On February 13, the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts (NCAOC) rolled out eCourts, its long-delayed, $100-million digital records system, in Wake, Harnett, Johnston, and Lee counties.
That same morning, Christopher Clegg pleaded guilty to second-degree trespassing in Wake County District Court and was sentenced to the one day he’d already served in jail. But he wasn’t released. Nor was he released a week later, after he returned to court a second time, again pleaded guilty to the same crime, and was again sentenced to time served.
Defense attorney Molly O’Neil said an eCourts glitch kept Clegg behind bars for almost a month.
“For whatever reason, [Clegg’s] information was not marked,” O’Neil told The Assembly last week. “His judgment was not transferred to his jail paperwork.”
Clegg—who, coincidentally, last year became the first defendant to win an appeal in North Carolina on the grounds that prosecutors had excluded potential jurors because of their race—wasn’t released until March 9, O’Neil said.
Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman says the error wasn’t eCourts’ fault—at least not directly. Instead, she said the judge failed to sign a document instructing jailers to release Clegg, and clerks delayed getting another document to the jail—in part because they were figuring out the new eCourts system.
Since it went live six weeks ago, lawyers in the four pilot counties have complained that eCourts is a time-sucking, error-ridden trainwreck. But from the outset, court officials have insisted that, a few bumps notwithstanding, everything is fine. Three days after its launch, NCAOC Director Andrew Heath told WRAL that he considered the eCourts’ introduction a “successful rollout.” (The next day, Heath announced that he was decamping to the law firm Nelson Mullins.)
More than a year behind schedule and $15 million over its original budget, eCourts is supposed to replace North Carolina courts’ archaic paper-based records regime with a cloud-based system called Odyssey, designed by Texas-based Tyler Technologies.
In 2019, Tyler beat out six companies, including Thomson Reuters, to land the $100 million, 10-year contract—the largest software-as-a-service deal in the company’s history. Its “enterprise justice software,” already used by courts and police agencies in 27 other states, is supposed to move North Carolina’s court system to the cloud within the next two years.
eCourts was expected to launch in July 2021. But digitizing decades of paper records took clerks much longer than initially projected. The NCAOC also says that tailoring Odyssey to the state’s courts and developing eWarrants, an online statewide warrant repository, set things back.
eCourts’ four-county pilot program was delayed until later in 2021, then to October 2022, and finally to early 2023. Groups of counties are supposed to join every few months going forward, with the entire state on board by 2025.
But that plan has already gone off the rails. Due to “application issues and product defects,” Odyssey’s scheduled May 8 expansion to Mecklenburg County has been delayed, according to the Mecklenburg County Bar Association.
There were signs that the rollout might not go smoothly. During an online training session for legal professionals ahead of eCourts’ launch, an instructor couldn’t get the software to operate, according to two people who participated. And the Friday before eCourts went live, North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Newby, who oversees the NCAOC, sent an email to the state’s nervous judges imploring them to seek divine favor.
“The AOC staff and those of the pilot districts have done all we know to do to make the go-live successful,” he wrote. “Obedience is ours, outcomes belong to the Lord. Please pray for God’s blessing on this project.”
“Transitioning over to a system like this is inherently going to have glitches and problems under the best circumstances, and lawyers as a whole are very tech-unsavvy group of people,” said a criminal defense attorney who spoke to The Assembly on the condition of anonymity to avoid antagonizing judges.
“Lawyers are also kind of an ornery group. So I expected a lot of grumbling,” said the lawyer. “All of that is to be expected. The level of issues and problems with this is insane.”
On and off the record, numerous lawyers have complained to The Assembly in recent weeks that eCourts’ byzantine system requires multiple steps for once-simple processes.
That’s kept clerks in Wake and the other pilot counties working late nights and some lawyers pulling long hours, they said. Things have gotten so bad that Harnett County closed many of its district courtrooms this week.
For anyone involved in the criminal and civil court systems, these defects can have disastrous consequences.
Parrish Hayes Daughtry, an attorney who practices in Harnett County, said that since the switch to eCourts, “every day, people are sitting in jail longer than they should.”
It takes hours longer to secure bonds and to obtain defendants’ release after posting bonds than it used to, Hayes Daughtry said. Perhaps more troublingly, she said, “I’ve had clients get arrested when they shouldn’t be arrested because [their] case has already been taken care of, and it’s not showing up in the system correctly.”
O’Neil said that system errors prevented her from accurately assessing her clients’ criminal records—information crucial to sentencing decisions.
“Those were very, very inaccurate,” O’Neil said.
eCourts did not register misdemeanor convictions that were overturned or dismissed after being appealed to the superior court. That made defendants look like they had more robust criminal records—which can lead to stiffer sentences.
Some attorneys said they have encountered long delays obtaining domestic violence protection and child custody orders. Traffic tickets that used to be handled in minutes can now take hours.
“Normally I could handle 50 traffic cases in two hours,” Hayes Daughtry said. “Now it takes about 25 minutes to do one.”
Attorneys who specialize in traffic cases predict an incoming wave of license revocations.
“I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop because a lot of my clients can’t pay court costs because of the judgments or going [into the system] incorrectly or the software transposing numbers,” said Jeremy Cotten, a Wake County attorney who represents people in traffic cases.
