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Posts published by “Niharika Vattikonda”

Six Durham County jail staff test positive for COVID-19

Six Durham County Sheriff’s Office employees assigned to the county jail have tested positive for COVID-19. 

No inmates have tested positive, according to a press release from Sheriff Clarence Birkhead. It’s not clear how many of the 262 inmates detained as of Wednesday have been tested for coronavirus.

Citing privacy concerns, the sheriff’s office did not identify where the six employees work at the Durham County Detention Center or the extent to which they interact with inmates or attorneys.

That didn’t sit well with Durham defense attorney Daniel Meier. Nor did the fact that the sheriff’s department did not notify local lawyers directly that some detention center staff have tested positive for coronavirus, he said.

That leaves lawyers with no idea whether they interacted with the six employees when checking in to speak with clients via video kiosks in the lobby of the detention facility, Meier said.

“Our frustration is they’re not even telling us what parts of the jail they worked in,” Meier said.

State officials report that 652 individuals have tested positive for coronavirus at state and federal prisons and in county jails in North Carolina. Among them, five have died.

The press release regarding the positive tests was released in conjunction with the Durham County Public Health Department, said David Bowser, the department’s communications and public relations manager. A state Department of Health and Human Services tally Wednesday says COVID-19 has been detected in correctional facilities in 12 counties, including Durham.

The sheriff’s department is working to prevent new inmates from bringing coronavirus to the detention center, Bowser said. When entering the facility, he said, new detainees are screened by a health provider. Those tested for coronavirus are held in one-person cells until test results are received.

The six employees who have tested positive are complying with coronavirus protocol, meaning they are under quarantine or being treated at a medical facility, Bowser said.

Only sheriff’s deputies assigned to the detention center work there now, Bowser said. All entering have their temperatures checked and must answer screening questions regarding COVID-19 symptoms.

Sheriff Birkhead’s office has been implementing additional procedures to protect inmates from coronavirus since mid-March.

“We really feel that we’re really adequately staffed over there to handle any situation,” Bowser said.

At top: The Durham County Detention Center is located downtown. Photo by Ildar Sagdejev, via Wikimedia

Protecting jail inmates from coronavirus

Sheriff Clarence Birkhead announced Mar. 16 that due to concerns about COVID-19, all in-person and video visitation to the Durham County Detention Center is suspended. Advocates from the ACLU, Duke Law, and the Safe and Human Jails Project, among others, are pushing for more changes to protect inmates’ health. 

Recent arrivals to the jail will undergo an additional screening for symptoms of COVID-19, and attorneys will only be able to communicate with clients through video kiosks. All first appearance hearings will be conducted by video conference.

These changes will affect all 369 inmates currently housed at the jail.

AnnMarie Breen, public information officer at the sheriff’s office, said the medical staff at the detention facility spoke to detainees about COVID-19, including how the virus is spread and proper hand washing techniques. Detainees are responsible for cleaning their cells, she said, and the jail has an adequate supply of hand sanitizer, disinfectant, and other cleaning products. 

“We feel like we’re doing the most that we can to make sure that those CDC guidelines are being complied with,” Breen said.

District Attorney Satana Deberry released a statement Mar. 20 emphasizing that her office has taken steps to reduce the detained population. In February last year, the DA’s office implemented a pretrial release policy that recommends releasing non-violent offenders without monetary conditions.

“As a result of these policies and efforts by judicial officials, law enforcement officers and defense attorneys, the population of the Durham County Detention Facility is already well below capacity,” she wrote.

Last week, her staff began stepping up reviews of the jail population and working to safely release individuals, particularly those who do not pose a public safety risk, are over 60 years old, or have pre-existing health conditions that increase their risk of contracting COVID-19.

Attorney Daniel Meier said attorneys are still allowed unlimited visitation with their clients in jail, and he’s able to meet with his clients 24/7. Instead of meeting in the attorney booths, where attorneys can slide paperwork to their clients, they are now communicating through secure video booths. 

The jail has 12 attorney booths but only two video booths. Now that video booths are in high demand for attorneys to meet with their clients, there can be delays, Meier said.  

Breen said that remote visitation might even be slightly more popular recently. Usually, she said, because of the costs involved with setting up remote visitation, there was a small fee associated with the service. Right now, the service is free, so many people are taking advantage of remote visitation.

