NC officials dismiss hundreds of thousands of old court cases as part of massive data ‘clean-up’

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Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry has already dismissed more than 70,000 cases in the past year as part of a statewide effort to clean up judicial data for more accuracy and efficiency. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Many cases have been on the books without resolution for decades

The North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) has been quietly facilitating the dismissals of hundreds of thousands of criminal charges and infractions across the state for the past two years as part of a data clean-up effort.

Each of the cases dismissed had been pending for years – some for decades – without prosecution, preventing thousands of people from getting a driver’s license and sometimes resulting in orders of arrests, often of individuals already living in poverty.

The end result of the mass dismissals is judicial efficiency, increased public safety and a human impact that can’t be measured. There have been more than 700,000 total cases dismissed thus far by 50 counties as part of the effort, called the Data Integrity Initiative. The AOC has not released information on how many charges in each of the jurisdictions was dismissed.

Despite the magnitude of the progress, the initiative is still failing in an important way in that there’s no process in place to notify individuals who have had charges dismissed. The only exception to this is in Durham, which has created a searchable online database for those who’ve gotten relief.

Policy Watch sent the AOC a public records request on April 26 requesting the total number of cases dismissed as part of the Initiative; the total number of pending cases in the entire state before and after the Initiative was utilized; the name of each jurisdiction that has dismissed charges since June 1, 2018, and the criteria they submitted for the dismissals; as well as the final number of dismissals per jurisdiction once they were complete. The request also sought all internal and external policies, memoranda and guidance about the Initiative.

Spokeswoman Sharon Gladwell responded with the total number of cases dismissed as of April 17 (697,000) and provided policies and guidance related to the Initiative that have been sent to district attorneys across the state.

Some of the request is still outstanding, but Gladwell indicated staff is still working on it.

“The Initiative is still underway,” she said in an email. “Detailed, finalized information by county is not available. More than 700,000 cases have been processed statewide thus far.”

She added later that there are also other counties reportedly engaged in local case cleanup efforts that utilize the clerk of superior court to process dispositions, rather than the AOC Initiative.

 ‘A more accurate picture’

It’s not clear why current Initiative information by county is not available, since several areas have completed the process for dismissing their pending cases and Durham has the online database of its dismissed cases.

Mecklenburg County disposed of 193,678 of its cases on July 5, 2017, according to Assistant District Attorney Robyn Withrow. It was the first jurisdiction to participate in using the mass dismissal tool – a technological advance – and paved the way for the Data Integrity Initiative, which launched about a year later.

Robyn Withrow

Withrow said Mecklenburg chose to dismiss misdemeanor cases and infractions that were older than three years at the time while excluding DWI cases, civil revocations, probation violations, misdemeanor death by motor vehicle charges, any domestic violence cases, sexual battery cases and any misdemeanor otherwise associated with a felony charge.

“We thought it was important to support AOC’s effort to clean up our part of the statewide data in hopes that in the future we’ll be able to provide a more accurate picture [of the judicial system] and more accurate statistics,” she said.

Withrow and other district attorneys praised the AOC for creating the desperately-needed mass dismissal tool. There was otherwise no alternative to dismissing such aged cases en masse.

“We would have had to manually go find a ticket in many cases that is years and years old,” said Ben David, the district attorney for New Hanover and Pender counties. “It is sitting somewhere in a basement – which, by the way, might have mold and has flooded after a storm – and then we would have to take that physical [ticket] and write the words ‘voluntarily dismissed’ and our name and date on them, and then you multiply that exercise by 45,000 tickets.”

Ben David

David said his office looked at 42,915 cases in New Hanover County and ultimately dismissed 36,591 of them. The oldest case dated back to 1968, which he joked was older than he was.

In Pender County, which is larger geographically but with a smaller population, prosecutors looked at 9,385 cases and dismissed them all. The oldest case there was from 1981.

The AOC will review those numbers for final disposal, so they could change, but David said he didn’t expect a big departure.

He emphasized that his office wasn’t dismissing charges like rape, murder and armed robbery. They looked at cases older than five years that dealt with traffic matters, simple compliance issues like registration and inspection violations, bad check charges, trespassing and letting a dog run at large. They even dismissed a charge stemming from a law that’s no longer on the books called “abandoning a dependent spouse.”

“What I asked my team to cut out from this pile was anything that involved a victim on a case that we believed we could still make or one that involved restitution where we believed it was still a reasonable possibility we could still get that restitution,” he said. “So when in doubt, I said leave it in.”

