Deploying eCourts has developer, sheriffs, others in litigation

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(The Center Square) – Less than three weeks after the North Carolina Judicial Branch said things were “running smoothly” with the rollout of an electric court record system in Mecklenburg County, a new court filing suggests otherwise.

An amended lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina on Friday lists seven new plaintiffs and the state’s top court executives as defendants to litigation seeking at least $5 million in damages from the ongoing transition to the state’s $100 million eCourts system.

The added plaintiffs include five Wake County residents, as well as one each from Guilford and Mecklenburg counties. The initial suit filed in May involved two residents, one from Lee County and one from Wake County. Defendants include Tyler Technologies, the state’s vendor, as well as sheriffs in Lee and Wake counties, local and state court officials, sureties for the courts and sheriffs, and others.

The NC Judicial Branch expanded its transition to eCourts from the pilot counties of Harnett, Johnston, Lee and Wake to include Mecklenburg County on Oct. 9, despite months of complaints during the pilot phase and calls to halt the rollout.

“We are pleased to report that the eCourts launch in Mecklenburg County has gone well,” Charles Keller, spokesman for the judicial branch, wrote in an email to The Center Square on the first day.

Attorneys in the pilot counties reported longer than necessary court appearances; delayed protection orders; wrongful arrests; delayed jail releases; and other issues accessing the system. The shift to electronic records was billed as an effort to streamline proceedings and expand public access to records.

The lawsuit, which is seeking class-action status, says there have been constitutional violations involving delayed jail releases and multiple arrests from the same warrant. The issues in Friday’s court filing suggests this has continued in Mecklenburg County.

The filing contends Mecklenburg County resident Allen Sifford was arrested in Belmont on July 7, 2023, for an “active” warrant in the electronic system and held in the Gaston County jail for more than two days, despite having his case dismissed in October 2022.

Other issues cited in the amended lawsuit involve delayed releases from the Mecklenburg County jail.

“During the first four days following the launch of eCourts in Mecklenburg County, and due to … technological defects, approximately 66 people were detained well beyond the point their conditions of release were satisfied,” it reads. “Prior to eCourts, it would take, upon information and belief, anywhere from 2-4 hours for a detainee in Mecklenburg County to be released; but after eCourts, some people were held for 2-3 days despite having satisfied all conditions imposed on them by the justice system.”

Graham Wilson, communications director for the North Carolina Judicial Branch, wrote in an emailed response to The Center Square’s request to discuss the lawsuit that officials “do not have any comment on the filings at this time.”

The judicial branch website states “improvements to system speed and stability, refinements of programming integrations, and standardization of new business processes have been key accomplishments during the pilot phase that prepared the platform for deployment in Mecklenburg County.”

Beyond the lawsuit and attorneys in the pilot counties, Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Wayne Goodwin has also called for a halt in the rollout over concerns about how driver’s license data is shared with his department that has required extensive manpower to correct.

Many of those errors, which a department spokesman said totaled around 19,000, involved eCourts data registering fatalities that didn’t happen, and missing dates for license suspensions and revocations.

Attorneys representing plaintiffs in the lawsuit have said they intend to add additional plaintiffs and defendants as eCourts continues to expand to more counties every 60 to 90 days until all have transitioned by 2025.

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