In a letter to the Chairman and President of North Carolina’s Sheriff’s Association, advocates recommended that sheriff’s departments across the state implement additional precautions due to the anticipated spread of COVID-19. Advocates have suggested several strategies to reduce the county jail populations and maintain humane conditions of confinement.

To reduce county jail populations, the signatories of the letter have suggested releasing all individuals over 65 years old, those who have medical conditions that the CDC considers vulnerabilities in this outbreak, pregnant individuals, and others, unless there would be a serious safety risk to the community. They suggested stopping arrests for low-level offenses and issuing citations instead of arrests. 

Within the jails, signatories have suggested eliminating medical co-pays, ensuring adequate access to cleaning supplies, and avoiding the use of lockdowns or solitary confinement as a way to contain a potential COVID-19 outbreak. 

The signatories have emphasized maintaining confidential access to counsel, which Durham has implemented through the video kiosks available to attorneys and bonding agents, according to Sheriff Birkhead’s announcement.

“I’m not worried because, fortunately, we’ve got a very proactive defense bar. The DA’s office has stepped up and is working with us — so are the judges, the sheriff’s department,” Meier said. “I don’t know how other counties are doing it, but Durham is working together.”

‘That was my last resort’: Durham’s second chance for tenants

Vickie Castillo has lived in Durham for nearly three decades. After failing to make one month’s rent in November, she faced the possibility of being evicted for the first time in her life.

“I felt scared. I was nervous. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know if I was going to have all the money in time,” she said.

Eviction court is notoriously difficult for tenants to navigate. When they don’t have lawyers, tenants almost always lose and get kicked out of their homes.

They get evicted even when they have reasons for not paying such as losing a job, having a sick relative, or a broken-down car. And it doesn’t matter if they were purposely not paying rent to pressure the landlord to address issues with rodents, cockroaches, clogged plumbing, and more.

North Carolina doesn’t allow retaliatory action from tenants, and the court doesn’t have any leeway to give a tenant just a few more days to get the money together. If there’s unpaid rent, the landlord can seek an eviction judgment.

Castillo’s situation was unusual. She didn’t retaliate against her landlord, and she didn’t expect to come up short at the first of the month. She had been robbed, and had to scramble to make rent for November. She couldn’t and soon received the paperwork summoning her to the courthouse.

In court, the magistrate doles out eviction judgments every weekday. Tenants have 10 days to appeal their case to District Court. But to stay in their property in the meantime, the tenant will have to pay a bond, which includes the overdue rent and court costs.

Most evictions end here, in the magistrate’s hearing room. Tenants without representation rarely stand a chance of stopping the process. But Durham’s new eviction diversion program is, for some tenants, a fighting chance to stay in their homes.

***

The third floor of the courthouse is eviction headquarters. Tenants congregate around three magistrate hearing rooms. On the wall is a docket with nearly a dozen pages with green, blue, and pink highlighter marks trying to give order to the chaos. Cases are processed by the dozen—sometimes there will be over 100 before lunch.

A flyer for the program is hard to notice in the courthouse.

About 20 steps away, sandwiched between a call for participants for a maternal incarceration study and an ad for the Bull City Chili Cook Off is a blue and green flyer that is easy to miss.

Are you interested in possibly preventing an eviction and possibly avoiding a judgment against you?

The flyer’s text can barely be seen from two feet away, let alone from the eviction docket where most tenants wait. On Wednesday afternoons, the lawyers from the program will meet downstairs, and tenants are invited to bring leases, late notices, and court paperwork for review.

Most tenants don’t see the flyer in time to get help. Some might see it on their way to the docket, but once they head into the courtroom, their fate is sealed. Eviction court doesn’t grant tenants an extension to pull together money for unpaid rent or find a lawyer.

The diversion program is supported by Duke Civil Justice Clinic, a partnership between Duke Law School and Legal Aid of North Carolina. Law students represent tenants in eviction cases with guidance from Jesse McCoy, the clinic’s supervising attorney. The clinic helps tenants pay rent and reviews their case to make sure tenants aren’t overlooking serious concerns with the property that could help them win.