‘The burning question’

David is a major proponent of the Data Integrity Initiative and the former president of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys who routinely talks to the other 42 elected district attorneys. He said he would encourage every one of his peers to participate.

“This is one of the better things I’ve seen in a long time in terms of the AOC and clerks and DAs working in tandem to say ‘let’s get this one right and do it together,’” David said. “Any DA can decide for his or her own community what their policies are – types of charges, [or they can] cut out whole categories based on algorithms. You get to decide as district attorney using your discretion what you are willing to let go of.”

He added that if “everything is a priority, then nothing is” and discussed at length how the approach of conservatively identifying charges to dismiss makes the community safer.

“Why does that make us safer? I think that’s the burning question,” he said. “And the answer to that is two-fold – the first is, you have to look at these defendants: non-violent folks, generally living in high poverty who are now welcomed back to the sunlight. … By doing this, we are now giving them the ability to go get a North Carolina driver’s license.”

David continued: “The second thing is, when you look at these individuals, I have seen heartbreaking cases where women who have been abused by their husbands for instance, they fear calling 911 because they knew they had an outstanding order for their own arrest or maybe a bad check charge from eight years ago. Now she doesn’t have to worry about that, and she can call 911, because we’re way more concerned about her and her children than trying to prosecute an $11 check to Dominos that bounced.”

If a person gets a speeding ticket but doesn’t show up to court, that automatically generates a “failure to appear” case status (which costs $200 to clear up), a driver’s license suspension and could result in an order of arrest. Dismissing that speeding ticket now gets rid of it permanently and the associated criminal processes generated with it.

Another point David made was how dismissing those orders of arrests makes situations safer for officers – people who don’t fear them are less likely to elude them – and allows them to focus their resources on the serious crimes occurring currently.

“What we are now doing with this mass dismissal is saying to our officers, you don’t have to put handcuffs on someone on a routine traffic stop; what we’re saying to our prisons is, we don’t want these folks back in New Hanover and Pender County – we’re missing this,” he said. “It’s old enough where we’re not tying up our resources for the thing that happened last night – that’s what we want our resources spent on, we don’t want it spent on things that happened two decades ago.”

“We think that it’s focusing law enforcement on serving and protecting other things that are truly urgent and important,” he said, “rather than on, you know, paperwork that is being served from sometimes years ago on cases that can never be proven at this point.”

He added that people have died as a result of attempting flee law enforcement officers in order to elude arrest for old charges.

“Well, if we have a situation where 45,000 cases have been dismissed, what if there’s just one fewer fleeing to elude case; what if there’s one less assault on an officer case because of that?” he asked. “What’s that worth?”

‘I don’t have to worry’

In terms of judicial efficiency, the Data Integrity Initiative will ultimately help the AOC migrate information to a new Integrated Case Management System (ICMS).

The impetus for the Initiative was the final report of the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice, according to Gladwell. It stressed that a court system must have the data it needs to make good decisions and raised the concern that North Carolina’s mix of old and new technology does not work well in an age that seeks to use information to plan for the future.

“The report envisioned, ‘a modern, paperless, integrated court information system designed to meet the needs of case managers,’” Gladwell added. “The goal of this Initiative is to engage in a widespread ‘clean-up’ of pending case records to ensure that the data entered into North Carolina Judicial Branch court case systems reflect the most current information available on a case.”

The courts currently have 1.35 million pending criminal and infraction cases, according to the AOC. There are about as many of a different type of pending case that takes it off the court calendar but could still be brought back for prosecution at a later date. Because pending cases are a snapshot in time, Gladwell said there is not information to compare before and after data from participation in the Initiative.

District attorneys have full discretion in whether or not they want to participate in the Initiative, but Withrow noted “we each individually have to do our part.”

She said Mecklenburg County will work on dismissing another batch of cases in the fall and that it was extending the idea of the Initiative to a debt relief project this summer.

Durham already participates in the mass dismissal Initiative and runs a debt relief effort.

“The culture of this office now is that we don’t believe you should have to pay forever for what you’ve done in the past,” said Durham District Attorney Satana Deberry. “The way that has shown up in our work is not just with the dismissals, but also with the fines and fees forgiveness and really defined opportunities – once people have paid their debt to society or once it becomes clear that they cannot, that we relieve them of the criminal burden.”

The office has dismissed 72,441 cases so far. About 50,000 of those were leading to active license suspensions. Deberry said many of the cases were at least 30 years old, with some much older.

