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New electronic case management system for NC courts gets off to a sputtering start

Wake County Justice Center - Raleigh - 030223.jpg
Rusty Jacobs
The Wake County Justice Center on Thursday, March 2, 2023. Wake is one of four counties, with Johnston, Lee, and Harnett, where the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts is piloting a new electronic case management system.

For people charged with a crime, cited for a moving violation, or seeking a domestic violence protective order, a day in court is no picnic. And a new case management system being piloted in four North Carolina counties is making such visits even more of an ordeal by prolonging the time it takes to process such matters.

"Nobody wants to be in a criminal court," said Raleigh-based attorney Taylor Manning. "Especially the defendants who are there with their life and liberty on the line."

Manning has been practicing criminal defense in Wake County for more than 10 years as a private attorney who also does contract work for the state as a court-appointed lawyer for indigent defendants.

"And a lot of people," he added, "it's very inconvenient to go to court, of course, and they want to get in and out quickly."

But things have slowed significantly since the introduction of a digital case management software system that went live Feb. 13 in Wake and three other pilot counties: Lee, Johnston and Harnett. And the new system is being rolled out at the same time courts continue to work through backlogs caused by the COVID pandemic.

The new program is replacing an antiquated system that 'works well' but is 'brittle'

The program, Odyssey, is supposed to make it easier for the general public to access court files and submit payments. So far, however, it is causing major headaches for clerks, judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys like Manning and their clients.

In 2019, the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts contracted with Texas-based Tyler Technologies to develop an integrated software system tailored to the needs of North Carolina courts. AOC's Director, Andrew Heath, who came on board in 2021, said the state's outdated filing system with its 1980s-era mainframe computer had to be replaced.

"I mean it works well but it's brittle and it's obsolete in many cases," Heath told WUNC. "The mainframes are expensive, they're very difficult to maintain, the security patches are difficult."

Tyler won the 10-year, $85 million contract to develop the new system in 2019, after a competitive bidding process. Odyssey was supposed to go live this past October but got postponed because of problems integrating it with programs run by law enforcement and other state agencies.

Courtroom flow is getting bogged down by computer-based bottlenecks

After Odyssey had been running in the pilot counties for a little more than a week, Manning described a plea agreement he had handled earlier that day in superior court. Manning had filled out a plea transcript, a checkbox form with the details of the agreement between the defendant and the prosecutor, scanned it into the electronic filing system and sent it to the judge's queue. Then, the parties noticed a typo that had to be corrected on the form.

"And [the judge] can't just delete that from his queue, he has to do something with it," Manning explained. "So he ended up having to actually forward it back to the D.A.'s queue just to get it out of his box."

Attorney Taylor Manning at Wake County Justice Center - 030223.jpg
Rusty Jacobs
Taylor Manning, a Raleigh-based criminal defense attorney, outside the Wake County Justice Center on Thursday, March 2, 2023. Manning has concerns about the impact a new electronic case management system is having on the flow of work in the courthouse and lawyers' ability to adequately represent their clients.

According to Manning, a time-consuming process ensued that included re-scanning the corrected transcript, sending it to the clerk's computer queue, and then on to the judge's queue.

"Where in the old days," Manning said, "the judge might call the two attorneys up to the bench, we would agree on the change, maybe initial it, explain it to the defendant, and then proceed and that would all take about two minutes."

A lot of the courtroom delays can be traced to the various computer queues, where clerks and judges must wait on one case file before they can move on to the next one.

In an email to WUNC, an AOC spokesman said his agency and Tyler Technologies are aware of the slowdowns and that ongoing work to resolve software defects—and improved proficiency by court personnel—will help improve the system's performance.

Routine traffic matters are taking four to five times longer to handle, according to an attorney

The bottlenecks are especially acute in district court, which handles high volumes of cases, from traffic tickets to DWIs, misdemeanor assaults and larcenies.

On a typical day in what's known as disposition court, Harnett County attorney Parrish Daughtry could come in, resolve as many as 20 traffic tickets, hand them over to the clerk for processing and assigning costs, and then pass them up to the judge, all in about 10 minutes.

