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Company behind a digital court filing system in North Carolina now faces a class-action lawsuit

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.
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.

The rollout of an electronic court filing systemin North Carolina has triggered a class-action lawsuit. The suit claims problems with the tools have resulted in unlawful arrests and prolonged detentions.

Since the system, known as eCourts, and one of its components, a case-management program called Odyssey, were rolled out in four pilot counties in February, there have been significant slowdowns in high-volume district courtrooms. That is where attorneys and people representing themselves go to quickly resolve traffic tickets, seek domestic violence protective orders and to get their cases continued.

Problems with Tyler were 'entirely foreseeable,' attorney says

In 2019, following a bidding and selection process, the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts — or AOC — signed a $100 million contract with Texas-based Tyler Technologies to develop and implement eCourts as a replacement for the state's outdated 1980s-era mainframe computer and paper-based file system.

But the lawsuit filed in federal court on Tuesday claims eCourts has led to constitutional violations and that such issues were entirely foreseeable and, thus, avoidable.

"There have been instances where Tyler Technologies has rolled out similar software in different states over the last decade where people have been wrongfully arrested, over-detained, re-arrested on charges that they thought they were cleared," said Zack Ezor, an attorney with the North Carolina law firm Tin Fulton Walker & Owen, and a representative of the two named plaintiffs in the class-action suit.

The legal filing cites complaints and lawsuits, over an eleven-year period from 2011 to 2022, stemming from alleged problems with Tyler rollouts of eCourts-like systems in Texas, California, and in Tennessee and Indiana.

In the case of Tennessee, Shelby County and Tyler settled a class-action lawsuit that alleged wrongful detentions amid implementation of Tyler's Odyssey software program.

Tyler was not a named defendant in the Indiana case cited in the North Carolina complaint against the company. In the Indiana case, plaintiffs sued Marion County over what they alleged was the sheriff's failure to deal with compatibility issues as Tyler's Odyssey product was implemented. The complaint in the Indiana case actually notes that other Indiana counties using Odyssey did not have the same detention issues seen in Marion County. However, the attorneys in the North Carolina case are arguing that the compatibility problems seen in Marion County, Indiana, made the alleged problems seen here foreseeable, which could bolster the negligence claim against Tyler.

"I knew this was coming," said Chas Post, an attorney who practices criminal law in Lee County, one of North Carolina's four pilot counties, with Lee, Johnston and Wake, where eCourts was rolled out in February.

A launch in Mecklenburg County, originally set for May 8, has been delayed indefinitely.

Lawsuit claims woman arrested after her case was resolved

Post told WUNC in an earlier interview that one of his clients unjustly spent a night in jail because of eCourts. A couple of months ago, according to Post, his client had been facing charges in two separate cases: one a serious offense involving a shooting, the other a lower-level felonious drug possession case. With little evidence to go on, the prosecutor dropped the more serious case and Post's client pled to the drug possession for a probationary sentence and then went home, only to get arrested that night when heading out to the store.

Post said he suspects that an earlier arrest warrant that should have been nullified after his client resolved his cases fell through one of Odyssey's digital cracks.

It is a situation that is very similar to one of the plaintiffs represented by Zack Ezor in the class-action lawsuit filed this week. That woman, Timia Chaplin, had been arrested for missing a previous court date on a misdemeanor. At a subsequent court appearance, a judge dismissed the charges and the woman's case was fully resolved, or so she thought. She ended up being arrested again on the same failure-to-appear warrant.

"There was no valid reason to arrest her at all," Ezor said.

AOC says it has not "substantiated" any allegations of wrongful arrest due to Odyssey

Like Ezor, attorney Chas Post said he believes there are many more cases like that out there.

"When the government takes action and it starts affecting real people and their constitutional rights, then bad things happen and lawsuits start coming," Post said.

Tyler Technologies along with the sheriffs' departments from the four pilot counties are being sued. In response to the WUNC inquiry, Tyler said it's their standard practice not to comment on pending litigation.

AOC is not named in the lawsuit but said in a statement: "Since launching eCourts, NCAOC has consistently solicited court officials, attorneys, and the public to report any issues like those alleged in the complaint. We have investigated each report we have received and have not substantiated that any allegation of wrongful arrest or incarceration was caused by Odyssey [eCourts].”

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated that Tyler had settled the Indiana lawsuit over alleged wrongful detentions. But Tyler neither a party to nor a defendant in the Marion County, Indiana, suit – the sheriff's department sued was accused of failing to account for compatibility issues with the Tyler product, Odyssey, as it was implemented and integrated with the county’s system.

Rusty Jacobs is WUNC's Voting and Election Integrity Reporter.