Company behind a digital court filing system in North Carolina now faces a class-action lawsuit
The rollout of an electronic court filing system in North Carolina has triggered a class-action lawsuit. The suit claims problems with the tools have resulted in unlawful arrests and prolonged detentions.
Since the system, known as eCourts, and one of its components, a case-management program called Odyssey, were rolled out in four pilot counties in February, there have been significant slowdowns in high-volume district courtrooms. That is where attorneys and people representing themselves go to quickly resolve traffic tickets, seek domestic violence protective orders and to get their cases continued.
Problems with Tyler were 'entirely foreseeable,' attorney says
In 2019, following a bidding and selection process, the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts — or AOC — signed a $100 million contract with Texas-based Tyler Technologies to develop and implement eCourts as a replacement for the state's outdated 1980s-era mainframe computer and paper-based file system.
But the lawsuit filed in federal court on Tuesday claims eCourts has led to constitutional violations and that such issues were entirely foreseeable and, thus, avoidable.
"There have been instances where Tyler Technologies has rolled out similar software in different states over the last decade where people have been wrongfully arrested, over-detained, re-arrested on charges that they thought they were cleared," said Zack Ezor, an attorney with the North Carolina law firm Tin Fulton Walker & Owen, and a representative of the two named plaintiffs in the class-action suit.
The legal filing cites complaints and lawsuits, over an eleven-year period from 2011 to 2022, stemming from problems with Tyler rollouts of eCourts-like systems in Texas, California, and in Tennessee and Indiana where the company settled class-action lawsuits over alleged wrongful detentions and arrests. And the recent lawsuit notes that the selection committee that advised AOC to partner with Tyler warned the agency to investigate legal claims against the company before entering into a contract.
"I knew this was coming," said Chas Post, an attorney who practices criminal law in Lee County, one of North Carolina's four pilot counties, with Lee, Johnston and Wake, where eCourts was rolled out in February.
A launch in Mecklenburg County, originally set for May 8, has been delayed indefinitely.
Lawsuit claims woman arrested after her case was resolved
Post told WUNC in an earlier interview that one of his clients unjustly spent a night in jail because of eCourts. A couple of months ago, according to Post, his client had been facing charges in two separate cases: one a serious offense involving a shooting, the other a lower-level felonious drug possession case. With little evidence to go on, the prosecutor dropped the more serious case and Post's client pled to the drug possession for a probationary sentence and then went home, only to get arrested that night when heading out to the store.
Post said he suspects that an earlier arrest warrant that should have been nullified after his client resolved his cases fell through one of Odyssey's digital cracks.
It is a situation that is very similar to one of the plaintiffs represented by Zack Ezor in the class-action lawsuit filed this week. That woman, Timia Chaplin, had been arrested for missing a previous court date on a misdemeanor. At a subsequent court appearance, a judge dismissed the charges and the woman's case was fully resolved, or so she thought. She ended up being arrested again on the same failure-to-appear warrant.
"There was no valid reason to arrest her at all," Ezor said.
AOC says it has not "substantiated" any allegations of wrongful arrest due to Odyssey
Like Ezor, attorney Chas Post said he believes there are many more cases like that out there.
"When the government takes action and it starts affecting real people and their constitutional rights, then bad things happen and lawsuits start coming," Post said.
Tyler Technologies along with the sheriffs' departments from the four pilot counties are being sued. In response to the WUNC inquiry, Tyler said it's their standard practice not to comment on pending litigation.
AOC is not named in the lawsuit but said in a statement: "Since launching eCourts, NCAOC has consistently solicited court officials, attorneys, and the public to report any issues like those alleged in the complaint. We have investigated each report we have received and have not substantiated that any allegation of wrongful arrest or incarceration was caused by Odyssey [eCourts].”
Editor's Note: This article was revised to clarify an earlier detail about prior complaints and lawsuits involving Tyler products. Wording in the earlier article made it seem as if the most recent federal lawsuit against Tyler was filed dating back to 2011. Prior complaints and lawsuits filed against Tyler over alleged problems with their products, incidents cited in the current legal filing, date back to 2011.