVE FINDING OF FAMILY VIOLENCE" code means the person has been found guilty and has a lifelong firearm ban.
The "NO FIREARM" code means the person temporarily cannot own or buy a gun. The time frame is usually dependent on the length of deferred adjudication.
“It's heartbreaking to know that our systems have not had these kinds of flash codes implemented a long time ago,” Adame-Clark said.
Flash codes in general are not new and have been a part of the MOCHA system for years. Codes are periodically added, including several within the last year in reference to mental health.
The domestic violence and gun-related flash codes were added Aug. 12 because of the joint effort.
Sakai called it a “real game changer.”
Now, judges, clerks and bailiffs in every court, county or district can access the MOCHA system and see the new flash codes.
“Are they going to grant that protective order? Are they going to have special conditions for contact between the parent and children due to domestic violence? Does one parent supersede another in the way of custody because of domestic violence? Is one party at fault or not during the divorce because of domestic violence?” said Speedlin-Gonzalez, listing specific, lifesaving decisions that can be better made with this extra information.
Sakai plans to begin using the new flash codes immediately, but he said many judges don’t know about them. He said the next step is training so judges can understand and utilize the system.