The system, he said, is “trying to get you to pay off what you were originally charged with and not what was actually pled.”
Many speeding citations in North Carolina are pleaded down to a lesser offense, sparing drivers points on their license. But eCourts sometimes won’t accept payment for less than what the citation dictates, Cotten said.
“People can’t pay, and when they don’t pay, it takes 40 days—the DMV sends you a notice and says, ‘Hey, we saw you didn’t pay this ticket off. We’re gonna revoke your license,’’’ Cotten said. “So that’s gonna start happening literally any day now.”
Founded in 1966, Tyler Technologies today counts 22 of the country’s 25 most populous counties among its clients. Not all of its services are aimed at the criminal justice sector; it also offers software that assists with tax assessments and property appraisals, permitting, and utility billing, among other things.
But even a cursory glance at Tyler’s history with the Odyssey case management software suggests that the problems plaguing North Carolina’s courts were foreseeable.
In 2015, for example, inmates in Marion County, Indiana, sued the local sheriff, alleging that Odyssey led to multiple cases of unjust incarceration. The sheriff jailed one inmate for two days after his acquittal, allegedly owing to an Odyssey glitch.
Similarly, a Tennessee man alleged that he spent two weeks in jail on a parole violation instead of two days because of Odyssey’s mistake. He and 29 other inmates filed a class-action lawsuit against Shelby County, Tennessee, and Tyler Technologies in 2016; they settled for nearly $5 million.
Attorneys in Lubbock County, Texas, complained that a homeless man was jailed for 12 days in 2021 after his charges were dropped. Odyssey didn’t record the dismissal, they said.
Court officials in Alameda, California, also faulted Odyssey for wrongful arrests, delayed releases, and other problems in 2016.
“There are just so many levels to this problem it’s hard to quantify,” Brendon Woods, a public defender in Alameda, told The Washington Post. “But it’s not a person’s fault. It’s a software problem.”
Graham Wilson, communications director for the North Carolina Judicial Branch, told The Assembly that Tyler disclosed the pending litigation during the bidding process.
“Without specific case information, we would not be able to determine if the incidents described above were caused by the implementation of Odyssey,” Wilson said in an email. The NCAOC has not answered any questions about what steps it took to investigate the claims in those lawsuits and news stories before awarding Tyler Technologies’ contract.
Tyler Technologies spokesperson Karen Shields declined to comment and referred The Assembly’s questions to NCAOC.
Freeman, the Wake County district attorney, served on the committee that picked Tyler Technologies. Freeman told The Assembly that the committee ultimately determined that Tyler was the only bidder with a proven track record in other jurisdictions and the capacity to build the technology needed to modernize the state court system.
The NCAOC has not yet produced records The Assembly requested about the competitive bidding process.
Freeman said the committee told the NCAOC to investigate the claims against Tyler before it signed a contract. She also said she and other Wake County court officials have asked the NCAOC to document problems and determine whether Tyler is complying with its contractual obligations.
But she added that it’s too soon to determine whether the problems are due to the technology, user error, or something else.
“At the end of the day, what we want is a glitch-free, efficient system,” Freeman said. “Right now, that’s not the reality of what we’re dealing with.”
Critics say that playing Whack-a-Mole with the system’s glitches won’t fix the underlying problem: eCourts can’t handle North Carolina’s high-volume district courtrooms.
“The biggest problem is that everything is taking so much extraordinarily longer in court,” said Hayes Daughtry, the Harnett County lawyer. “There are some definite benefits to this system. But as it works in court, it is just not functioning well at all.”
She said she’s suggested a few tweaks: allowing judges to physically sign documents instead of making lawyers and clerks place them in an electronic queue so the judge can affix an electronic signature, for example. But court officials haven’t budged, she said.
“They don’t understand that we are dealing with real people with real problems, with real things that are going on every day in their lives,” she said. “That we need to get them back to work. We need to get them to the doctor. We need to get them to their child. We need to move quick.”
Some attorneys also said the switch to Odyssey could raise fairness and due process issues.
NCAOC will provide software to help judges, prosecutors, and public defenders—but not private attorneys—more easily navigate Odyssey in court. In places like Harnett County, where there is no public defender’s office and indigent defendants are assigned private attorneys, Hayes Daughtry said some defendants could be at a disadvantage.
The NCAOC told The Assembly that while it “has long provided software applications for use for Judicial Branch personnel,” private attorneys will have access to information that “is parallel to the inquiry options that [they] have” under the old system.
Another issue: To use eCourts, lawyers need high-speed internet that’s not always available in rural counties.
“We’ve got pretty good internet at my office [in Dunn],” said Hayes Daughtry. “But I live in South Erwin, where my internet goes out routinely, and there’s a lot of lawyers who work there. And we don’t have good internet.”
“Unless you have broadband internet all over North Carolina, this system will not work,” she added. “That is a huge problem that nobody’s talking about.”
Cotten, the ticket lawyer, says things will improve as lawyers become more familiar with the system. But only to a degree.
“Certainly, it will help speed things up,” he said. “I’m trying to think of a good analogy. It’s like, you’ve got the best-tasting shit sandwich.”
Michael Hewlett is a staff reporter at The Assembly. He was previously the legal affairs reporter at the Winston-Salem Journal. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.