State eCourts to reach 49 counties by year’s end

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  • The North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts plans to expand its eCourts system to 49 counties by the end of 2024. Five counties use eCourts now.
  • Twelve northeastern counties are scheduled to join eCourts on Feb. 5. Three more clusters of counties will join the system in spring, summer, and fall.
  • State officials are fighting a lawsuit challenging the eCourts implementation. Defendants in that suit recently opposed a proposal to turn the lawsuit into a class-action case.

Nearly half of North Carolina’s counties will have access to eCourts by the end of the year. The North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts released Friday an updated eCourts rollout plan for 2024.

Forty-nine of the state’s 100 counties will join eCourts by the fall. Remaining counties will join the system in 2025, according to an AOC news release.

Wake, Mecklenburg, Harnett, Johnston, and Lee counties already use eCourts, which replaced paper court files with “cloud-hosted online access,” AOC reported.

Twelve northeastern counties will switch to eCourts on Feb. 5. Ten counties in the north central part of the state will join on April 29. Eleven western counties will follow in the summer, with 11 south central counties slated to join in the fall.

The North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts updated its eCourts rollout plan on Jan. 12.

The program’s official name is Enterprise Justice (Odyssey).

“Enterprise Justice has accepted over 600,000 electronic filings and supports tens of thousands of daily searches for digital court records in North Carolina’s largest population centers and five counties, jurisdictions serving nearly 3 million people,” said AOC Director Ryan Boyce in the news release. “We are excited to continue partnering with legal communities across our state to expand digital access to justice for the benefit of all North Carolinians.”   

The system “empowers the public with electronic filing and a free online search Portal to display court records and case events.” The system includes eWarrants and Enforcement Mobile, “which integrate law enforcement processes with the court system.” Guide and File helps “self-represented users create and electronically file common legal actions through automated interviews.”

The eCourts expansion is taking place as state officials deal with a federal lawsuit targeting the system’s rollout.

Defendants in that case filed paperwork last week objecting to a proposal to turn the case into a class action. Class-action status would allow the case’s nine current plaintiffs to act on behalf of others with eCourts-related legal complaints.

“Plaintiffs cannot satisfy, and have not satisfied, the requirements for class certification set out in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23 for any proposed class against Defendant Tyler Technologies, Inc.,” wrote lawyers for the eCourts vendor in a document filed Friday.

“To begin with, adjudication of Plaintiffs’ claim against Tyler cannot be done on a class-wide basis,” Tyler Techonolgies’ lawyers wrote. “Plaintiffs assert only a negligence claim against Tyler, arguing that Tyler’s alleged negligence in the provision of its ‘eCourts’ software package to North Carolina courts resulted in class members being arrested or detained unlawfully. To prove actual injury (required for a negligence claim), each class member’s claim will require an individualized mini-trial focused on the unique circumstances of the class member’s arrest or detention.”

“The need for these individualized mini-trials means that Plaintiffs cannot satisfy, as a matter of law, the required elements of commonality or typicality, much less the more stringent requirement that common issues ‘predominate’ over individualized issues,” the company’s court filing continued. “Additionally, Plaintiffs cannot prove that the class members are readily identifiable or ascertainable — a separate requirement for class certification.”

Defendants tied to the state Administrative Office of the Courts and the Wake and Lee County Superior Court clerks filed a separate document on Jan. 5 opposing class certification.

“The Amended Complaint and Class Motion seek this Court’s permission to bring a class action on behalf of all individuals who were ‘unlawfully arrested, detained, or overdetained due to implementation of eCourts, including eWarrants,’” wrote state Special Deputy Attorney General Elizabeth Curran O’Brien, who represents the court system defendants. “The Amended Complaint and Class Motion repeatedly use the conclusory term ‘unlawful,’ but fail to allege facts demonstrating a violation of the Constitution.”

“Most of the factual allegations in the Amended Complaint involve arrest warrants or orders for arrest that appeared as valid to law enforcement officers, but that were allegedly either recalled or issued in error and appeared but still appeared in eWarrants, allegedly as a result of negligence by all defendants,” O’Brien wrote. “However, it is well-established that detention pursuant to a facially valid warrant that was later determined to be recalled or issued in error does not violate due process, and thus is not constitutionally unlawful.”

Both the Wake and Lee County sheriffs also filed court documents opposing class certification.

Critics of North Carolina’s new eCourts rollout added seven plaintiffs in October to the original May 2023 suit filed by two plaintiffs in Wake and Lee counties. The amended lawsuit added the state’s top court executive and other court officials to the list of defendants.

The current list of plaintiffs features six Wake County residents and one each from Lee, Mecklenburg, and Guilford counties.

The original suit named the Wake and Lee sheriffs, their insurers, and eCourts vendor Tyler Technologies as defendants. The list of defendants grew to include Ryan Boyce, who oversees the state court system as executive director of the NC Administrative Office of the Courts. Brad Fowler, AOC’s chief business officer and “eCourts executive sponsor,” also was named as a new defendant. The new defendants’ list included the elected Superior Court clerks in Wake and Lee counties.

“As North Carolina transitions its court systems from paper to digital, hundreds of people have been unlawfully detained,” according to the amended complaint. “There is broad support for modernizing the state’s court system. But the rollout of ‘eCourts’ across the state has been at the expense of North Carolinians’ constitutional and other legal rights.”

“[T]he eCourts launch has caused people to spend days or weeks longer than necessary in jail,” the suit continued. “Others have been arrested multiple times on the same warrant — even after their charges have been dismissed by a judge.”

“These and other violations were foreseeable,” eCourts critics argued. “Over the last decade, similar software implementations by Defendant Tyler Technologies, Inc. (“Tyler Technologies”) led to well-documented cases of overdetention, wrongful arrest, and the like. Defendants were aware that the same thing could happen here. But they forged ahead without any failsafe or alternative in place.”

“Defendants even continued the rollout and adoption of eCourts after they were made aware that violations had occurred and would continue, evidencing reckless and intentional disregard for the rights of our state’s citizenry,” according to the lawsuit. “This class action seeks to remedy past harms and — as eCourts is soon expected to be fully implemented in North Carolina’s remaining counties — prevent future violations.”

Plaintiffs filed a motion on Oct. 4 seeking an extension for class action certification in the case. The court document signaled the likelihood of additional plaintiffs. “This case involves civil-rights violations arising from the rollout of the so-called ‘eCourts’ software in North Carolina — a rollout that is still ongoing.”

“Plaintiffs intend to amend the Complaint to add additional plaintiffs and additional defendants as more counties adopt ‘eCourts.’ Denial of the instant motion would have no binding effect on these new parties. Nor would it shield the currently-named Defendants from later certification motions. Rather, denial would merely complicate this litigation,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers argued.

ECourts allows for electronic court filing. It gives the public online access to court files and allows people to pay court fees online.