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Posts tagged as “Clerk of the Court”

Coronavirus concerns halt evictions in Durham

Sheriff Clarence Birkhead has stopped serving eviction notices and padlocking rental properties in Durham County to help slow the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Evictions stopped in Durham days after North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley issued a series of emergency orders pausing nonessential court proceedings and giving sheriffs across the state the ability to postpone some enforcement actions.

A Monday evening statement from Birkhead confirmed that his office has decided to halt eviction service.

“I am suspending the service of these judgments until further notice,” Birkhead said. “Although Chief Justice Beasley’s order does not specifically address this process, it has been interpreted that under that order a suspension would be allowable.”

Beasley’s issued the first order halting nonessential court proceedings in North Carolina on March 13. In a memo two days later, she clarified that her first order included eviction proceedings.

That effectively shut off the flow of new writs of possession — the court orders to evict tenants that have lost to landlords in court. But while new writs stopped coming more than a week ago, dozens already existed. The sheriff’s office estimates around 180 evictions occur in Durham every week.

As of last Wednesday, the sheriff’s office said it was still legally required to serve those pending eviction writs. But on Thursday, Beasley issued another order that ended up freezing those writs, too. It pushed back the due dates for many filings and “other acts” of the North Carolina courts, including evictions. Under this order, actions due on March 16 or later would now be on time if done by April 17.

Normally, tenants who lose in court have 10 days to file for an appeal. Under Beasley’s order, motions to appeal an eviction ruling are still timely if filed by April 17. That means all eviction cases with original final appeal dates on or after March 16 are postponed.

Last Friday, the office of the Clerk of Durham County Superior Court said it had stopped issuing writs for such cases and recalled all of the writs it had sent throughout that week involving those cases.

Several of the state’s largest counties had determined by Saturday that Beasley’s order also gave them discretion to halt eviction service. Peter Gilbert, a Legal Aid lawyer who focuses on eviction defense, said those included Mecklenburg, Wake, Guilford, Forsyth and Cumberland.

On Thursday evening, the Durham sheriff’s office indicated it was working to interpret Beasley’s order hours after it came out that day. The office continued to consult with legal teams and the judiciary on Friday.

By the time the sheriff decided to stop serving writs, there may have been none left to serve. Gilbert, who works in the Eviction Diversion program run by Legal Aid and Duke Law’s Civil Justice Clinic, said the pending writs were likely all recalled by the clerk.

“It’s essentially moot,” Gilbert said Monday, before the sheriff issued his statement. “It’s not his authority, because the clerk has started recalling any writ from March 3 or after. That should be and almost certainly is all of the pending writs of possession.”

Clerk of Durham County Superior Court Archie Smith could not be reached Monday evening to clarify whether all pending writs had been recalled. But on Thursday, Smith told The 9th Street Journal he intended to follow the spirit of Beasley’s order.

“The lens from which I will interpret things where I have the option to interpret things will be through public safety, with a focus on limiting social contact for the purpose of limiting the spread of contagion,” Smith said.

Birkhead’s Monday statement said that “no one has been evicted into a homeless situation as a result of recent orders.”

But some evictions may have already occurred amid confusion. According to Gilbert, at least one padlocking occurred on Thursday before Beasley’s order, but after sheriffs in other counties had stopped serving evictions.

“Anyone being evicted during this time is at a great risk, not only to themselves, but as a vector carrying disease,” said Gilbert. “The governor is urging us to stay home. It’s impossible to stay home if you don’t have one.”

Durhamites struggling to pay rent will be able to stay in their homes for several weeks, but eviction still looms over them.

“These cases are delayed. They are not dismissed,” Gilbert said, adding that courts are still receiving new eviction filings.

“When this ends, there is going to be a tsunami of evictions,” Gilbert said. “That is going to be aggravated by the fact that so many people in Durham are cost burdened. They are already spending over half their income on rent, and with so many workers losing hours or being unable to work at all, I suspect that whenever this ends, we are going to have a real eviction crisis.”

At top: A sign posted by Durham County sheriffs deputies before a landlord changes the lock. Photo by Niharika Vattikonda

At the courthouse, replacing ‘shucks’ with modern record-keeping

The record-keeping system at the Durham courthouse is a glimpse back in time.

