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Posts tagged as “District Court”

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

A courthouse moment: ‘Tuck the sweatshirt!’

Phillip Williams might have seen the sign.

It was hanging off the door Williams used to enter Courtroom 4D. “Pull your pants up and tuck in your shirts,” it said in Comic Sans. “If you are not dressed appropriately your case WILL NOT BE HEARD…”

The sign outside Courtroom 4D.

If he saw the sign, he didn’t follow its rules. When his turn came to face District Court Judge Brian Wilks, Williams ambled to the center of the room, a pink sweatshirt hanging untucked on his lanky frame, boxers peeking over his jeans.

The bailiff took one look at Williams and heaved a long, loud sigh.

“Out,” he grumbled, gesturing for Williams to leave the courtroom, fix his appearance, and then return. Williams gave a half shrug, grabbing distractedly at his unfastened red belt and walking back into the hallway. 

When Williams strolled back in, he’d fulfilled half the requirements on the sign: the red belt was tighter around his waist, the boxers now safely tucked beneath jeans. “Straight?” he asked.

The bailiff wasn’t satisfied.

“OUT!” he shouted at Williams, directing him back into the hallway, eyes wide in disbelief. “Tuck the sweatshirt!” 

The courtroom erupted in giggles. Judge Wilks rested his head on his knuckles.

“Ahh,” Williams turned around for his second try, stumbling to the door of the courtroom as he shoved his pink sweatshirt into his jeans. He returned to the dias looking uncomfortable, a stray rumple of sweatshirt spilling over his belt.

The courtroom chuckles subsided as Judge Wilks leveled his gaze at Williams, who rocked from foot to foot, waiting for his scolding. 

“Man!” the judge suddenly exclaimed. “This is no fashion statement!”

Williams stopped rocking. 

“I guarantee you, if you see me not in this robe, off this bench, I won’t have my shirt tucked in!” the Judge joked. “Guarantee! ‘Cause it’s not cool!”

There came the wave of giggles again – muffled laughs into shirt collars, hearty guffaws from the back, and even a snort from Williams’ attorney. 

But the judge said there was a good reason for the rule on courtroom attire.

“The climate we live in these days… you never can tell what people got,” he said. “I’ve watched the safety video, and no lie – a gentleman as slim as you are, right? He had on a sweatshirt, and he pulled out about 19 guns and knives from around his waist. He even had a shotgun down his pants!”

At that image, two ladies in the front bursted into laughter, shoulder-to-shoulder in chuckles.

“See, if something pops off in this courtroom, I can dive behind my desk,” the Judge mimed bending over. “But that’s not gonna protect you all

“My job, and the deputies’ job, is to protect you. And to protect everybody that, unfortunately, has to come into this courtroom.

Back to business. “So,” he turned to look at Williams, “This is a motion to continue?”

Elsewhere in the courtroom, several other defendants waiting their turn before the judge quickly but quietly tucked in their shirts, sweatshirts and jackets.

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.”