Hwy. patrols to ticket with ease New eCitations less work for troopers, clerks

BY ERIC OLSON eolson@heraldsun.com; 419-6647
The Herald-Sun
Saturday, January 31, 2004
Final Edition Durham Section
Page B3

The N.C. Highway Patrol launched new software Friday that should help ease the workload at the durham County Clerk of Courts Office and among troopers issuing traffic tickets.

Dubbed eCitation, the software allows troopers to automatically submit their tickets to the clerk's office over the Internet, eliminating the need for them to be manually entered into the court's computer system.

The Administrative Office of the Courts provided the software for free, and durham's troopers are among troopers and sheriff's deputies in Wake, Mecklenburg and Cumberland counties participating in the pilot program.

Last year, those three agencies, which have been operating the program for some time, issued 28,120 eCitations, said Col. Richard Holden, the commander of the N.C. Highway Patrol.

"It's a big deal for us, since it's such a new project," said Sgt. Jerry Burton, who works for the Patrol's Information Management Unit. "We have more troopers who can use the printers, but we just don't have the money because of budgetary constraints. It helps us out tremendously."

Currently, troopers, police officers and sheriff's deputies write citations by hand and give a copy to the defendant. Then, the officer takes the original back to headquarters, and another officer takes the collected reports to the courthouse. There, clerks manually enter information from the citations into the court's automated system.

Barker French, who is part of the durham roundtable that donated about $3,000 to purchase and install the software and printers in five of durham County's Highway Patrol cruisers, said he visited the clerk's office in September and discovered that the clerks were still putting in citations issued in July.

With the new system, the trooper enters the driver's information into a laptop computer. An option also allows the trooper to enter only the defendant's driver's license number, and the computer automatically fills in the name, address and other pertinent information.

Then, rather than writing out the full description of the offense and its statute number, the software provides a complete list of chargeable offenses. The trooper simply has to click on the laws that the driver is accused of violating.

The trooper also can print out a copy of the ticket for the driver, using technology similar to that of fax machines, and the information is submitted over the Internet directly to the computer system in the clerk's office.

"The person who received a ticket could technically go down and pay it off the same day," Burton said.

First Sgt. E.C. Maness, of the Highway Patrol, estimated that the system could save about $4.5 million once it is fully implemented throughout the state. According to official records, an average of 1.2 million citations are issued annually.

"When you look at that, you say, 'Man, we ought to be doing this,' " he said. "The training is very easy and the implementation is simplistic. The trooper just goes through the program clicking."

In Wake County, 19 cruisers are equipped with the system and 13 more will have it soon, Burton said.

"When every trooper has one in the car, it will save enough money for four clerks in the court system," he said. "If every trooper has it, that's four less people they would need in the court system to handle the volume of tickets that is produced."

Letters to the editor

The Herald-Sun
Wednesday, February 04, 2004
Final Edition
Editorial Section
Page A8

The writer is chairman of the durham roundtable.

Bail reduced again

I was appalled when I picked up the newspaper and read once again that bail had been reduced for a repeat offender. This time, it was a sex offender! [Herald-Sun, Jan. 24].

Our police risk their lives every day to get these and other predators off the streets. Our judges, public defenders and bail bondsmen then work together to let them out to prey upon citizens.

I hope Judge Ron Stephens and a lot of other judges in durham know that we citizens are aware that reducing bail, sometimes more than once, is common. I'm sure the people of durham will remember these judges and be better prepared for elections to come.

Courts understaffed, advocates say Private entity to push for funds to overcome shortage

BY ERIC OLSON eolson@heraldsun.com; 419-6647
The Herald-Sun
Tuesday, May 11, 2004
Final Edition
Durham Section
Page C1

A group of private citizens is trying to raise the public's awareness about a funding shortage in the durham County Court-house through a letter-writing campaign targeting North Carolina's governor and legislative leaders.

"These are small steps," said Barker French, the chairman of the durham roundtable. "But I think it's very important that the community understand that if we take these small steps, good things will happen."

The durham roundtable is a group of 13 residents, including French, former durham mayors Nick Tennyson and Sylvia Kerckhoff, former City Councilman Dan Hill and former durham County Commissioner MaryAnn E. Black.

The group meets once a month and has been studying durham County's court system for about 15 months.

"In the long run, our real interest here is to make durham a safer place," French said. "We have to take these small bites to get there."

The state Legislature determines how much money the Administrative Office of the Courts has for hiring court personnel and purchasing equipment. Yet, according to members of the roundtable, the 2.7 percent of the state budget allocated to the court system ranks North Carolina in the lower 25 percent of all U.S. states.