A large room in the Durham clerk’s office has drawers full of tightly rolled ribbons of film. An assistant clerk feeds a strip of “microfilm” into an old-fashioned grey machine and turns a knob. The black and white screen shows court records from as recently as twelve years ago.

Court records at the Durham courthouse are still kept on microfilm. | Photo by Swathi Ramprasad

A few steps over, there are stacks of large judgment books, bound in canvas and leather. Inside the books, in carefully crafted cursive, live the names of defendants and plaintiffs alongside their verdicts from cases until 2007. 

The clerk’s office is like a museum of record-keeping from the 1900s, with systems and documents that are reminiscent of generations past. Durham is typical of the rest of the state. It is still reliant on ancient computers and cardboard boxes stuffed with files.

Records from as recent as 2007 were still logged in leather-bound books – in cursive handwriting. | Photo by Swathi Ramprasad

But officials say help is on the way. A new initiative will bring a new electronic records system to Durham and other North Carolina courts over the next five years.

Mending a “Patchwork Quilt”

Archie Smith, the clerk for Durham Superior Court, says the state’s courthouses have been relying on a “patchwork quilt” of technology that “began to show its age.” 

In 2015, the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court studied the needs of courts throughout the state. One of the top priorities was technology.

As a result, the Administrative Office of the Courts signed a contract in July with Tyler Technologies, a Texas software company, to move North Carolina to a modernized system using their Odyssey case management tool.  

Christopher Mears, a spokesperson for the state office of the courts, said the specifics are still being ironed out.

“We ultimately are paving the way for a virtual courthouse,” he said in an email.

When it’s finished, Durham and other counties will get modern integrated systems so clerks can manage documents, keep track of finances, and help lawyers file their motions online.

The project is expected to roll to a few pilot counties by March 2021. 

“From Murphy to Manteo, everyone will be on the same system,” Smith said. 

Frozen in Time

Today, clerks are surprisingly dependent on paper and outdated technologies. Consider the situation in Durham’s District Court, which relies on antique-looking monochrome computers and envelopes known as “shucks.”

Shucks. | Photo by Swathi Ramprasad

The District Court clerk’s office first receives law enforcement agencies’ records, which are often adorned with hasty, illegible scrawl. 

Clerks then stuff these documents in color-coded shucks: grey for infractions, brown for traffic violations, white for criminal cases, and yellow for DWIs. 

An assistant clerk sits in front of a green and black screen, reminiscent of arcade games like “Space Invaders” from the age before color displays. She manually transfers each case’s details the court’s electronic database. 

Then, the shucks are moved to cardboard boxes, which fill a narrow room up to the ceiling. 

The monochrome monitors look like they were made in the 1980s. | Photo by Swathi Ramprasad

Sometimes, the documents are scanned and put onto CDs. The woman who scans them dips her hands in a pink tub of fingertip moistener, used by archivists who sort through thousands of parchments daily, so she can better grip the paper. 

The difficulty in finding an old case depends on how it was archived. If someone requests a file from the late 1900s, staff must leaf through the aged pages of the leather-bound judgement books or hand-spin the microfilm tapes on a machine that bears a striking resemblance to the first television. 

Court records are like time capsules, since documents remain in the format they were originally stored, Williams said. 

“Helping People at the Lowest Points in their Lives” 

The goal of the new system: make the court more efficient. 

“I expect that we’ll be completely electronic, other than scratch paper that you’d write notes to yourself,” Smith said. After all, North Carolina courts are running out of space to keep paper files. 

Electronic records sound promising. William Sheppard, Chief Deputy of the Dekalb County Clerk of Superior Court in Georgia, oversaw the county’s successful transition to the Odyssey Case Management software in 2016.

Boxes and boxes of shucks | Photo by Swathi Ramprasad

He says the system has saved time for the county’s staff and clients. Financial processing that once took two weeks is now complete within a day. 

But paper hasn’t disappeared from the courthouse. 

“We call it paper on-demand,” Sheppard said. It is still available, but they try to avoid print where possible. 