Tenants “myopically focus on the rent that’s due as opposed to also talking about some of the conditions that they’ve been living in,” McCoy said. People often don’t focus on the condition of the property, which might help them build a defense against being evicted.

Even if the students can’t find a legal defense for the tenant, they’ll try to postpone the hearing so people can move out with dignity. The goal of the clinic is to avoid collateral damage of a judgment such as a bad credit report.

***

After she was robbed, Castillo knew that she wouldn’t be able to pay the rent. Desperate to work out a solution, she reached out to churches in the area. She thought she scraped together enough donations to piece together that month’s rent.

And yet it wasn’t enough. Up against an eviction case, she found herself just short of the money she needed to cover the unpaid rent. But one of the churches gave her something more valuable: information about the Duke Civil Justice Clinic.

“That was my last resort,” Castillo said. “I heard about them at the last minute. And I went, because I was just going everywhere, where people were pointing me to, and so then Legal Aid was my last resort.”

Castillo was given a four-week extension on her rent, and with the help of the Civil Justice Clinic’s fund, she was able to cover the remainder of November’s rent. But a December court date still loomed.

Sometimes, the money is enough—the landlord will collect what they’re owed, and no one has to lose their home. In some cases, though, the landlord still wants the tenant gone.

Castillo’s advocate from the clinic was able to get her case dismissed. That won’t be reflected on her credit report or in any public record that could come back to hurt her. She fared better than most tenants: in a sample of eviction cases from December 2017, just 9% of cases were dismissed.

Most tenants are doomed as soon as they’re served with the eviction case, but for Vickie Castillo, one-time assistance from Duke Civil Justice Clinic kept her finances from falling off the rails.

“That’s what they did,” she said. “It was wonderful.”

‘You don’t know what’s behind the door’: Inside Durham’s evictions

Durham County Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Wood has the job that no one wants – especially not today, just a couple weeks before Thanksgiving, in the freezing weather.

Today is “padlock Friday,” the end to yet another week of evictions.

Wood has a stack of papers sandwiched between the sun visor and the roof of his white sheriff’s cruiser. Each one is a court order to complete an eviction, or a padlock, as they call it in the sheriff’s office.

It’s just above freezing, so Wood will have on his embroidered “sheriff” beanie, which falls just inches above his glasses. With a puffy black jacket on and a laptop that’s next to his steering wheel, there’s not much room left on the driver’s side of the car.

He’ll spend the day meeting with landlords and property managers, searching houses and apartments, and making sure that the locks have been changed on those properties so the evicted tenants cannot return.

Sometimes he finds families with children, abandoned pets, or, in one case, a tenant inflicting injuries on herself. But there’s nothing the sheriff’s office can do to change the eviction, Deputy Wood says.

“They were going to lose the property or wherever they live long before I got there,” he says, “and if it hadn’t been me doing it it’d have been somebody else.”

Durham saw 9,335 evictions in 2018, or about 180 every week. 

They all start with the same letter, calling the tenant to small claims court to answer for their failure to pay rent.

The tenant isn’t obligated to come to court, but if they don’t show, the eviction process will continue without them, Wood says.

***

Eviction court starts at 9 a.m. sharp nearly every weekday. Get there late for your hearing, and you might miss it in the sea of dozens scheduled for that morning. 

On some mornings, the magistrates will hear well over 100 cases, especially at the start of the month, when landlords file more claims.

Once defendants find their names on the docket outside, they slip quietly into one of the hearing rooms. Unlike in District Court, defendants here are handled first-come, first-served.

There’s no bailiff or court reporter. The only record of each hearing will be the magistrate’s scribbles on the back of the case envelope.

There are two tables. One is for the landlord and an attorney; the other is for the tenant and their attorney. But tenants rarely have one.

Sometimes, the landlords won’t show up. They’ll contract the case out to a law firm that specializes in eviction cases; lawyers will come in about every month or so, outgunning dozens of tenants in just minutes each.

Is your agreed-upon rent $550 per month?

Did you fail to pay rent for the months of September and October?

Are you still in possession of the property?

Tenants will admit that yes, they did sign the lease. And yes, that is the amount of rent that they agreed to. Yes, they missed rent for a month or two, but they were in a bind. They just lost their job, or their spouse died. Or their car broke down. Or a relative was sick. 

