Digital eCourts system at center of a federal lawsuit is coming to Buncombe County (2024)

ASHEVILLE - Digital modernization is coming soon to the Buncombe County Courthouse. The courthouse will switch to eCourts, the state's cloud-hosted digital record and case management system, slated to go live for Western North Carolina this summer.

While proponents of the transition say it will expand digital access to the courts, saving time and providing greater transparency, critics allege the rollout has come at the expense of people's constitutional and legal rights — resulting in longer stays in jail, system delays and erroneous arrests.

The North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts announced Jan. 12 that Buncombe County will be among the Track 5 counties to transition to Enterprise Justice (Odyssey), or eCourts, software designed by Texas-based Tyler Technologies Inc.

The company was awarded a $100 million contract for the software in 2019.

ECourts was first piloted in Harnett, Johnston, Lee and Wake counties in early 2023, and launched in Mecklenburg County ― home to Charlotte, the state's most populated city ― in October. Next up are 12 northeastern counties that comprise Track 3, which will go live on Feb. 5; and Track 4, encompassing 10 Piedmont counties, on April 29. North Carolina has 100 counties.

Counties that are in not in Tracks 1-6 will launch eCourts in 2025. The transition from paper records to eCourts, which will include North Carolina’s business courts, is planned for completion by the end of 2025 with appellate courts soon following, according to the Jan. 12 release.

Digital eCourts system at center of a federal lawsuit is coming to Buncombe County (1)

What could eCourts mean for Buncombe County?

Once eCourts goes live for Buncombe County, court records will be searchable online at no cost to the public, and people will be able to file electronically, which AOC Director Ryan Boyce said will "expand digital access to justice." The system has accepted over 600,000 electronic filings since its rollout in five counties across the state, the release said.

This impacts a massive slate of public records and filings — including civil lawsuits, domestic violence protective orders, name changes, guardianship and adoptions.

Currently, anyone seeking court filings must peruse paper files among the dense rows of shelves in the clerk's office at the county's downtown courthouse.

By its launch, all open files must be scanned into the system. The bulk of this work will fall to the clerk of court's office, though it can't begin until an official meeting of Buncombe County's "judicial leadership" and the AOC in March, said Jean Marie Christy, the county's Clerk of Superior Court.

There will be a lot of work for the office in the lead up to the "go-live" date, Christy said, as they figure out any kinks that may emerge in Buncombe County and begin the work of migrating case event data and court records from mainframe indexes and paper to the digital platform.

There's not yet official word if the county will hire more staff, but Christy said in other localities, staff are eligible for overtime, and sometimes temporary positions are made available.

In its release, the AOC said a "large network" of IT and software systems teams will support counties through the transition with training, onsite assistance remote monitoring and help desk response.

Digital eCourts system at center of a federal lawsuit is coming to Buncombe County (2)

Though the task is daunting — a historic transition of a massive amount of records — Christy said she is confident that it will be a good change.

“This is the biggest transition we’ve had in about 40 years. Forty years ago, we used to keep everything literally in books. Then we switched to our electronics-based indexing system while still keeping paper records and a lot of people did think the world was going to end then, and it didn’t," she said.

"I think having such a big change for something as important as the court system can be scary, but ultimately it will lead to better access for more people to the courthouse and the court system.”

'Spinning wheel of death'

But even after months spent prepping for the transition in Mecklenburg County, the highest-volume courthouse in the state and latest recipient of eCourts, lawyers say defendants experienced prolonged stays in jail and wrongful arrests over already-dismissed warrants, the Charlotte Observer reported.

A lawsuit filed in federal court in May alleges damages exceeding $5 million from eCourts. Plaintiffs are suing the Sheriff of Wake County — which was among the pilot counties — Tyler Technologies and the AOC, among others.

The amended complaint, filed in October, alleges hundreds of people have been unlawfully detained as a result of the transition, and others have spent days and weeks longer than necessary in jail, or found themselves arrested multiple times on the same warrant, even after their charges had been dismissed by a judge.

Zack Ezor, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, told the Citizen Times Jan. 17 that for the average attorney, the biggest problems are found in the minutia.

The "lag time" in the system means that some attorneys once handling 50 cases in a day, like, say, in traffic court, are down to 10. There's something attorneys refer to as the "spinning wheel of death," Ezor said, in which something as mundane as electronic signature via eCourts can be slowed by a buggy loading screen.

"That's what I think most people would refer to as 'the issue,'" he said. "It's just slow. Which for a piece of software that was supposed to revolutionize case processing, it's really disappointing."

Of these issues, specifically the reports of people being wrongfully arrested on a dismissed warrant, Christy said she's watched other offices work hard to address concerns, and that to combat situations where orders for arrest were reportedly not removed as they should be from the eCourts system, her office has received a spreadsheet from the AOC of any outstanding orders to ensure there are no miscommunications between the new and old systems.

“We’ve known this is going to come, but all we’ve been focusing on is (that) it’s going to happen and we’re going to get through it," Christy said. "We can only control our attitudes at this point, and so we’re going to maintain positivity until otherwise.”

As her staff receives training on the new system, they will host trainings for others that will be impacted, such as paralegals, title searchers, attorneys and law enforcement, making sure there's as much understanding of the system as possible, she said.

With nearly two dozen other counties slated to come online before Buncombe, Ezor said he hopes there will be improvements by the time it makes its way west. That's part of the purpose of the lawsuit, he said: to leverage change.

“Nobody wants a fully functioning filing system more than us. It’s a huge hassle to have to do everything on paper," Ezor said.

“The dream of eCourts is one that we are really behind. It’s just that we want a version of it that doesn’t have collateral damage. And this rollout has been bumpy to say the least. Our hope is that with each pocket of counties that comes online, they will iterate and learn from the prior experience and hopefully learn a little bit from our lawsuit.”

More:Family connections, ethics force new Buncombe County Clerk to step down before swearing in

Sarah Honosky is the city government reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. News Tips? Email or message on Twitter at @slhonosky. Please support local, daily journalism with asubscriptionto the Citizen Times.

Digital eCourts system at center of a federal lawsuit is coming to Buncombe County (2024)
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