She made the point that in North Carolina, just being charged with something shows up on individuals’ records and can impact their ability to find housing, jobs, get into college or qualify for financial aid.
Charles Gibson owed more than $1,000 in court fines and fees associated with a ticket he couldn’t pay from several years ago. His case and associated fines were dismissed as part of a judicial effort to clean up data, and he can now drive legally.
“There are just lots of ways in which having been charged with something [that’s not] been resolved can harm people,” she said.

The Durham Expunction and Restoration (DEAR) program is a streamlined effort to remove those barriers to employment and housing by providing free legal services to Durham residents who cannot afford attorneys to expunge charges and convictions from their criminal records and restore suspended or revoked drivers’ licenses.

The Data Integrity Initiative is separate from debt relief efforts, but in Durham, the two sometimes work in tandem. Charles Gibson, 27, is someone who benefited from the latter with the help of DEAR. His driver’s license was suspended for the better part of a decade after he couldn’t pay for a speeding ticket and his fines grew to over $1,000.

“It’s hard not being able to go where you please and being on other people’s time,” he said, recalling a time he missed the bus and had to walk four hours to get to and from work in extreme cold weather. “It’s way different being on your own time with your own car being able to come and go as you please. You’re not paying anybody, and you’re putting gas money in your own car.”

Gibson’s case is an apples and oranges comparison to someone whose case was dismissed as part of the Initiative versus someone participating in DEAR and getting debt relief, but it is a good example of the mindset of people who have lost their license due to a minor charge.

Charles Gibson still has the screenshot he sent his mom when he was notified that he could restore his driver’s license after it was suspended for almost a decade for the inability to pay associated court fines and fees. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

“It’s different driving legal than driving illegally,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff you have to watch out for when you don’t have a license, but I have a license now, so I can drive anytime I want, anywhere I want and I don’t have to worry about when the police get behind me.”

He still has the screenshot he sent to his mother from when he was notified he could get his license back. That was a proud moment, he said.

Even after charges are dismissed, there is a price for North Carolinians to get their suspended license back – a $65 reinstatement fee, plus an additional $50 service fee if they did not mail in their suspended license when the license was initially suspended.

‘The right thing to do’

Daniel Bowes, Director of the Criminal Justice Project at the North Carolina Justice Center, said as long as a case remains unresolved, any existing warrant for arrest or driver’s license suspension remains in place, no matter how minor or old the offense. (The Justice Center is the parent organization of Policy Watch.)

There are hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians that have had their driver’s license suspended for more than 20 years because of unresolved traffic tickets, he added.

“I give a huge amount of credit to the AOC for recognizing and helping to address the problems and high costs of continuing to allow millions of old cases to remain on the books,” Bowes said. “The vast majority of these cases are for minor offenses, including traffic infractions. Most of these cases are too old to be prosecuted. They have remained pending for decades largely due to the high costs of resolving them one by one.”

He went as far as calling officials affiliated with creating the mass dismissal tool “heroes” for their efforts.

“Motivated by ‘data integrity,’ they have helped materially improve the legal circumstances of hundreds of thousands of individuals across North Carolina,” Bowes added.

David emphasized that the narrative of the mass dismissals was not that people are getting away with something.

“It’s that they are actually compounding their problems and we are trying to not have that ripple effect go into something that creates a public safety issue for officers and focus their resources on violent and career criminals, which is what we need to be focusing on instead of poverty,” he said.

All of the district attorneys interviewed reported positive effects from dismissing cases and said feedback has also been good. Deberry said cleaning up data is in the interest of justice and helps district attorneys understand what their caseloads actually look like.

“And I think as a public servant whose responsibility it is to keep the community safe, that is part of the work too – for people we aren’t going to prosecute, there’s no reason to hold them under the threat of prosecution,” she said.

She added that she is excited to see a renewed interest in the state in criminal justice reform as a whole.

“I think North Carolina is growing economically and I think we all want to participate in that growth, and criminal justice involvement is one of the things that prevents you from being able to participate in it,” Deberry said. “I think people are starting to recognize that and recognize that we want as many people as possible to be able to participate in our economic renewal. And it’s just the right thing to do.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Melissa BoughtonCourts and Law Reporter, joined N.C. Policy Watch in September 2016. She covers local, state and federal courts and writes about key decisions that impact the lives of North Carolinians. Before joining the project, Melissa worked the crime and courts beats at The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C.; The Winchester Star in Winchester, Va.; and The Kerrville Daily Times in Kerrville, TX. While reporting in Charleston, she covered the Emanuel church shootings and the police killing of Walter Scott. She was part of the team that was named a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in breaking news reporting for coverage of Scott’s death.