Blaming creator of NC eCourts system for wrongful arrests is misplaced, company says
Seeking to get claims against it dismissed, the vendor that designed North Carolina’s new, digital court records system says it’s not to blame for allegedly unlawful arrests or jail time.
Look elsewhere, Tyler Technologies’ lawyers said in a recent court filing, responding to a federal lawsuit.
“Tyler is a software vendor, not a state or local authority with the power to arrest or detain, and there is no allegation that it exercised any such authority here,” a Sept. 20 memorandum filed by the vendor said.
Tyler and two sheriffs, also named as defendants, have filed motions to dismiss in the federal lawsuit that alleges negligence.
Already in place in four pilot counties, including Wake County, eCourts is scheduled to launch at the Mecklenburg County courthouse on Oct. 9.
Not responsible for day-to-day use, Tyler says
Two plaintiffs were named in the original complaint filed in May.
Triangle resident Timia Chaplin was arrested on a dismissed warrant, and Lee County resident Paulino Castellanos spent extra time in jail because of the system, the complaint says.
More plaintiffs, including Triangle area residents Rotesha McNeil and Kevin Spruill, will be added in the coming weeks, The News & Observer has reported.
But Tyler’s only responsibilities were to create the system, implement it and support it, the vendor said in its memorandum.
When it comes to day-to-day use of the software, those responsibilities “are the purview” of end users, “such as law enforcement and court officials who put records into the system and update those records with real-time information,” the memorandum says..
A Texas-based company specialized in providing software to public agencies, Tyler took issue with particulars alleged in the complaint, too.
Castellanos was kept in jail because there was no monitoring device for him — something out of Tyler’s control — and Chaplin was arrested at an unnamed law enforcement agency’s discretion, the vendor said.
In an email to an N&O reporter in early September, an AOC spokesperson noted that the four-county pilot has spared the public from courthouse trips and has saved “more than 1.5 million pieces of paper by processing an average of 10,000 remote records searches per day and nearly 300,000 total electronic filings over six months.”
The AOC has investigated and found no instance where a software defect led to a wrongful arrest or incarceration, a spokesperson said.
In their own memorandum and brief, Wake County Sheriff Willie Rowe and Lee County Sheriff Brian Estes have also asked that claims against them be dismissed.
“Plaintiffs’ allegations that two of North Carolina’s one hundred Sheriffs would have responsibility for customs, policies or practices related to the adoption of eCourts has stretched plausibility to the breaking point,” Rowe’s memorandum says.
If every sheriff in the state had the power to implement their own policies for eWarrants and eCourts, there “could never be a consistent working plan” for a statewide rollout, it says.
And the complaint fell short on facts, Estes’ attorney wrote.
The complaint “contains no factual allegations regarding any alleged wrongful or illegal action taken by Sheriff Estes or the Lee County Sheriff’s Office,” his brief said.
Tyer, Rowe and Estes all asked for dismissals for “failure to state a claim.”
Class action would devolve into ‘mini-trials,’ lawyers argue
The first sentence of the May complaint says that “hundreds” have been unlawfully detained with eCourts’ rollout.
Only Castellanos and Chaplin were named in the original complaint, though, Tyler’s memorandum notes.
Zack Ezor, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, told The Observer that he and his colleagues have spoken with dozens of potential clients.
Castellanos’ and Chaplin’s cases don’t have enough in common to justify a class action, Tyler’s lawyers argued in their memorandum.
“Even assuming injury, calculating damages for an arrest versus a two-week stay in jail would require different considerations and would not be amenable to a one-size-fits-all class award,” they said.
If a class action is approved, it will “devolve into a series of mini-trials to determine, among other things, whether a hypothetical class member’s arrest or detention was justified under the circumstances, or whether the arrest or detention was in any way related to the eCourts system,” they said.
U.S. District Judge William Osteen will determine whether the claims should be dismissed, and whether a class action is appropriate, lawyers involved told The Observer.
Plaintiffs plan to respond by Oct. 27, Zack Ezor, one of their attorneys, told The Observer.
Charlotte-based attorney Greg Skidmore, who is representing Tyler, said the vendor would decline to comment on pending litigation.
Since its launch in February in four pilot counties — Wake, Harnett, Johnston and Lee — eCourts has drawn criticism. Some defense lawyers and prosecutors still report that it’s slow, glitchy and unintuitive.
In Mecklenburg County, many are anxious about a planned Oct. 9 rollout.
At least two district attorneys have asked for an independent review to compare what Tyler promised the state and what it delivered.