"The problem is that over time, the court system has had an allocation formula that didn't recognize caseload and indicators like that as much as we think it should," Tennyson said.

"Maybe even more important than that, the Legislature has a fairly rigid funding scheme set up, so that the AOC can't really use money to the greatest efficiency," he added. "They have to use it under fairly tight restrictions."

durham needs six additional clerks of court, four assistant district attorneys, two District Court judges, a magistrate, a court reporter and funding for the family and youth treatment courts, the group asserted.

"We're trying to point this out to the legislators and make them aware that we are serious and we want our fair share of our budget," Hill said.

However, following a durham County Commissioners meeting Thursday, officials determined that the funding for two assistant district attorneys and two clerks was the most pressing issue facing durham, French said.

"It was sort of agreed upon, in the short session, that it would be impractical to fill all the positions, but to focus on immediate needs," he said.

If durham gets the additional staffing, District Attorney Jim Hardin Jr. already has agreed to focus efforts on violent felons, whose cases often drag on for months, allowing them to be released from jail as their bonds are reduced, Hill said.

"We want the judicial system to be responsive to the needs of the community by prioritizing the serious felony suspects [and not allowing them] to wreak havoc in the community," he said.

The group also requested that durham residents write letters requesting the durham court positions to Gov. Mike Easley; Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, D-Dare; and co-speakers of the House Richard T. Morgan, R-Moore, and James B. Black, D-Mecklenburg.

French said he visited the clerk's office in September and noticed that the clerks still were entering July citations, which he deemed a drain on resources.

The group then donated $3,000 to the N.C. Highway Patrol to purchase printers and software for the e-citation program, which automatically inputs traffic tickets into the court computer system.

French said Monday that the system already has freed up a clerk to work on other duties.

"We are really working on the legislators to get the resources that we really are entitled to be on an equal footing with the other larger-sized communities," Hill said.

Demand better funded courts

BY MARYANN BLACK Guest Columnist
The Herald-Sun
Wednesday, June 02, 2004
Final Edition
Editorial Section
Page A9

For more than a year the durham roundtable has made a priority of trying to understand the justice system. We were brought to this issue in the most human of ways. A crime was committed by someone who should not be out on bond to prey again upon the good people of our community. Tracking that perpetrator down revealed all sorts of apparent flaws in the way the judicial system functions.

What we found was overloaded staff, tremendous caseloads, antiquated equipment and machinery, and the odds of bond reduction stacked in favor of the most violent offenders. Counties are responsible for jail facilities and court space. State government pays for the prosecutors, judges, and public defenders.

A statewide court system has merit with a baseline for funding set to insure that justice is meted equally. Each county should receive funding to pay for staff based on the needs of the county. A "one size fits all" judicial system does not work. Our judicial district falls short because of the formula used for court funding. It is impossible to transfer excess funds in a line item budget for a different need, such as buying a new copier or a computer system, as the transfer would require approval by the state.

Magistrates do not have access to complete information on persons brought before them -- even from the rest of North Carolina! The Criminal Justice Information Network has been working on the North Carolina Warrant Repository for years. The system would allow magistrates to look up outstanding warrants in any of the state's 100 counties. Completion and implementation are being delayed by consistent under-funding the project.

A recent visit to the Clerk of Court's office revealed stacks and stacks of traffic citations, which had been hand written by highway patrol, sheriff's deputies, and city police in durham. Each was being hand entered into the computer system by clerks whose time was desperately needed in other areas.

We discovered that one of the technology projects run by the Administrative Office of the Courts, the e-citation program, was seeking one more jurisdiction to test the new system. With e-citation, the officer keys in the data on a laptop computer in his car, and they are digitally transmitted to the court system for use when that defendant shows up in court. The durham roundtable Group was able to secure money to buy the equipment for five highway patrol cars in durham and, as a result, the workload of data entry clerks was cut 33 percent.

Sheriff and Police Department officials are reviewing the e-citation equipment for use in their cars and Chief Steve Chalmers has wisely included funding for the printers in his budget. If put online, the clerk will have an increase in available staffing -- just by being able to more productively use the people. For a one-time investment of $50,000, all the sheriff's and Police Department patrol cars could be outfitted with this much needed equipment.

The biggest obstacle that the durham roundtable wants to overcome is to see durham citizens getting energized and on board with this process. The legislators who represent our county must work in unison to bring our judicial district to funding parity. The formula under which parity is established must be reviewed and modernized to recognize the very different challenges faced by urbanized counties. Funding isn't the only issue, but it is the biggest.

To help build the support that is going to be necessary, our judicial system officials (judges, clerks, sheriff and police) have to agree to some measurable outcomes to judge success. We need to add measured amounts of money to solve systemic problems that are identified, and then quantify the value of each to help justify the next. We can't just put more money into this system and hope for the best.

