Wrongfully in jail: eCourts issues mount in Mecklenburg County
One person spent nearly five days in jail — but shouldn’t have been there at all
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Nearly three weeks since Mecklenburg County moved from a paper-based to fully-digitized court case system, attorneys are sounding the alarm on lengthy delays and eCourts issues leading to unnecessary jail time.
In one case of mistaken arrest, a man spent nearly five days at the Mecklenburg County Detention Center that his public defender says shouldn’t have happened.
Two attorneys have told WBTV that anecdotally, the defense attorney community in Mecklenburg County is experiencing numerous issues with getting people out of jail promptly.
All this comes as the company behind the software as well as the court system in North Carolina responsible for implementing the software have come under fire after numerous issues, delays, and a class action lawsuit coming from the pilot launch of eCourts in four counties in February.
The North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts, responsible for overseeing implementation, told WBTV in response to this story that AOC staff continue to assist on site in Mecklenburg County, and that the software is “working as intended.”
In one case that WBTV privately reviewed but agreed to keep the client’s identity private due to fear of repercussion in the active criminal prosecution, a person was first wrongfully arrested and then held for several days as delays attributed to eCourts mounted.
A mistaken arrest
Public defender Katie Claire Hoffmann said it all began with an arrest based on the mistaken revocation of electronic monitoring for her client, an issue she believes was unrelated to the digital software – until she tried to fix it.
“The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, who manages the electronic monitoring program, made a mistake. It was not malicious. It was not intentional, but they made a mistake and thought that he had picked up a new charge,” Hoffmann explained.
That happened on Friday, she said. Monday morning when she learned what happened, she got in touch with CMPD, and they agreed – it was a mistaken arrest, and he wasn’t supposed to be in jail. She contacted the assistant district attorney on the case next, and he also agreed.
What happened next, Hoffmann believes, is the fault of the new digital software.
A ‘high-priority’ failure
On Monday at 11am, Hoffmann submitted a bond modification request through the eCourts system. Without a judge’s signature on the request, her client couldn’t be released from jail—even though police, prosecution, and public defense all agreed he shouldn’t be there to begin with.
When she submitted it, Hoffmann said she selected the highest priority in the system – and then she waited for it to move into a judge’s task queue.
Tuesday morning, she was still waiting. Hoffmann reached out to clerks in the Mecklenburg County Clerk’s Office to try and get some help in getting the request into a queue.
Despite numerous rounds of emails, it wasn’t until 4pm on Wednesday, October 18, that a judge signed off on the modification, according to online court records reviewed by WBTV. All in all, between the mistaken arrest and then the struggle to get the modification request into a judge’s digital queue, her client spent nearly five days in jail without cause.
“Before eCourts and before Odyssey, there was always an ability for defense attorneys to fix mistakes,” Hoffmann explained. “We could take a modification or we could take a motion to the court, sit in the audience, and when a judge had a moment, we could approach the court and fix the mistake.”
It’s not that Hoffmann or most other attorneys are opposed to the new digital system. Better public access to court records is good, Hoffman explained – but the software is failing them when high-stakes mistakes happen that need immediate attention.
In this case, she believes the fix is simple: Have the ability, like before eCourts launched, to get face-to-face time with a clerk or judge to fix immediate issues, when necessary.
“I would have been able to fix this in one day before eCourts,” she said.
Meanwhile, her client’s mother is out $2,000 that won’t be returned. Tuesday afternoon, Hoffman said, the family grew tired of waiting and instead opted to pay his bond – something that should have also triggered his release.
“It seems like these problems are happening here in Mecklenburg County rather than having been addressed before it rolled out here,” Hoffmann said.
Court system says releases are ‘processing appropriately’
The AOC, when reached for comment and provided the case number of Hoffmann’s client, at first responded that release orders were “processing appropriately” through eWarrants, one of the software that is part of the eCourts package.
However, Hoffmann’s issue was a concern with Odyssey, a separate software within the eCourts package. When asked again about her specific issue, spokesperson Graham Wilson said task queues were “working as intended” and that documents were being delivered to the appropriate officials.
“Our staff continues to assist as needed to support the local release process, procedures, and forms,” Wilson said in an email.
Wilson also pointed to a new law that took effect on October 1 statewide, the Pretrial Integrity Act, which changed how bond is set for certain felonies and is contributing to some delays in the county.
Sheriff: Release delays mount amid glitches
Overall since eCourts launched, Mecklenburg Sheriff Garry McFadden said the length of time has increased to get inmates out of detention.
“The wait times are much longer,” McFadden said. “We are getting calls from citizens. We’re inundated with people from the community worried about when the person is going to be released.”
The longest time McFadden said he’s personally seen is a person waiting eleven hours to be released, after their release had been granted in court.
Some of that he attributes to not enough training for his staff on the front lines of dealing with jail releases and the public. Additionally, now three weeks into the launch, he says people are still dealing with glitches and crashes.
“It is still difficult when the system goes down or it’s a glitch, as they say, and sometimes we don’t even know what the glitch is,” McFadden explained. “They say it’s a glitch in the system and it’ll come back up and the screens will come back up.”
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