Chaos and controversy precede eCourts launch in Mecklenburg County

DMV Commissioner calls for pause; Some prosecutors ask for review of system.
DMV Commissioner calls for pause; Some prosecutors ask for review of system.
Published: Oct. 9, 2023 at 5:22 AM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - North Carolina’s largest county courthouse will fully transition Monday from its paper-based case management system to software designed to digitize nearly every aspect of a court case.

While some county criminal justice leaders declared Mecklenburg County ready for the transition in August, other legal experts are expressing serious concerns after the eCourts pilot program in four other counties has faced controversy and chaos in the first six months of its rollout.

The transition has prompted an ongoing federal civil rights lawsuit, reports of lengthy processing delays, calls for an independent review from two county district attorneys, and safety concerns from the N.C. DMV Commissioner.

Federal lawsuit alleges wrongful arrests, lost cases

Two plaintiffs represented by attorney Zach Ezor have filed a class action lawsuit in federal court, alleging they faced either wrongful arrests or extended jail time because of the eCourts transition in the pilot counties.

One plaintiff, Timia Chaplin, alleged she was rearrested on a defunct warrant after her charges were dropped in Wake County because one part of the software did not communicate the change with the warrants section of the software, eWarrants.

Another plaintiff, Paulino Castellanos, said his case was “lost” in the transition, and then he was held in jail for longer than required because there wasn’t an electronic monitoring device available.

“You can imagine how unsettling that is,” Ezor said. “You’re just trying to go about your daily life, trying to get a new job trying to move on from this episode, and the specter of potentially being arrested again is just hanging over you.”

Only two plaintiffs are named in the lawsuit, although it alleges “hundreds” of others experiencing similar issues. Ezor said they will be filing an amended complaint, identifying additional clients.

The lawsuit targets Tyler Technologies, the firm that developed the software for the state of North Carolina, as well as the Wake County and Lee County sheriffs.

All three defendants have filed motions to dismiss the lawsuit; Tyler Technologies maintained in their filing that their software was not to blame for the issues.

In a 37-page filing for dismissal last week, Tyler Technologies claimed the lawsuit was short on facts and armed with “nothing more than conclusions.” The company pointed out that tens of thousands of cases were processed in the pilot counties, with the lawsuit only naming two people who claim to have had issues.

The North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts said in a statement they have investigated the claims of wrongful arrests and unwarranted jail time and found no instance where an eCourts software defect has caused those issues.

“Over one million criminal processes and hundreds of thousands of electric filings have been successfully processed,” AOC spokesperson Graham Wilson said.

Lengthy processing delays worry top prosecutor in Mecklenburg County

In the first two months of eCourts’ rollout in the four pilot counties, the AOC logged 573 issues they reported to Tyler Technologies, ranging from minor to significant in scope.

In Harnett County, the rollout led to a suspension of nearly all district court proceedings for a week, according to Ezor’s lawsuit. The next phase of rolling the system out into Mecklenburg County was indefinitely delayed around that time, until those issues were resolved.

On August 23, Mecklenburg County’s senior resident Superior Court Judge Carla Archie and Chief District Court Judge Elizabeth Trosch announced eCourts was ready for expansion and would launch in Mecklenburg County on October 9.

“The road has not been smooth, but much success has been achieved over the last six months,” they wrote in the release.

“This pilot period has enabled the vendor to resolve software issues and make enhancements to digital court processes, resulting in a much-improved system for statewide use.”

Days before eCourts was set to fully launch in Mecklenburg County, district attorney Spencer Merriweather sat down with WBTV. His staff and the county clerk’s staff are as ready as they can be, he said, but some concerns remain.

“I think the lesson that all the pilot counties have learned is that you don’t really know what you’ve got until it lands on your front door.”

In the pilot counties, Merriweather said he has watched as processing delays for standard court proceedings decreased from 90 minutes to 15 or 20 minutes per proceeding, such as in an initial appearance.

“That is a step in the right direction,” Merriweather said. “However, 15 to 20 minutes for sessions that might include as many as 300 litigants is still quite problematic.”

In a county where scores of people are processed through initial appearances on any given weekday, he fears court sessions may last well into the evening in at least the first week of the eCourts launch in Mecklenburg County. He warned his staff to expect to stay late, and temporarily reassigned other staff to help cover the load.

