When their son didn't come home one night, Julie and Dennis Danielson fretted that something terrible had happened. The young man suffers from a mental illness that requires daily medication.
Two days later, the Danielsons got a call from a mental health facility 90 miles away in Riverside County, Calif. It turned out that their son had been arrested on the mistaken suspicion that his erratic behavior at a casino was drug-induced.
After retrieving the young man, Julie Danielson checked the mail that had piled up during frantic days of worry. She was shocked to see at least 12 envelopes - postmarked only hours after her son's arrest - from defense attorneys offering their services.
The lawyers had been eager recipients of a jailhouse e-mail list supplied daily by the county sheriff. And the situation is not at all unusual in America's digital information feast.
Just as the work of police, college recruiters and employers is being transformed by ever-more efficient database technology, so is the legal profession.
Lawyers in many states can now track down the names and addresses of prospective clients - within hours of their legal entanglements - with the help of electronic records and information vendors.
North Carolina's 1999 decision to electronically centralize 100 counties' court records every day was a boon for SpeedingTicket.net, an information service that previously had to send people to courthouses to dig for files, a costly and time-consuming process.
SpeedingTicket.net pays the state 10 to 30 cents for each record that it downloads (the state collects about $1.7 million annually this way), and then charges lawyers 50 cents to over $1 to relay the data or perform value-added services, such as printing and mailing letters to prospective clients.
"All the attorney has to do is take the calls," said company founder John White. SpeedingTicket.net has expanded its quick record-searching service to Florida, New Jersey, Washington, Oregon, South Carolina, Georgia, Michigan and Oklahoma.
Lawyers who drum up business with direct mail argue that it gives people facing such charges as driving-while-intoxicated a much better way to get legal help than rifling through the yellow pages. White says attorneys tell him that about one out of every 10 recipients end up calling - an uncommonly good advertising success rate.
But direct solicitations from digitally adept lawyers are coming under increasing scrutiny. Some critics say it's merely an update to ambulance chasing.
The Danielsons felt their mail deluge invaded their privacy, especially one firm's envelope that openly proclaimed: "Experts In Drug Charges."
The couple was astonished that Riverside County deputies failed to call them when their son was arrested - though contact and medical information was in the young man's wallet - yet managed to inform people who wanted his business.
"The whole situation was very disturbing, that they would use this technology to benefit lawyers but they couldn't even pick up a cell phone to call his father," Julie Danielson said.
After a series of complaints, Riverside County's deputy counsel, William Kenison, recently asked the sheriff's department to stop e-mailing daily arrest records to lawyers - unless they sign a statement promising not to use the lists to pitch prospective clients.
Kenison said he considers lawyers who use such sources for direct mail "bottom feeders."
"I hate this issue so much," he said.
In New Jersey, which sends information companies who have registered with the state daily updates of who's been arrested, a Supreme Court committee recently tightened its rules on the content of direct-mail solicitations after hearing complaints "in a volume too great to ignore." One man had received 22 letters from lawyers.
Defense attorney Charles Kish says his Southern California firm sent 50,000 letters last year - including one that reached the Danielsons. Those missives yielded 4,000 responses, he said, and 300 clients. The firm does its mailing in-house, getting names and addresses e-mailed by county sheriffs.
Kish was angered by Riverside County's decision to stop providing its lists, saying that would only hurt people who now might not get appropriate legal help.
Dave Fisher, news director for United Reporting Publishing Corp., a courthouse information service in California, said he believes about 18 of the state's largest counties have taken similar steps in recent years in light of a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said officials can refuse to give defendants' data to commercial services.
Ironically, it was United Reporting that lost that case, which arose out of a lawsuit against Los Angeles police. (United Reporting still gets defendants' information in Riverside and other counties - and sells it to a wide range of customers, including lawyers and small-town newspapers - because it won a court decision classifying it as a news organization).
Fisher says cutting off digital access to defendants' names can't stop direct mail solicitations, because the records are public - and can be relayed quickly even if they aren't stored electronically.
"We send people to courthouses with laptops, digital scanners, even digital cameras - we have to convert it all, effectively digitize the information," he said. "If the person gets arrested before 11 (a.m.), we'll have it that day."
That kind of instant information isn't always useful for lawyers. As recently as four years ago, 11 states required attorneys to wait a specific period, generally 30 days, before sending mail to people involved in such sensitive matters as wrongful death or personal injury cases, according to the American Bar Association.
The ABA considered making the time restriction a national rule but decided that existing restrictions were sufficient, said Will Hornsby, staff counsel in the ABA's division for legal services.
Among the rules: mail from lawyers has to be labeled advertising and cannot be false, misleading or create unreasonable expectations - by listing an attorney's "batting average" of acquittals, for example.
Hornsby said direct mail still accounts for a small percentage of attorney advertising. Nevertheless, electronic dissemination of defendants' data makes it easier than ever.
In 2002, Scott Nichols took advantage of New Jersey's daily updates to launch CourtClerk.Net, an attorney marketing service he has since expanded to Pennsylvania, which provides records weekly.
CourtClerk.net also just launched a Web program that lets a defendant visiting a lawyer's Web site ask to be contacted. CourtClerk.net will immediately dial the attorney's contact numbers and automatically call the prospective client to connect the two sides.
Nichols said he believes direct mail could lose its effectiveness if too many lawyers use it in one area, which explains how one New Jersey man could get 22 solicitations.
He said he would try to redirect attorneys to courthouses that don't already have many other lawyers mining the records.
Even so, he acknowledged: "I don't know how that's going to play out when you have some other service that doesn't adhere by those rules. It's a free market."
By Brian Bergstein
© 2004 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.