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Sunshine week: A closer look at warrants in a 5-county region

Benjamin Schachtman
North Carolina public records law states arrest warrants are public records unless they’re sealed by court order; however, these documents mainly become available only after they’ve been served and returned to the courthouse.

In honor of Sunshine Week — an annual event focused on government transparency — WECT, Port City Daily, and WHQR explored the world of warrants. These are public records, except when they're not — and that's not the only potential source of confusion.

Sunshine Week is a celebration of open government policies and accessible public records. It acknowledges a democratic right for the public to know what their government officials are doing.

In the spirit of this week, which was officially March 10-16, Port City Daily, WHQR Public Media, and WECT joined up to investigate the number of outstanding arrest warrants issued by law enforcement agencies around the Cape Fear region.

The news outlets included in their request for information the counties of New Hanover, Brunswick, Pender, Bladen, and Columbus — and the municipalities of Wilmington and Leland.

Are warrants public records?

North Carolina public records law states arrest warrants are public records unless they’re sealed by court order; however, these documents mainly become available only after they’ve been served and returned to the courthouse.

Jeff Welty of the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill’s School of Government said: “In other words, [it becomes a public record] when the defendant has been arrested.”

A New Hanover Clerk of Superior Court deputy clerk, who asked to remain anonymous, argued the court tries to maintain the confidentiality of unserved warrants, also called outstanding warrants, to avoid giving advance notice to people charged with severe crimes.

“If somebody finds out they got an unserved warrant for murder, they’re just going to flee the country,” she said.

New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Lt. Jerry Brewer noted law enforcement agencies may be reluctant to disclose unserved warrants related to ongoing investigations.

“The way drug and vice works, they’re always trying to get the next guy,” he said. “So they don’t want to put on blast that they’re arresting this guy because the next guy finds out.”

By law, arrest warrants are stored in an electronic database maintained by the court system, according to Welty. Generally speaking, he added: “Court officials and law enforcement officers can access the state databases, and law enforcement officers can access the federal database, the National Crime Information Center (NCIC).”

Agencies that responded with outstanding warrant counts

Some agencies responded to the media outlets’ requests, such as Pender and New Hanover counties, Leland, and Wilmington. Bladen County officials also provided data but it came in after publication (the piece has been updated with its information). Columbus and Brunswick counties did not provide any data.

Columbus County Attorney Amanda Prince said: “Generally warrants are not a [sic] public records.”

Brunswick County Clerk of Superior Court Katie Madon did not have a record of outstanding or served warrants to supply.

Madon referred to general statute 132-6.2(e): “The clerk’s office is not required to create a record that does not already exist in response to a public records request.”

According to New Hanover County Assistant Clerk of Superior Court Leighann Lavedere, countywide public records requests for warrants — including details such as charges and quantity — must go through the Administrative Office of the Courts.

In response to a request made last week, the AOC Communications Office stated: “We are not the custodians of case file records. You will need to contact the clerks of court in the counties where the cases were filed.”

AOC did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The decision: which information to release?

Though the clerk of court is the custodian of the records, law enforcement has access and can choose what to release.

“If they choose to release that information, that’s on them,” Brewer said. “And they take the ramifications, if there is any.”

Brewer said disclosing unserved warrants could be useful to law enforcement in some circumstances, such as if an agency cannot find an individual charged with a crime.

“It’s kind of, we have our cake and eat it too,” he said.

Though documentation wasn’t provided, Brewer indicated more than 200 warrants were outstanding in New Hanover County. Lt. Greg Willett estimated the same number for the Wilmington Police Department.

Willet said when he started, warrants were paper copies kept in drawers in alphabetical order. Now WPD uses the eWarrant system, maintained by AOC.

“It would be as simple as looking in our RMS (records management system) system, but that isn’t the case any longer,” Willett said. “Tech has made some things easier but made some more difficult.”

Leland Town Clerk Sebrena Reinhardt was forthright with information and said there were 25 outstanding warrants as of March 8, 2024. They included the following:

  • 12 larcenies (misdemeanor and felony)
  • 2 assaults
  • 5 fraud
  • 2 property crimes (breaking and entering)
  • 2 ‘other’
  • 1 sex crime (digital)
  • 1 drug-related charge

When asked the dates for the newest and oldest ones issued, the information wasn’t available. Leland spokesperson Jessica Jewell said that specific data is part of a record maintained by the state of North Carolina. Sergeant C. Ward of the Pender County Sheriff’s Office explained outstanding and violent crime warrants are filed in the eWarrant system. The system is used statewide and began in 2022, with law enforcement agencies allowed access to the portal.
It maxes out at 200.

“The county had over 200 on file as of March 14, 2024,” he said but did not provide an exact number.

Ward added language that coincides with public records law: “These warrants have not been served or processed with the clerk's office and the warrant information is not for public record at this time.”

