UNION COUNTY, NC (WBTV) - The Union County Sheriff's Office charged a mother in hiding with her young daughter with felony child abduction in mid-January despite the advice of a criminal law expert who advised otherwise.
Kristy Brooks was arrested in late January after being charged with one count of felony child abduction.
The UCSO got a magistrate to sign a warrant for Brooks' arrest for the charge just days after she spoke to WBTV while in hiding.
At the time of Brooks' interview with WBTV, she was wanted on a civil contempt order that had been issued by a district court judge because Brooks failed to follow an order requiring Brooks' daughter to live with the child's father.
Months later, the Union County District Attorney refused to present the child abduction charge to the grand jury. Instead, Brooks was indicted on one count of felony obstruction of justice.
New records uncovered by WBTV show the DA had a conversation with a criminal law expert at the UNC School of Government months before Brooks was charged by the sheriff's office.
District Attorney Trey Robison contacted School of Government Professor Jeff Welty just before Thanksgiving 2016 about the case, emails obtained by WBTV show.
Robison wanted Welty's opinion on whether a felony child abduction charge would be appropriate for Brooks, who had been in hiding with her daughter for nearly a year at the time of the initial communication.
Welty said three different charges might be possible: kidnapping, child abduction and obstruction of justice. Ultimately, though, Welty offered reasons as to why the kidnapping and child abduction charges wouldn't fit.
"Abduction of a child might be difficult to prove because it sounds like mother did not abduct the child or induce the child to leave father. Rather, it sounds like mother had the child at the time the new custody order came into effect and has simply kept the child," Welty wrote of the possibility of bringing a child abduction charge.
Welty continued to advise against a child abduction charge several weeks later, even after Robison presented additional facts in the case.
"The child abduction statute may have been intended for situation somewhat like this, but the statute requires an abduction or an induced departure from the custodial parent, and neither of those seem to be part of the fact pattern," Welty said.
It is not clear if Welty's advice was ever shared with detectives at the Union County Sheriff's Office but multiple sources tell WBTV there was a difference of opinion between the DA's Office and the Sheriff's Office over whether to charge Brooks with felony child abduction.
Ultimately, the Union County DA never presented the child abduction charge to the grand jury, even after she was arrested on the charge. Instead,
Brooks was indicted on one felony count of obstructing justice.
Charlotte criminal defense lawyer Tim Emry said it is unusual for law enforcement agencies to go against the advice of experts from the School of Government.
"If I'm representing Ms. Brooks, I'm saying this is a vindictive effort," Emry said. "They are upset that she's gone into hiding, they are upset that they can't find her, they're upset that she's given an interview with someone in the media – that particularly is embarrassing – and so it's gotten personal!"
Emry said he thinks the information uncovered by WBTV will make it hard for the district attorney to prosecute Brooks for any crime.
"It sends a message to the community of breading distrust. If people are pursuing charges that they know or have reason to believe don't have merit, that impugns the integrity of the whole criminal justice system," Emry said.
Robison, the District Attorney, declined to comment on his exchange with the School of Government, citing the pending criminal charges against Brooks.
Representatives from the Sheriff's Office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.