“I know that when people come and arrive at the courthouse, they’re coming because something went wrong in their lives, and so that is a difficult thing in and of itself,” Merriweather said.

“I ask for the general public to understand that we’re working as hard as we can – to ask for patience and grace for them as well.”

North Carolina’s court system says eCourts is ready

North Carolina’s AOC has overseen the eCourts transition process ever since its inception in 2015 when a committee determined it was necessary to move the state into the 21st century.

When asked whether AOC saw the system as ready to launch in Mecklenburg County after its issues over the last six months, spokesperson Graham Wilson pointed to the August press release from the county’s top judges, declaring the system ready.

Wilson also pointed to Johnston County Clerk of Court Michelle Ball, who told the News & Observer in September that she thought eCourts was ready to expand.

“The comprehensive scope of the eCourts project in North Carolina makes it a unique and exceptionally transformational replacement of paper processes with a network of software platforms connecting all 100 counties,” Wilson said in an email.

Both the Wake and Johnston County district attorneys have publicly called for an independent review of the eCourts rollout in their counties, due to the issues they experienced.

While Merriweather is not yet joining them in that call until he sees how the launch goes in Mecklenburg County, he still supports any efforts to launch a review.

DMV alleges safety concerns amid data delays

Meanwhile, the head of a department not normally associated with criminal justice has sounded the alarm and asked for a delay in implementation ahead of the software’s rollout in Mecklenburg County.

NCDMV Commissioner Wayne Goodwin, believes eCourts’ launch in the state’s largest and busiest county will exacerbate an issue where driver’s license data shared between courts and the DMV has been problematic since eCourts started in the pilot counties.

“We have tallied around 19,000 errors where our staff has had to go in and manually correct errors that have come through eCourts to our system,” DMV spokesperson Marty Homan said.

More than 60% of those data entry issues have been cases where eCourts data registered that a fatality was connected to an incident where no death happened.

In other cases, Homan said, eCourts data was missing dates for license suspensions or revocations, such as with a case where a person is accused of driving while intoxicated.

“Convicted customers are able to remain on the road because the information that we’re getting is not correct,” Homan said.

It’s not new for there to be data issues between North Carolina’s court system and the DMV’s data system, both of which are antiquated. However, the issues have nearly quadrupled in the four counties where eCourts was rolled out, causing an exponentially large amount of extra work for DMV staff to correct the data.

The AOC, however, is pushing back on the characterization that the data is faulty.

“NCAOC is not providing erroneous data to NCDMV,” Wilson said in an email, blaming instead the DMV’s antiquated system that controls drivers’ licenses in the state.

“I don’t know what else you would call missing or incorrect information,” Homan said in response. “We’re calling that an error because we’re having to go back and correct it.”

As recently as late last week, the AOC has implemented a fix meant to correct the data issues, both Homan and the AOC told WBTV.

However, for the DMV, the concern is a launch of eCourts in Mecklenburg County before there has been a chance to watch how that fix plays out over a period of time.

Past issues with Tyler Technologies

Tyler Technologies has faced lawsuits and issues with their software rollouts before. Ezor’s class action lawsuit cites seven different cases in other states, ranging from a case in 2011 in Ector County, Texas, where software rollout issues were so significant that the county withheld payment to the company.

In 2016, the media outlet Slate reported public defenders identified dozens of people who were wrongfully arrested or detained in jail after a northern county in California rolled out Tyler Technologies’ software.

The company has also settled another similar class action lawsuit to the one that Ezor is bringing now. Thirty inmates filed a lawsuit alleging they had been over-detained or wrongfully arrested after the software’s rollout in 2016 in Shelby County, Tennessee. That lawsuit settled five years later for almost $5 million.

Tyler Technologies, in their motion to dismiss Ezor’s case, pushed back on the characterization that it was the software causing the issues.

“None of Plaintiffs’ examples of other “harms” link Tyler’s software to the alleged errors,” attorneys wrote in the filing.

“Any alleged problems with transitions in California, Texas, and Tennessee have nothing to do with software tailored to North Carolina, deployed in North Carolina and implemented by North Carolina officials.”

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