Lawsuit filed in NC saying online court system violated constitutional rights

CHARLOTTE — A new online court system is supposed to be rolled out in every county in our area, but at least two people already claim it’s led to violations of their constitutional rights.

As 9 Investigates has reported, it’s all part of a statewide effort to get the court system online. But the update hasn’t gone as planned in its four pilot counties of Wake, Lee, Johnston and Harrnett counties.

Channel 9’s Hunter Sáenz has spent months looking into this and learned there’s a class action lawsuit filed over it. Some people said they were arrested multiple times for the same crime, or said they were arrested after their case was dismissed by a judge. They said all of it was due to software problems.

It turns out, the state courts still want to expand the software here.

The software

High-tech system eCourts was created to make our court system more efficient and accessible. But Zack Ezor, an attorney representing two people in a class action lawsuit, said it’s not working.

“It’s been a mess,” he said.

“You’ve got people who are spending unnecessary amounts of time in jail, getting surprised by arrests for charges they had no idea even existed,” Ezor explained.

In February, eCourts was rolled out in the four North Carolina pilot counties. The lawsuit claims there were “more than 573 software application defects” in the first two months. It says in one case, a plaintiff “was arrested a second time...even though her case had been dismissed.”

“It was just by a computer glitch that this warrant lingered in the system, causing the sheriff to arrest her again,” Ezor said.

Court documents argue “issues with eCourts were so significant that Harnett County suspended nearly all district court proceedings for a week.”

A bigger problem

“The eCourts rollout should have been done better and the powers that be should have known that similar rollouts across the country over the last decade encountered issues,” Ezor said.

Those issues include what happened in Lubbock County, Texas, where the suit says the system “...had caused people to be detained longer than necessary,” or in Alameda County, California where it says public defenders found “dozens of cases” where people were “wrongfully arrested; detained when they should have been released; or incorrectly told that they should register as sex offenders.”

“Rolling this out … will lead to similar harms on a greater scale,” Ezor said.

That’s what Charlotte defense attorney George Laughrun is worried about.

“I have never seen, in 43 years of being here, lawyers trying to stop a court system from upgrading,” Laughrun said.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs allege though the side of the class can’t be determined, it’s made of at least 100 people. They’re asking for an injunction to “adopt failsafe procedures to ensure a mechanism exists for immediately remedying future violations of the rights of North Carolinians that arise due to use of the eCourts system.”

The plaintiffs are also asking for damages and a jury trial.

When could it arrive in Meck County?

This was all supposed to go live in Mecklenburg County this month but that was postponed. There is no new date yet, but many in the court system don’t think it will happen this year.

“What is your forecast on when this actually will come to Mecklenburg County?” Sáenz asked Laughrun.

“When the rapture comes,” he replied.

Sáenz reached out to Tyler Technologies, which is over this software system. They said they don’t comment on pending litigation.

In an email obtained through a records request, one court official called the e-warrant system “e-miserable.”

The North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts shared a statement about the issue, noting they are not named in the lawsuit.

“NCAOC is not a named party to this lawsuit and has no comment on the merits of the lawsuit at this time,” their statement reads. “Since launching eCourts, NCAOC has consistently solicited court officials, attorneys, and the public to report any issues like those alleged in the complaint. We have investigated each report we have received and have not substantiated that any allegation of wrongful arrest or incarceration was caused by Odyssey (eCourts).”

More background

Currently, the county is using a 40-year-old system. For example, once you find a case file you need, you have to go to the courthouse to get it. This includes everything from murder cases to divorces, and even traffic tickets.

The new upgraded digital system is supposed to be more efficient by making information more accessible. It’s already used around the country.

(WATCH BELOW: Courts face backlogs due to COVID-19 shutdowns as families wait for justice)

Hunter Sáenz

Hunter Sáenz, wsoctv.com

Hunter is a reporter for Channel 9.

Michael Stolp

Michael Stolp, wsoctv.com

Michael is an investigative reporter for Channel 9.