Without a functioning judicial system, the odds against doing time, even if you re-do the crime, are very low.

Each and every citizen has an opportunity to speak out to the governor and the legislature about our resource needs in durham. Each and every citizen must speak out for durham to be a safer place to live. Call, email, or write these leaders now and tell them to support the durham delegation's request for two more assistant district attorneys and two more clerks for the Clerk of Court's office.

Mary Ann Black is a member of the durham roundtable. This column is also endorsed by roundtable members Anita Brown-Graham, Barker French, Sterling Freeman, Laura Hall, Dan Hill, Haywood Holderness, Margaret Keller, Carl Kenney, Sylvia Kerckhoff, Hank Scherich, Nick Tennyson and Carl Webb.

Isn't 13 times enough?

The Herald-Sun
Jun 14, 2004 : 3:50 pm ET

There are a lot of men and women locked away behind bars who would gladly pay Jean Claude Rinehart -- in jailhouse currency, of course -- to tell them his wicked little secret for beating the judicial system.

Rinehart, 39, has been arrested and charged with breaking and entering 12 times this year. He was arrested for the 13th time last week when police charged him with two counts of larceny and two counts of breaking and entering for allegedly knocking over two houses in Trinity Park.

The logical question becomes how could someone already arrested and charged 12 times -- none of the charges have been tried -- in one year with such a serious crime even be on the streets to commit the same offense a 13th time? And especially if that someone already has a rap sheet with the state Department of Corrections that covers 19 pages?

Rinehart, who has a similar criminal record in Texas, could be the poster child for critics of the notorious "revolving door" judicial system. This system, if it deserves to be called a system at all, allows habitual criminals to post low bonds. They return to the streets to create more victims by committing the same crime for which they were arrested. In Durham, statistics support that claim. A study found that 25 percent of the people arrested here are already on bond, a higher rate than other North Carolina jurisdictions.

One local group, the Durham Roundtable, has some good ideas about ways to fix this mess, and someone in authority needs to listen. The Roundtable wants more assistant district attorneys and courthouse support staff, the better to try felony cases more quickly. The group has also called for a more effective pre-trial screening program.

In this country, people charged with a crime are considered innocent until proven guilty. It's one of the principles on which the nation was founded. But after a suspect such as Jean Claude Rinehart has been arrested 13 times for the same crime, you would think someone at the Durham County Courthouse would have heard the duck quacking.

Letters to the editor

The Herald-Sun
Monday, May 31, 2004
Final Edition
Editorial Section
Page A8

Help the court system

I applaud Barker French, chairman of the durham roundtable, for writing about the court system in durham. We should also applaud the efforts of individuals who work in that system as well as the durham police officers who arrest -- and re-arrest -- those who break the law. Perhaps criminals continue to commit crimes because the system is so overburdened, and they think they probably will get only a slap on the wrist in court.

This situation has to change. Please write your legislators and let them know your opinion. You can find their names and addresses at www.ncgov.com


The roundtable's quest

The Herald-Sun
Tuesday, June 01, 2004
Final Edition
Editorial Section
Page A6

Like King Arthur's knights of legend, a group of committed citizens who call themselves the durham roundtable are hoping the rightness of their position -- that the durham court system is woefully underfunded -- will convince the mighty state to open its wallet.

But the 13-member roundtable knows that being right isn't enough, so it is encouraging the public to apply pressure through a letter-writing campaign targeting Governor Mike Easley and legislative leaders.

Roundtable members know that durham's crime problem can, at least partly, be traced to an over-extended and understaffed court system.

For example, because there aren't enough assistant district attorneys to try violent felony cases quickly, trials are often delayed and defendants are released on bond. Back on the street, they are free to commit new crimes against new victims. Twenty five percent of arrestees in durham are already on bond, a far higher rate than other locations. A better pre-trial screening program and speedier trials would help put more violent offenders behind bars.

The roundtable members decided durham needs six more clerks of court, four more assistant DAs, two judges, a magistrate, a court reporter and funding for family and youth courts. But given economic realities, the members scaled back their request to two more assistant DAs and two more clerks.

The roundtable deserves support for its efforts to identify and solve some of durham's knottiest problems. In addition to bringing pressure to bear on Raleigh, the group has also made simple suggestions, such as advocating for printers in police patrol cars. How can a cop with a printer make the community safer? By reducing an officers' time on paperwork and increasing his or her time on the street, and by freeing up time for clerks to catch up on their work. The group has even raised money and donated printers itself.

This is durham's roundtable, where the knights attack castles of complacency.

Durham Images courtesy of
Durham Convention & Vistors Bureau