"And it would take the judge about five minutes to sign 20 tickets," she added. "Check is in them, you're done."

But that was before Odyssey went live in Harnett, one of the four pilot counties. Now routine traffic cases take four to five times longer to handle, according to Daughtry.

Parrish Daughtry, right, with her father and law partner, Gerald Hayes - outside the Harnett County Courthouse 022323.jpg
Rusty Jacobs
Attorney Parrish Daughtry, right, and her father and law partner, Gerald Hayes, Jr., outside the Harnett County Courthouse, on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023. Parrish Daughtry has raised concerns about deficiencies in the new electronic case management system being piloted in Harnett and three other North Carolina counties.

"We're waiting on 10 electronic steps to get the same thing done," she said.

And the delays have even greater significance for people waiting to obtain an emergency domestic violence protective order, or for someone with a DWI conviction who now might have to wait a day or more to obtain a limited driving privilege versus 30 to 60 minutes under the old system.

"They don't go to work that day legally," Daughtry said. "They don't go get their child from school that day legally, they don't go to the doctor that day legally, or whatever they're dealing with."

"Think about not having access to legally drive for a day versus an hour," she added.

The problems are 'well within the range of what would be normal,' AOC official said

AOC Director Heath said snags are to be expected when a massive overhaul shifts from the testing phase to implementation with real data and a steep increase in the number of users.

"I think we're well within the range of what would be normal for a project of this size," Heath said. "That doesn't mean it isn't frustrating for the end users and the public, and the bar and for our court officials and their staff."

Parrish Daughtry said she is concerned that Odyssey's deficiencies pose a threat to defendants' due process rights and private lawyers' ability to competently represent their clients.

"We don't have access to our client's court files," she said. "We don't have access to un-redacted files. Some of that will be resolved as the system gets uploaded."

In response to follow-up questions submitted by WUNC, an AOC spokesman said in an email that private attorneys have access to court information through the Odyssey public portal, "including elevated access to confidential information for juvenile, special proceedings confidential, and protective order cases where they are the attorneys of record on a case."

Furthermore, the AOC spokesman said, attorneys can obtain documents to which they are legally entitled from the clerk of court if they cannot retrieve them electronically.

Of even greater concern to Daughtry is the ability of district court judges to see sensitive case information through Odyssey prior to trial.

"The judge has access to entire court files," she said. "And as the trier of fact, they should not."

In other words, district court judges, who serve as both judge and jury for bench trials, should not be able to see evidence like alcohol breath test results in DWI cases before the matter is heard.

AOC does not have control over information that litigants or their attorneys put into court filings in their own cases, according to an AOC spokesman. But the spokesman said Odyssey's electronic filing system does have a tool for redacting sensitive information from documents being filed.

Criminal law requires 'a human touch,' attorney said

Wake County attorney Taylor Manning said he's concerned about what could happen when a client misses a court date due to car trouble or illness.

Before Odyssey, Manning would find the assigned prosecutor, explain the situation, file a motion to strike the called and failed, get the judge's signature on an order recalling the arrest, and personally deliver the order to the clerk's office. Crisis averted in about 30 minutes.

But now Manning said he can't physically track his motion as it slowly makes its way electronically from queue to queue.

"I don't know what to tell my client because I don't know how long it might be before the assistant D.A. looks at it, I don't know how long it might be before the judge looks at it, I don't know how long it's going to be before that makes it back to the clerk," Manning said.

And in the meantime, Manning added, there might be an officer looking to put his client in cuffs.

"There are some things that require a human touch and I believe criminal law is one of those," Manning said.

Mecklenburg will be the next county to go online, 60 to 90 days after the pilot counties, according to AOC's timeline for the rollout. Then the rest of the state's counties will transition to Odyssey on a rolling basis until the courts in all 100 counties are online by the end of 2025.

Meanwhile, attorney Parrish Daughtry said, "AOC is building the airplane as we're flying it."

Rusty Jacobs is a politics reporter for WUNC.