And many tenants tell eye-opening stories about poor conditions. Tammie Gibson said her rental home turned from a family atmosphere into a nightmare, a toxic environment that led her to develop depression. She described a stove that routinely caught fire, persistent issues with rats, and domestic disputes with other residents.

“I didn’t want to be there a minute longer,” she said to the magistrate.

Sometimes, tenants purposely won’t pay their rent to try to force their landlord to address a nagging problem such as a rodent infestation or perpetually clogged plumbing.

But North Carolina doesn’t allow this retaliatory action. If you live there, you have to pay for it.

The court also has no responsibility to evaluate why tenants can’t or won’t pay. Despite Durham’s problem with skyrocketing rents, with average rent rising 15% in the past three years, the court cannot grant tenants reprieve. From the court’s perspective, it’s simple: the tenant hasn’t paid rent, and the landlord needs the property back. The magistrate then has to rule against the tenant. 

Unless the tenant appeals the judgment within 10 days, it becomes a permanent eviction record, influencing credit scores and job applications for years to come.

***

Once that judgment is processed by the court, it’s added to Deputy Wood’s docket of padlocks.

He crisscrosses Durham every day, from downtown luxury apartments to public housing to  new suburban townhomes. Every hour, on the hour, he has an appointment to meet with a landlord to enforce the court’s ruling.

Deputy Michael Wood  | Photo courtesy of the Durham Sheriff’s Office

“You’re there for a job. You’re not there to judge people,” he says.

When he arrives, he gives the landlords his standard spiel: the tenant has seven days to reach out to the landlord to retrieve their property. Whatever is left in the property, whether it’s an unplugged fridge with rotting food or hordes of roaches scurrying around the corners, is up to the landlord to deal with.

He avoids most of their questions, advising them to get legal advice from somewhere else.

He knocks and presses his ear against the door, listening for movement to assess what he’ll face inside.

“With a padlock,” he says, “you don’t know what’s behind the door. You don’t know what’s in there. You have no idea.”

He walks in and holds up a flashlight as he searches rooms, closets, and cabinets,, hoping to avoid a possible threat around the corner.

People hide, he says. They’ll hide in nooks and crannies around the house, hoping to stave off eviction for a few more days, clinging to the time they have left.

But there’s no wiggle room, he says. He can’t give a tenant a couple hours, regardless how dire the situation. He is required to complete the eviction.

“At some point they have to know if they haven’t been paying their rent or fulfilling their obligation to the landlord … they’re being evicted,” he says.

A rare and lucky few will successfully appeal their eviction in District Court and get to stay in  their home.

Many others will work it out with their landlords — last-ditch efforts to cover the overdue rent or hastily work out a payment plan. 

“We’re standing there, the locks are in hand, they’re about to get changed and (the landlord and tenant will) make a deal or they’ll work it out and they’ll stop,” Wood says.

More often than not, though, he’ll find an empty property. Maybe the tenant left to avoid embarrassment, or maybe they fled the country, fleeing their eviction record as well.

But there’s nothing he can do about it now. He posts the orange sign and leaves.

In photo at top: Deputy Wood posts this sign before a landlord changes the lock. Once a padlock is complete, the tenant has seven days to arrange a time to pick up their belongings. Photo by Niharika Vattikonda | The 9th Street Journal

A courthouse moment: ‘Nobody takes this court seriously. Nobody.’

On Feb. 23, Vi Ong was charged with felony larceny. He was ordered to pay $149 in restitution to Target and complete community service.

He’s also on the hook for an additional $200 of “court costs”: $147.50 for the “general court of justice” fee, $12 for the facilities fee, $2 for the DNA fee, and several others. Five dollars will go to an ambiguous “service” fee.

Twenty dollars of his court costs — 10% — go toward just setting up an installment plan for his payments.

Once he makes those payments and completes community service, his case can be dismissed.

Now, Ong is in court for a compliance hearing. Judge Pat Evans will be checking on his progress.

Ong tells the court he recently faced an unexpected expense; his car broke down, forcing him to pay for repairs. He asks Judge Pat Evans for an extension on his court payments. 

