Focus in Oberender case shifts to reducing risk of similar errors

by MATT BUNKE

carver county news

Carver County Sheriff Jim Olson said he still doesn’t know why there was no record of Christian Oberender’s 1995 murder conviction in the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s files prior to his arrest earlier this month, but added that the focus now has shifted to ensuring similar errors don’t happen again in the future.

Oberender was arrested on Jan. 2 at his Watertown Township home, a home that has a Delano address. Law enforcement personnel found in the house 13 guns, firearms that he was possessing illegally as a felon, but may have been able to purchase through legal means after errors were apparently made regarding his criminal background history. A background check on Oberender following his arrest, using the BCA’s system, showed no disqualifiers to his right to purchase guns.

BCA spokesperson Jill Oliviera said that’s because the BCA relies on criminal justice agencies to submit information, but I never received any information on Oberender. The Sheriff’s Office is supposed to send booking information, including a fingerprint card, and Court Administration is supposed to send the case disposition, but Oliviera said the BCA did not receive either of those things. Olson said he’s had meetings with the BCA and court administration, but hasn’t come up with any answers.

“We don’t why this happened; why this was not in the system,” he said. “We wanted to try to find out what happened, and I don’t know if we’re going to be able to figure out what happened in this case.”

Instead, the focus for the Sheriff’s Office has now shifted to making sure there aren’t similar cases to Oberender still out there, and secondly, making sure it doesn’t happen again. Part of making sure it doesn’t happen again has been taken care of already, Olson said, through natural advances in technology.

At the time Oberender was convicted in juvenile court for the 1995 murder of his mother, information was submitted from law enforcement agencies to the BCA through the mail. At that time, there was no confirmation as to whether the information was received, Olson said.

Now, however, Olson said everything is sent electronically, including the fingerprint card. The Sheriff’s Office is told right away whether the fingerprint card is good.

“Technology has brought us a long way when it comes to the integration of records,” Olson said. “I never like to say never, but I think it would be very, very difficult for a case like that to slip through the cracks again because of the technological advances that have occurred.”

Nonetheless, the Sheriff’s Office says it is doing its due diligence to look at other cases similar to the Oberender case to make sure the files are complete. Chief Deputy Jason Kamerud said there may have been confusion regarding the Oberender case as to how juvenile and adult records are intermingled for background check purposes.

“We’re taking a look at a couple of cases that are similar in nature where it involves juveniles with crimes of violence,” Kamerud said. “We’re making sure those cases are where they need to be.”

In addition to looking at cases similar to Oberender’s, Kamerud said the Sheriff’s Office is making an ongoing effort to reduce the number of its “suspense files.” Suspense files are those files in the Computerized Criminal History System, maintained by the BCA, that do not have complete information. That could be because the file is missing one of the two key pieces — either the booking information or the court disposition — or because of any number of other potential mistakes, possibly as simple as typographical errors in the person’s name, date of birth, or other information.

It is important to note, however, that the Oberender case was not a suspense file. In that case, there simply was no record of Oberender at all. However, suspense files could easily lead to the same problems in determining who can legally possess guns and who cannot.

“We’re really getting after our suspense files,” Kamerud said. “We’ve been working  on that for some time, and we’ve made terrific amount of headway in the last 10 years. We’re going to continue to focus on that this year.”

Kamerud said the Carver County Sheriff’s Office is actually in the lower tier of agencies in the state in terms the number of files that are still in suspense. The Computerized Criminal History System has nearly 2.2 million files since 1990, 168,694 of which the BCA says were in suspense as of the end of December. Only 1,637 of those suspense files are from Carver County, and only 650 of those were related to the Carver County Sheriff’s Office.

“Six-hundred of those over the life of the system is a fairly low number,” Kamerud said. “We’ve been working on it since 2002. We’re significantly better than we had been, and we’re going to continue to get better.”

The Carver County Sheriff’s Office isn’t the only agency striving to reduce the number of its suspense files. As recently as 10 years ago, roughly 30 percent of case dispositions submitted to the BCA could not be matched to an arrest record. The Minnesota Legislature at that time encouraged the BCA to work with Minnesota criminal justice agencies to reduce the number of statewide suspense files to less than 10 percent, a goal that was achieved in 2010. Currently, 7.7 percent of the files in the system are in suspense.

That overall percentage roughly matches the number of new files that enter the system in suspense. In December, for example, the BCA received 11,018 new dispositions statewide, 920 of which (8.4 percent) were in suspense. However, only three of the 109 dispositions received from Carver County last month (2.8 percent) were in suspense, including just one of the 82 received from the Sheriff’s Office (1.2 percent).

 

Contact Matt Bunke at matt.bunke@ecm-inc.com

 
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