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North Carolina’s Busiest Courthouse Goes Digital This Month

Despite what critics say was a rough rollout in four pilot counties earlier this year and lingering concerns from lawyers, Mecklenburg County is scheduled to transition to a more digital courthouse on Oct. 9.

(TNS) — For the most part, it was business as usual in courtroom 4130 on the afternoon of Sept. 14.

Prosecutors stood on one side of the room, defense attorneys on the other. They argued whether a defendant should still be required to wear a monitoring device. There was a bond hearing. A woman pleaded guilty to larceny.

But two judges presided over the courtroom that afternoon; multiple clerks were there, too. Lawyers huddled around laptops. Chief District Court Judge Elizabeth Trosch paced the floor, alternating between talking to the presiding judges, court staff and a reporter watching from the pews.

It was the first tandem session for criminal court in Mecklenburg County, a chance to test the waters before the county goes digital, and a sort of trial run.

Despite what critics say was a rough rollout in four pilot counties earlier this year and lingering concerns from lawyers, Mecklenburg County is scheduled to transition to a more digital courthouse on Oct. 9.

Past issues delayed rollout

The shift to the state’s new system, a package of software applications called eCourts, is intended to allow the public to find information, pay fines and fees and file court documents online. It also allows lawyers, judges and clerks to do much of their work from computers.

It’s been a long, delayed road to Mecklenburg’s eCourts rollout.

Some defense attorneys, prosecutors and court staff have lamented the system’s performance since it launched in the pilot counties — Wake, Harnett, Johnston and Lee — earlier this year. Slowdowns and glitches are among the persistent complaints.

More alarming, a proposed class action lawsuit alleges that eCourts’ shortcomings have led to violations of North Carolina residents’ rights, wrongfully putting them in jail and extending their time behind bars.

The state Administrative Office of the Courts, which is overseeing eCourts’ $100 million implementation, said that it has investigated such claims “and found no instance when an eCourts software defect resulted in a wrongful arrest or incarceration.”

Early on, though, that office’s director, Ryan Boyce, acknowledged in a letter to a lawmaker that the transition “has not been easy.”

“High priority defects” and a standalone error that transmitted incorrect speeds on citations stalled a planned May rollout in Mecklenburg, Boyce told House Democratic Leader Robert Reives in the April 21 letter.

Asked what specific defects Boyce was referencing, AOC spokesperson Graham Wilson kept things vague.

“Configuration issues, errors in application processes, or ‘defects,’ are general terms that refer to specific issues identified with a particular case event or action producing an unanticipated result,” Wilson wrote in a Sept. 14 email.

Those issues have been resolved and Mecklenburg will be ready for eCourts come October, he said.

Attorneys have concerns

Some lawyers aren’t as optimistic.

Rob Heroy, a defense attorney and the former president of the Mecklenburg County Criminal Defense Bar, is “a little nervous, based on the train wreck that’s been going on in the other counties,” he said.

He said he’s heard of courtrooms that have ground “to a halt.”

“I’d like to say that it’s unfamiliarity with the new system,” he said. “But the fact that it’s been going on for … months in other counties, and it’s still going painfully slow, leads me to believe it just is painfully slow.”

A more accessible court is great in concept, two prosecutors who’ve tested the new system told the Observer. But there were still problems when they practiced using eCourts, they said.

It worked well enough for traffic cases, when there wasn’t paperwork to attach, Assistant District Attorney Colby Stevenson said.

But something as basic as attaching documents has drawn out court processes that are normally routine, Madeline Guise, another assistant district attorney, said.

On Sept. 14, the two prosecutors struggled for an hour-and-a-half to move through three cases, they said. Normally, those cases would have taken about 15 minutes.

Attorneys are going through a learning curve, and eCourts’ software is not always intuitive, Guise said. A slew of options and buttons on her computer’s screen has confounded processes that used to be straightforward, she said.

“I’m a little nervous about applying this system that seems to not run as smoothly as it could, particularly in a county of this size,” she said.

Guise’s and Stevenson’s boss echoed two district attorneys in pilot counties who say it’s time for an independent review of what vendor Tyler Technologies promised the state and what it delivered in eCourts.

“My district remains days away from the rollout of Odyssey,” Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather said in a Sept. 20 message to the Observer. “But I, along with my fellow DAs and other court stakeholders — not to mention the general public — are the customers to whom services are to be rendered.”

“Why in the world wouldn’t I want to see that kind of review?” he said.

Clerk’s office moving thousands of cases online

Courthouse staff in Charlotte are trying to apply lessons learned in the pilot counties.

“We’ve learned we’ll have to shrink court sessions in those first few weeks that we go live, just to make space for the fact that while this will bring efficiencies, in the beginning there’s going to be a learning curve,” Trosh, the chief district court judge, said in an August interview. “Things are going to go slower.”

ECourts will be “transformational,” and will increase access, transparency and efficiency, Trosch has said.

Mecklenburg County Clerk of Superior Court Elisa Chinn-Gary’s office has been working, too.

Clerks are pre-scanning paperwork from a projected 16,000 cases so that they will be online and ready to use, Brittany Foster, a spokesperson for the office, said. They started that work in September.

It would be a “numerical impossibility” to post every file in the courthouse, Chinn-Gary said. But the goal will be for all paperwork filed on and after Oct. 9 to get uploaded, accepted by the clerk and available for public viewing.

“It’s a heavy, heavy workload,” she said of the preparation.

Johnston County Clerk of Court Michelle Ball said she thinks eCourts is ready to expand.

Pilot counties, including Johnston, have done much to refine the system, she said, and the Mecklenburg County stakeholders will continue to make the system better.

“If it rolls across the state, all of us in our individual county sizes and types, we will continue to improve on the processes and the system will just benefit from it,” she said.

Ball recommended that the Mecklenburg County county clerk get some sleep the night before eCourts goes live and utilize the resources provided by the state and Tyler Technologies. Listen to the stakeholders and communicate all the problems, she also advised.

All the pilot county clerks will be standing by to help her, she said.

© 2023 The Charlotte Observer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.