Already that day, Judge Evans had postponed hearings and, in one case, dismissed a judgement entirely. When younger defendants say they’ll represent themselves, she provides a motherly nudge and recommends that they apply for court-appointed counsel.

But she doesn’t have that kind of patience for Ong. 

When Judge Evans flips over the envelope with Ong’s file, she makes no effort to put on a poker face — her eyes widen when she realizes his case has been carried over since February.

She orders him to pay the entire amount — all $249 — by the end of the day.

“Nobody takes this court seriously,” she says. “Nobody.”

The courtroom is silent, save the low mutter of “She’s not playing” from someone in the back. 

Ong heads out of the courtroom, down four floors to the cashier’s office, where’s he’s expected to make a payment that he cannot afford.

“I’m a little bit confused,” he says, “because the last time, the judge told me that I have up to a year to do the community service and to pay.”

Just that morning, Ong says, the clerk reassured him that he would qualify for an extension and that he shouldn’t worry about having to pay yet.

Ong says that he doesn’t know if Judge Evans even remembers his case or what she told him at his previous hearing. He uses a credit card but says he doesn’t know how he’s going to be able to find the money this month to pay down the balance.

“So now,” he says, “I have to scramble to make up the difference.”

Two DWI defendants walk into a courtroom: one leaves free, the other goes to prison

Two defendants pleaded guilty to DWI charges before Judge Amanda Maris. One walked out of the courtroom, and the other went to prison after Judge Maris denied his appeal for probation.

***

Judge Amanda Maris greets each defendant at the stand for Wednesday morning traffic court. She is generous with motions to delay hearings or requests to waive court and jail fees. She resolves cases quickly, often handling them within minutes of their introduction, and she expects attorneys to keep up the pace.

On Sept. 18, her packed morning takes two pauses — once to punish, and once to mourn.

Joshua Meckes shuffles to the podium as he prepares to plead guilty to Driving While Impaired. Judge Maris asks if he understands that by pleading, he is admitting guilt. He mutters, “Yes.”

A four-car crash. Open containers of alcohol and marijuana found in the car. Property damage totaling several thousand dollars. A Blood Alcohol Content level twice the legal limit. Meckes pleads guilty to the impaired driving that caused this collision. 

“You’re lucky no one was killed, sir,” Judge Maris says. “You’re responsible for affecting three other lives that night.”

Meckes’s attorney argues that the offense should be considered a Level 5 DWI conviction, the lowest sentencing level for that crime. He notes that Meckes cooperated with police, sought out treatment for substance abuse, and, aside from a speeding offense in 2011, had a mostly safe driving record.

Judge Maris chastises Meckes’s attorney for suggesting a Level 5 DWI conviction despite the presence of aggravating factors, such as the open containers and marijuana.

“The presence of open containers and marijuana in your vehicle is not a minor fact for this court,” she says. “It indicates a flagrant violation of the law.”

A circumstance as egregious as this, she says, shouldn’t be portrayed to the court as a minor offense, even if the defendant has taken steps to deal with substance abuse issues.

“Someone could have died that night,” she says. “We’re lucky they didn’t.”

As Meckes continues to look down at the ground, he lets his attorney field questions from Judge Maris, who will now decide his fate.

Judge Maris hands down a 120-day suspended sentence for Meckes, requiring 48 hours of community service, three months of weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and a monitoring device installed in his car. She adds on six months of supervised probation, despite the defendant’s request for unsupervised probation.

“It is not going to be unsupervised probation,” Judge Maris says. “This court does not have adequate assurance that Mr. Meckes is doing what he needs to, to provide for his own safety and that of Durham.”

“It’s just a lot of, a lot of stuff that I have to do,” Meckes says after his hearing. “It’s not worth making that mistake.”

***

About an hour later, Evan Hymes steps toward the podium, also ready to plead guilty to a DWI charge. He clearly says, “Yes, ma’am” when asked if he understands that he is admitting guilt.

Hymes, after a few too many drinks, drove his car into a ditch. His Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) reached 0.17, more than twice the legal limit.

He immediately admitted guilt, calling 911 himself to get towing assistance and cooperating with police officers once they arrived.

Hymes and his attorney make no excuses for his conduct that night, admitting that since he has two prior DWI convictions, this charge is a Level 1 DWI offense. 

