CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Thousands of misdemeanor and low-priority traffic charges were erroneously dismissed due to a computer error while working with state officials to clear a backlog, the Mecklenburg County District Attorney's Office said. Now, the office is working to reinstate as many of those charges as possible.
In a news release shared Wednesday, the office said it had been working with the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) to dismiss several charges that included low-level traffic offenses and low-level misdemeanor cases, which would allow county prosecutors to focus on more serious traffic and misdemeanor charges. The reasoning for the clearance efforts is tied to COVID-19; the district attorney's office said most offenses date back more than three years and piled up during the pandemic due to court closures.
District Attorney Spencer Merriweather directed prosecutors to prioritize more serious cases, including vehicular homicides and traffic incidents where drivers exceeded speed limits by 25 mph or more, the office said. There are more than 10,000 such cases, and an additional 1,000 cases involving drivers accused of speeding at 100 mph or more, according to the release.
The backlog for them meant an inability to address those more pressing cases, and Merriweather's office chose not to pursue many minor citations and low-level misdemeanors. Additionally, the office said not pursuing those lower-priority cases meant they could focus on domestic violence cases, charges involving dangerous speeding, and DWI prosecution. To that end, the office said Mecklenburg County prosecutors worked with the AOC to gather data about the pending cases to see which ones could be dismissed.
The news release goes on to say the Mecklenburg County office started working with the AOC in the summer of 2022 on a larger project to dismiss about 97,000 minor citations and low-level misdemeanors, which the AOC provided technical help on. The low-level cases ranged from expired tags and registration to trespassing, some of which date back to 2019.
However, the district attorney's office said they were alerted by some court system stakeholders on Sept. 26 that there were some case outcomes that didn't line up with what prosecutors had directed the AOC to help with. The news release said DA Merriweather reached out to AOC director Judge Andrew Heath immediately to halt the dispositions, and staff from both the district attorney's office and the AOC have been working to figure out how the errors happened and how to find a solution.
Merriweather's office said four days later, it turned out the computer error at the AOC resulted in the erroneous dismissal of more than 16,000 charges. Of those charges, about 300 were DWI charges while others included defendants accused of driving at dangerously high speeds. Merriweather's office said those kinds of charges were clearly not approved for dismissal, and the AOC has now been informed that the Mecklenburg County DA's office plans to reinstate as many as possible.
"Clerical and computer errors in a system with the case volume that exists in a county of our size do occur, and when they do, reinstatement of affected cases occurs as a matter of course. We would not expect a different outcome in these circumstances," part of the news release's conclusion reads.
The AOC provided this statement to WCNC Charlotte:
It is important to understand that no cases were improperly dismissed. Rather, the Administrative Office of the Courts’ computer program erroneously made dismissal entries within the mainframe index for entire cases in which the District Attorney had dismissed some, but not all, of the charges. The Administrative Office of the Courts does not have the authority to dismiss cases. The authority to dismiss cases rests with the District Attorney. The Administrative Office of the Courts is aware of the erroneous entries and is working to correct them.
The Administrative Office of the Courts can assist District Attorneys across the state in clearing their dockets of cases that are unlikely to be prosecuted. For example, traffic offenses or very old cases in which the defendant, witnesses or law enforcement associated with the case are likely to be deceased or otherwise unavailable. Elected District Attorneys have prosecutorial discretion, and are able to exercise this discretion in determining whether to dismiss a case. This can be done with individual cases inside the courtroom or by sending lists of cases that meet certain parameters to the Administrative Office of the Courts. It is the elected Clerk’s duty to record dispositions. When individual cases are dismissed, deputy clerks key the dismissal into the AOC mainframe system. When batches of cases are dismissed, AOC runs a computer program that enters the dismissals into the AOC mainframe on behalf of the Clerk.
This service provided by AOC technical staff enables District Attorneys to remove backlogs of older inactive cases that may never be prosecuted. Local court officials can then focus their resources on higher priority, active cases while providing the AOC a clearer picture of the number of active cases pending within each district.
Many court cases have multiple charges within a given file number. In the Mecklenburg County situation, the Mecklenburg County District Attorney directed dismissal of certain charges such as traffic infraction and other low-level motor vehicle misdemeanor offenses within a list of over 90,000 file numbers. When the computer program was executed, however, the program dismissed all charges within the file numbers provided to AOC – some of which the District Attorney did not authorize to be dismissed. AOC immediately halted the program and has identified the affected cases. AOC technical staff are working with District Attorney Merriweather and his team to take appropriate restorative action to ensure the AOC mainframe index matches the action taken by the District Attorney, similar to when a court official mistakenly keys in a disposition in the AOC system.
This is limited to Mecklenburg.