However, Jewell was clear whether a warrant is served or returned, the status update is evident and the warrant always remains searchable in the database — ”even if it’s been stricken by a judge.”

Bladen County provided a document with 200 unserved warrants. The oldest was from June 25, 2000, for assault on a female; the newest is listed as Aug. 24, 2022 for misdemeanor larceny.

Charges with the most outstanding warrants included traffic infractions, such as speeding (25), suspended license (not from DWI, 26), no operators license (17), driving while impaired (17) and revoked drivers license (17).

The next largest grouping of outstanding warrants were for assault charges, including assault on a female (10), assault by pointing a gun (3) and simple assault (2).

Issues with eWarrants

In 2019, the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts signed a $100 million contract with Texas-based software company Tyler Technologies, Inc. to provide the digital warrant system as part of eCourts. The package of software services integrates within the state’s entire legal system into a cloud-based digital network.

The system’s rollout has been mired in controversy, as lawyers, court officials, and defendants claim eCourts has caused slowdowns and errors that lead to wrongful arrests, longer detentions, and a host of other problems impeding legal processes.

Attorney Abraham Rubert-Schewel of Durham-based law firm Tin Fulton is engaged in a class-action lawsuit against Tyler Technologies, alleging the company violated plaintiffs’ constitutional rights through the negligent development and implementation of eCourts in North Carolina.

The May 2023 class action complaint notes a vendor selection committee — composed of AOC staff, judges, clerks, and criminal attorneys — selected Tyler Technologies over six other bidders for the digital transformation, but advised AOC to investigate legal claims against the company before making binding commitments.

Tyler Technologies contracts with 28 states and is one of the biggest software providers to the public sector in the country. Lawsuits in Texas, California, and Tennessee have alleged the court system software caused issues including wrongful arrests, over-detention, data access difficulties, and other harms.

Despite Tyler Technologies’ motion to dismiss, the suit is ongoing; the company did not respond to requests for comment.

The suit argues problems with NC’s eCourts rollout — including Wake and Johnston counties, where two district attorneys have called for an independent review of the software — were foreseeable due to past lawsuits in other states.

Rubert-Schewley said eWarrants and eCourts are supposed to interface and communicate information with each other, but the exchange has repeatedly malfunctioned.

“It’s caused people to be rearrested on warrants that were cleared or satisfied or dismissed or taken care of in some way,” the attorney said.

He noted Tyler Technologies regularly issues defect reports to AOC; the suit cites a letter from Administrative Office of the Courts director Ryan Boyce stating AOC reported 573 application defects of varying severity to the company from Feb. 13, 2023 to April 21, 2023.

All of North Carolina’s 100 counties now use eWarrants, but only 17 have implemented eCourts; the tri-county region is scheduled to integrate into the digital system in 2025.

“When it actually rolls out in your county, it’s going to be a disaster,” Rubert-Schewley said.

The attorney noted one of the class action suit’s defendants — Wake County Sheriff Wilie Rowe — argued the agency is duty bound by state law to enforce warrants in their motion to dismiss the case. He added the sheriff argued it is not the agency’s duty to confirm the validity of warrants but only to serve them.

“If they’re duty bound by state law to enforce warrants then why are there 200 outstanding warrants?” asked Rubert-Schewel.

Brewer said the NHCSO initially had difficulty adapting to eWarrants but views it as an improvement over the previous paper-based system. He believes the eWarrant system was designed primarily to identify individuals charged with warrants, and “not built to query” the level of volume in the public records request media outlets submitted to AOC. He added it’s “much easier swearing out warrants in eWarrants” than it was when NCAWARE was being used. NCAWARE stands for North Carolina Warrant Repository — once utilized to house orders, summons, warrants, release orders, appearance bonds, orders for arrest and more. In 2021 eWarrants replaced it.

Portals for outstanding warrants, Winston-Salem PD

While Cape Fear region law enforcement agencies don’t have publicly facing databases on outstanding warrants, agencies like the Winston-Salem Police Department do.

However, it includes a disclaimer saying the warrants “may not be up to date due to NCAWARE. Some warrants on this list may have already been served by other agencies.”

Annie Sims, a public information officer for the Winston-Salem Police Department said that the site, which gets updated weekly, was implemented in 2007 — a decision made by now-retired employees. No one in the department felt “comfortable speaking on the matter,” she said.

Nonetheless, Welty said that for sites like Winston-Salem’s: “It’s possible that there are other formal or informal channels for sharing information about wanted persons, but I don’t know what they all are, or how much they may vary.”

Editor's note: This article has been updated with information from Bladen County.

Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR
Peter Castagno is a journalist who has freelanced for Sludge, TruthOut, and Stock News. Castagno’s interests lie in foreign policy and the military industrial complex, as well as global economic systems and holding people in power accountable. He has received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from UNCW. In his free time, Castagno likes to “vibe out.”