Crime victims, defendants and anyone else with a phone or an internet connection can now get notified of updates on court cases in Hamilton County thanks to a state-funded program announced Thursday.
County and state court cases can be tracked using an online database managed by Atlanta-based Equifax and known locally as Tennessee's Vine, or victim information and notification everyday.
How Vine works
Online: Go to vinelink.com to register for a free account or download the Vine Link app. Cases are searchable by case number or defendant name, and you can also search for victim services.
By phone: Call 888-868-4631 (or 866-847-1298 for TTY)
Crime victim advocates said the system will make it easier for victims to keep up with cases as they move through the court system, which can be hard to navigate.
"This will empower survivors to know what's going on with their abusers, to know what's going on with the cases that are so vital in their lives," Amy Carlton, manager of the rape crisis center at the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults, said after Thursday's announcement. "We want them to feel like they have some control over a situation where, especially in domestic violence and sexual assault, control has been taken away."
Carlton hears from clients "every single day" who are confused by the court system, she said.
"Dates get changed, things get moved around," she said. "But having a survivor in court, it can make all the difference in a case."
Hamilton County is the first major metropolitan area in the state to integrate its courts into the Vine system, Gary Cordell, program coordinator for Tennessee's statewide victim notification system with the Tennessee Sheriff's Association, said at a news conference Thursday.
Around 80% of the state's courts are online with Vine, Cordell said. The statewide system also notifies victims if the defendant in their case is released from jail.
Victims and anyone else following a case can get notifications by text, phone call, email or on the Vine Link mobile app. Registering and tracking a defendant is kept anonymous and doesn't notify the defendant.
The rollout is possible thanks to $852,000 budgeted by state finance committees for this year, plus another $766,000 earmarked for continuing operations next year, state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said after Thursday's news conference. That money will go partly to hiring one new staff member for the Tennessee Sheriff's Association to run the program, Watson, who heads the state Senate's finance committee, said.
Vince Dean, Hamilton County's Criminal Court clerk, said this idea was first brought to him three years ago, but the county didn't have the money to make it happen. State funds made it possible, Dean said Thursday.
Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, who chairs the House finance committee, said she hopes it lays the foundation for passing Tennessee's version of Marsy's Law. The law, already passed in more than a dozen states, is an attempt to give crime victims the same level of rights as people charged with crimes.
"This is another way of balancing the equation between the criminal and the victim," Watson said during Thursday's conference. "Oftentimes, we spend a lot of our discussion on the criminal side and not enough time on the victim side. And really, victims are as important if not more important to us than the criminal."