Wake sheriff seeks removal from federal eCourts lawsuit

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  • Wake County Sheriff Willie Rowe has asked a federal court to remove him as a defendant in a lawsuit challenging North Carolina's new eCourts records management system.
  • Rowe's motion to dismiss the lawsuit follows a similar request from Lee County Sheriff Brian Estes.
  • The eCourts system operates now in Wake, Lee, Harnett, and Johnston counties. It's scheduled to expand to Mecklenburg County on Oct. 9.

Wake County Sheriff Willie Rowe is asking a federal court to drop him as a defendant in a lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s new eCourts records management system. Rowe’s motion mirrors a similar request last week from the Lee County sheriff.

Rowe, Lee Sheriff Brian Estes, and vendor Tyler Technologies all have been targeted as defendants in the suit filed in May.

“Plaintiffs bring this action against Sheriff Willie Rowe, the duly elected and serving Sheriff of Wake County arising out of what plaintiffs claim was their wrongful detention as a result of outstanding but defective warrants in the eCourts system,” Rowe’s lawyers wrote in a memorandum filed Wednesday.

“As it relates to defendant Rowe, plaintiff [Timia] Chaplin alleges that she was criminally charged in Wake County, was called to court in Wake County and failed to appear and was arrested on March 4, 2023, for failure to appear,” according to the document. “Chaplin allegedly appeared in district court for a rescheduled court date during which the charges were dismissed and her case was designated in the Odyssey system as ‘resolved.’”

“Chaplin alleges she was rearrested on April 9, 2023, ‘because, although her case had been “resolved,” Odyssey did not communicate that resolution to eWarrants, in contravention of the software’s intended design. As a result, an arrest warrant remained outstanding for Ms. Chaplin nearly a month after her case had been dismissed,’” Rowe’s lawyers added.

During an April 17 traffic stop, Chapman learned the original warrant was “still active.”

“The complaint falls woefully shorts of asserting any factual allegation against Sheriff Rowe which, if true, would support the threadbare allegations of plaintiffs’ … Claims for Relief,” the sheriff’s lawyers argued. “Put simply, every allegation against Sheriff Rowe is a legal conclusion and there are no factual allegations giving Sheriff Rowe or the court notice of what wrongs plaintiffs believe the sheriff committed.”

“[P]laintiffs have failed to specifically identify one (1) single ‘custom’ or ‘policy’ implemented or followed by Sheriff Rowe which was a ‘moving force’ behind a constitutional right violation,” the memo continued. “The complaint is absolutely silent as to what agency issued the warrant, what agency arrested the plaintiff, what agency or party was responsible for ‘calibrating’ the eCourts court filing system (aka Odyssey) with the eWarrants software – or more importantly, who should have ‘resolved’ plaintiff Chaplin’s outstanding warrant with the eWarrants software.”

“This is particularly important when so many stakeholders were involved in a process this big – such as judges, Court Clerks, and the Administrative office of the Court, all parties conspicuously absent from this complaint,” Rowe’s lawyers wrote.

Estes filed his own motion to dismiss the lawsuit on Aug. 31. In his case, a different plaintiff blamed the sheriff for his role in a 14-day jail stay linked to the “botched transition” to eCourts.

The lawsuit filed in May, known as Chaplin v. Rowe, is a proposed class action claim. Proponents say it could affect hundreds of people in the affected counties.

ECourts allows for electronic court filing. It gives the public online access to court files and allows people to pay court fees. In addition to Wake and Lee counties, the system operates now in Harnett and Johnston counties.

State court officials have announced the expansion of eCourts to Mecklenburg County on Oct. 9. Additional clusters of counties are slated to move to the new system every 60 to 90 days. All courts are slated to use the new system by 2025.