While the Level 1 charge will require up to three years in jail, Hymes’ attorney is seeking probation under the condition that Hymes has already taken steps to support his sobriety.

“I appreciate, Mr. Hymes, that you’ve completed this inpatient treatment. I appreciate that you’re in AA,” Judge Maris says. “It’s the type of thing that I like to see when people are facing DWIs, and I’d like to see it sooner than now.”

As part of the plea hearing, Hymes makes a statement about his struggle with substance abuse. He says he hopes his recovery process may spur an individual in the audience to act on their own substance abuse issues.

“My name is Evan Drey Hymes, and I am an alcoholic,” he says. “As most, as some of you know, I was not always this way.”

Hymes describes himself as a devoted son, driven student, and dedicated Division I NCAA basketball player at Siena College. Basketball was his outlet, he says, for any of the obstacles he faced — an escape from the struggles he faced in his childhood.

“Here’s the kicker,” he says, “How does a young, black, successful student athlete, college graduate become dependent on alcohol?”

The courtroom is silent, lost in the tragedy that befell young Evan Hymes after he walked off the basketball court.

Hymes describes six or seven years of alcohol abuse, years in his life when he didn’t know where to turn in times of strife. He speaks about his inpatient treatment as an opportunity to connect with his faith as a basis for his newfound sobriety.

“I gave everything over to my higher power,” he says. “I asked him for forgiveness for everything that I’ve done in my past.”

His parents are in the audience. His mother muffles her sobs. Judge Maris turns away from Hymes to address his parents directly.

“I understand the pain you must feel right now,” she says, “to have your son up here facing the time that he is facing.” 

Judge Maris explains to the audience that an aggravated Level 1 is the most serious sentencing level for a DWI charge. People who are convicted on that charge, she says, routinely go to prison for a maximum of three years.

 “At a certain point there’s accountability,” she says, “and it’s now.” 

Evan Hymes will spend twelve months behind bars, the minimum for this conviction.

“It doesn’t give me pleasure to send people to jail — it doesn’t,” Judge Maris says. “But that’s what I have to do today.”

While Meckes trudges out of the courtroom at the end of his hearing, Hymes’s takes his place at the bench to Judge Maris’s right. He’ll sit on that bench until he can be transferred to prison to begin serving his 12-month sentence.

When the bailiff brings Hymes’s personal items to his parents in the audience, they ask if they can have one more chance to speak to their son. They are denied.

After a moment of looking at the parents, the bailiff goes back to Hymes and hands him a pad of Post-Its and a pen, a final opportunity to convey something to his parents.

New York men charged in thefts from four Home Depot stores

Two New York men were charged with attempted larceny from four Home Depot stores after more than $20,000 in merchandise was found in their minivan outside a store in Durham, according to a search warrant and court records.

On Sept. 27, Gaetan Dubosquet was seen with another suspect at the Home Depot on Mt. Moriah Road in Durham. As they perused the store, they picked up $8,235 worth of electrical equipment and other products, placed it in a garbage can and then tried to flee.

Dubosquet was caught by a police officer, but the second suspect got away, according to a search warrant filed by the Durham Police Department.

A 2018 Dodge Caravan in the store’s parking lot then apparently became the focus of the investigation.

A Home Depot employee told police it was the same vehicle used in four other larcenies from Home Depot stores in Garner, Raleigh, Cary, and Fuquay-Varina.

In those thefts, the suspects fled the stores with similar stolen electrical equipment, got into the same Dodge Caravan and drove away, according to the warrant.

The warrant said that a police officer could see the same GFCI Interrupter boxes in the minivan that the suspects attempted to steal. He also saw five black trash bags that appeared full.

After the warrant was approved, Bonfiglio seized $240, a wallet containing assorted cards and a New York ID for Dubosquet, a red iPhone, an E-Z Pass, a New York ID for Joshua Mitchell, a 50-gallon garbage can, and the stolen property belonging to Home Depot.

Dubosquet and Joshua Mitchell have been charged with attempted larceny, conspiracy to commit felony larceny, and resisting a public officer. Mitchell has also been charged with misdemeanor breaking and entering and possessing stolen goods and property.

Dubosquet is expected in court on Oct. 21, and Mitchell is expected on Nov. 14.