Blair Williams, Wake County’s Superior Court clerk, says he wants the technology to help humanize the court system. 

“I want to eliminate the keystrokes because they keep us from doing what we do best: helping people at the lowest points in their lives,” he said. 

“It Can’t Tell the Story that the Paper Can” 

Williams says it won’t be easy to get court staffers throughout the state to give up their familiar procedures. .

And others are wary about depending on technology. Lynn Vaughan, an assistant clerk of courts in Durham, said, 

“The computer system might be great, but it can’t tell the story that the paper can.” 

Technology often has glitches. Tyler Technologies, the creator of the Odyssey system, has faced reports of causing wrongful arrests, prolonged jail time, and premature releases in Alameda County, Calif., Shelby County, Tenn., and Marion County, Ind

These issues may stem from problems with the Odyssey software, including incompatibility with prior electronic systems or data-entry backlogs that delay cases from getting updated. 

Jennifer Kepler, a spokesperson for Tyler Technologies, defends the software. She said that

budget deficits in Alameda accounted for the county’s premature adoption of Odyssey, against Tyler’s recommendation. In Shelby and Marion, Odyssey was being blamed for issues caused by other court technologies, she said. 

Today, Kepler says the three counties are “satisfied clients,” with Shelby and Alameda counties winning 2019 Tyler Excellence Awards for their innovative use of the software. 

However, possible difficulties with the technology remain on North Carolina’s radar.

“If there’s a failure in the system, the injury to the courthouse process would be colossal in scope,” Smith said. “As cumbersome as the old system was, there was a certain amount of security in that warm fuzzy blanket of paper.” Smith said. 

Despite those reports, Smith and Williams agree that the computerized system will be an important step forward. 

“North Carolina is blazing a path for the courts of the nation.” Smith said. 

But chucking the shucks? That might take a generation on its own.

In photo at top, shucks for District Court cases are stored in cardboard boxes. | Photo by Swathi Ramprasad

Archie Smith: the unlikely rise of a Durham native and Atticus Finch fan

Archie Smith spoke to the young woman the day before she was murdered.

He had just started practicing law and saw the woman in the old Durham courthouse. She told him she was concerned about his client, who was charged with a violent crime.

“Look, are you up here today to see if you can get him out on bond?” she asked Smith. 

“Yes, I am,” he told her.

“Please don’t do that. I’m the victim. I’m going to get attacked. If you get him out on bond, he’s going to hurt me.”

‘Ma’am, I’m a lawyer, and I have an obligation to represent the best interest of my client. I’m compelled to do that as an officer of this court.”

Today, he can only remember that she was a school teacher, but he can’t recall her name. He was an attorney, “young and stupid. Full of myself,” he says.

“Sure enough, I got him out. The next day I was up at the jailhouse, and he’d killed her,” Smith says.

Today, Smith says he still carries a sense of guilt from the woman’s death.

“The woman looked me right square in the eye and predicted it. What it taught me was that hubris has no place in my life. If I had not been as callow, if I had been more mature at the time and listened and believed, she may still be alive today.”

He tries to bring that humility to his job every day as the Durham clerk of Superior Court. It may sound like a humdrum job, but it’s actually makes him one of the most powerful people in the courthouse. While the media eye watches District Attorney Satana Deberry or the defense attorneys, Smith not only manages the vital records of the courts, but he also acts as a judge  in cases about who’s competent to manage their finances and their legal affairs. 

Step into Smith’s trinket-filled office on the second floor and you’ll discover one of the most interesting characters of the courthouse, a native Durhamite who keeps the place running and tries to create community among the employees. 

‘All rise for the judge’

In North Carolina, court clerks have sweeping powers. Smith oversees the vital court records; he’s judge for about 46 proceedings, and he manages about 40% of Judicial Branch employees. Since becoming clerk, he’s aimed to build community among the staff.

Smith’s biggest responsibilities include controlling the inflow and outflow of court funds and hearing probate cases, where people quarrel over a dead relative’s will. And much of the time that he acts as judge, it’s up to him to keep and file the records.

Smith, 69, is a folksy grandpa with a fondness for Atticus Finch from “To Kill A Mockingbird.” He has shaved his white goatee and mustache into an upside-down teardrop shape. His teeth — slightly crooked on top and spaced out on the bottom — are visible when he grins and chuckles.

He talks slowly with a slight Southern drawl, chattering about “hogwash” or “a duck sitting in the water splashing.”

“The funnest part of my job?” He says. “Showing up.”

He puts people at ease. When the assistant clerk announces “All rise for the judge!”, Smith responds with a quick request that they sit, like he’s displeased with the formality.

He then changes to a professional, get-this-case-done approach, says Danielle Briggs, a county attorney at the Department of Social Services, who works with him on competency and guardianship hearings.

“Some judges will be very informal throughout a proceeding, and that will cause problems. (But Smith) makes a very clear switch from ‘Hey everybody. How’s it going?’ to ‘Okay, we’re going to straighten this out.’”

Smith sees many first-timers in his courtroom and in the clerk’s offices. He says that many Durham residents don’t have money to hire a lawyer. He wants to help them represent themselves without overstepping legal boundaries.

“If you’re not involved in the legal system, it’s Greek to you,” he says. “We can give them information and help them get something done and be a servant to ‘em. Make ‘em feel comfortable. Now we can’t do your work for ya, but we can point you.”

Despite his sweeping powers and the fact he’s won reelection since he started 17 years ago, he remains largely unknown in the city. 

Retired attorney Jay Freeman says most people don’t know what any North Carolina clerk does. 

“It’s a very important position,” he says. “It affects more people, quite frankly, than a judge does.”

The mediator

Smith’s office, tucked behind his personal courtroom on the second floor, is filled with an unusual mix of with trinkets and collectibles. A stuffed worm found in local tobacco plants, a Galileo thermometer, a paperback Guide to Texas Etiquette, and about 20 model cars. 

On his credenza, he keeps an 11-by-14 photo of Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” He says the convictions and character make him a role model. 

“He was trying to get to the truth,” he says of the legendary character in the novel and film. “In order to get to the truth, he sacrificed a lot. He was representing an unpopular cause. His community, with his daughter there, and all his neighbors there. He could have been ostracized from his neighborhood.” 

Smith sighs. “But it was so important to him. I have to admire somebody like that.”

He thinks a lot about integrity when the hard cases come, and there have been a lot of them since that young teacher died.

He sometimes has to keep parents from accessing their minor children’s trust funds, even when they just want to pay a utility or buy their kids a Christmas gift. He recalls denying competency to an ingenious but deceitful man even though people were backing his independence. 

He often has to say “no” – and that’s not always popular.

Satana Deberry, the Durham district attorney, says Smith tries harder than anyone else to be a mediator at the courthouse. 

“Archie is like ‘hail fellow well met.’ He has a classic Durham story that I don’t think we see a lot anymore. He is the white kid who grew up poor in Durham, really has been working his whole life to get where he is,” she says. “I think he sees everybody on the other side of the counter the same way he sees himself. I don’t think he makes any differentiation.”

Lifelong Durhamite

Smith was born at Duke University Hospital, delivered newspapers, and went to Durham High School, which is now just a memory. He recalls eating shaved ice from tall glasses in a Duke cafeteria and catching tadpoles in Dixie cups from the Duke Gardens. He’s a lifelong Durhamite, and he’s nostalgic about the past. 

“Well, Durham is home, gosh,” he says. 

He recalls a “happening” Durham with full employment and prosperity. He says it was the envy of the Raleighites and Caryans, if you will. 

“They don’t have something that Durham has,” he says. “We have a number of historic buildings that give a certain panache. The past tied to the future. Old warehouses and things, enough of that has been saved.”

Many of his office trinkets point to Durham’s past such as a nametag for his predecessor James Leo Carr, a key to the old courthouse vault, and some Ever Ready Oil to lubricate the key. 

His trinkets are “a reminder of the way things used to be. And I like being about the way things used to be,” he says.

He romanticizes watching the film “The Spirit of St. Louis” with his parents and younger brother at the Starlite Drive-In off Club Boulevard. But he says he likes the new, more avant-garde and pedestrian-friendly Durham, too.

“Well, if you don’t change, you’re going to get lost.”