Citing public safety concern, DMV leader wants NC to pause Charlotte eCourts expansion

The leader of North Carolina’s Division of Motor Vehicles is urging judicial officials not to launch new digital court software in Charlotte next week, citing a “serious public safety concern” over how the system transmits data on everything from DWI convictions to fatal crashes.

But court officials say they have no plans to delay the Oct. 9 rollout of eCourts in Mecklenburg County, home to the busiest courthouse in the state.

DMV regularly receives case data from all 100 courthouses that affects the suspension and restoration of driver’s licenses. But DMV Commissioner Wayne Goodwin says the data the agency receives from the four counties currently piloting eCourts has been problematic for months, causing thousands of errors his staff must manually fix day after day.

A hastily scheduled meeting Monday between leadership and technical experts at DMV and the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts failed to bring any resolution, Goodwin said.

“At the end of the day, AOC refused to heed our concerns, refused to pause the expansion to Mecklenburg County and said that it would not do any rollback of this system,” Goodwin told The News & Observer after the meeting Monday.

When contacted about Goodwin’s concerns this week, AOC spokesperson Graham Wilson denied that courthouses in the eCourts pilot counties are sending bad data to the DMV. At the agency’s request, he said AOC has made several fixes to the eCourts system, the most recent of which was implemented Sept. 28 — 11 days before Mecklenburg’s launch.

“These improvements are in place and NCAOC is not transmitting erroneous data to NCDMV,” Wilson wrote in an email.

Goodwin said that the agency’s most recent error report — produced just Tuesday morning — shows some of these recurring issues have been addressed. It’s “a move in the right direction,” he said, but does not change his agency’s stance on the status of eCourts.

With Mecklenburg’s addition to the system just days away, he said, DMV still needs more time to test the data it’s receiving from county courts — and make sure the fixes stay fixed.

“We need to have at least two weeks of consistent progress to know that the AOC repairs are going to stick,” Goodwin said. “While we welcome any and all good news and reports, we’ve been down this road before with errors that have popped back up.”

Signs annoucing eCourts coming soon are displayed throughtout the Mecklenburg County Courthouse on Sept. 21, 2023. Software from Tyler Technologies, eCourts, will launch in Mecklenburg County in October. It was piloted in Wake, Harnett, Johnston and Lee Counties.
Signs annoucing eCourts coming soon are displayed throughtout the Mecklenburg County Courthouse on Sept. 21, 2023. Software from Tyler Technologies, eCourts, will launch in Mecklenburg County in October. It was piloted in Wake, Harnett, Johnston and Lee Counties.

‘Plagued with problems’

Goodwin’s objections mark the most high-profile warning made public yet that eCourts is not ready to expand. Designed to eventually serve as the digital backbone of the state’s judicial system, the suite of tools developed by Texas-based Tyler Technologies Inc. will cost taxpayers more than $100 million over the next decade.

Users of eCourts have noted that the system can make it easier for both lawyers and the public to access documents without trekking to county courthouses. And they acknowledge operations have improved somewhat with experience using the system.

But in the months since eCourts case management rolled out into Wake, Johnston, Lee and Harnett counties in February, complaints from attorneys and court officials have continued to mount. And a federal lawsuit alleges that issues with the launch wrongfully landed people in jail.

Goodwin isn’t the only public official who has raised concerns about the Mecklenburg launch. Johnston County District Attorney Susan Doyle told The N&O last month that the software “is still plagued with problems.”

“The eCourts system is absolutely not ready for expansion into other counties,” Doyle told The N&O by email Sept. 14.

Doyle and Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman have called for AOC to pursue an independent review of the system’s launch. The pilot counties’ other district attorney has endorsed that move, as has top Mecklenburg prosecutor Spencer Merriweather.

The expansion of the software to Mecklenburg was initially planned for May, but was delayed for several months while Tyler and AOC officials worked to resolve several “high-priority defects,” agency leaders have said.

Tyler Technologies this week referred questions about the rollout of eCourts to AOC.

An AOC spokesperson last month told The N&O that those defects have been resolved, clearing the way for expansion beyond the pilot counties.

Concerns over bad data

But repeatedly since late August, when AOC announced plans for the Mecklenburg launch, Goodwin has urged court leaders to pause the expansion, correspondence obtained by The N&O through records requests shows.

“DMV staff will not have the bandwidth to absorb the massive daily impact of absorbing another county on top of correcting ongoing errors and problems with the pilot counties,” Goodwin wrote to AOC Director Ryan Boyce Aug. 22.

Agency staffers have had to investigate and correct almost 19,000 errors in court records transmitted to the DMV since the eCourts pilot started in Wake, Johnston, Harnett and Lee counties, an agency spokesperson said.

The bulk of the errors come from data that falsely indicates a fatality occurred in incidents resulting in driving-related convictions, DMV says. Thousands more come from cases where other information was missing or potentially incorrect.

Unaddressed, such errors can mean dangerous drivers stay licensed and on the road — or prevent others with suspended licenses from getting their driving privileges restored, Goodwin said.

“If speeding convictions and driving while license revoked and DWI convictions are not accurately entered into the system, it could jeopardize life, liberty and property,” Goodwin said.

Wilson, the AOC spokesperson, dismissed these errors as issues that required additional manual entry by DMV staff.

And that’s not new, he said. The DMV’s aging State Automated Drivers License System has long required staff to make corrections. That’s why AOC has produced a report since 2015 so DMV workers can “manually reconcile data that SADLS cannot intake.”

“This manual entry predates eCourts and does not represent ‘erroneous data,’” Wilson wrote in an email to The N&O.

Calling the DMV’s license system “functionally obsolete,” he said the court system has worked with DMV for years to overcome its limitations.

“It is incorrect for DMV to label an integration process as an ‘error’ on AOC’s part solely because a data element cannot be automatically ingested into SADLS,” Wilson said.

Wayne Goodwin is state Department of Motor Vehicles commissioner. Goodwin has asked North Carolina court administrators to delay introducing eCourts in Mecklenburg County.
Wayne Goodwin is state Department of Motor Vehicles commissioner. Goodwin has asked North Carolina court administrators to delay introducing eCourts in Mecklenburg County.

A ‘red herring’?

Goodwin called AOC’s attempt to blame the license system “false” and a “red herring.”

“We only can enter into the record what we receive, no matter what system we’ve got,” Goodwin said Monday. “If they don’t provide us the data correctly, then incorrect data goes into the driver record.”

As for AOC’s claim that it’s not transmitting erroneous data, he said, “I don’t see how that can be said with a straight face.”

DMV spokesperson Marty Homan acknowledged that the agency has long received a regular error report from AOC on issues with data from all 100 counties. But since the eCourts launch, errors in that report from the four pilot counties have been more than double what the agency sees for the rest of the state, he said.

And information from the DMV shows that the errors identified in the AOC’s report account for less than one-quarter of the 19,000 errors the agency has seen in the pilot counties since the February eCourts launch.

In the past, fixing errors — often due to issues with name mismatches, incorrect or missing dates of birth or out-of-state drivers — might take an hour or so a day, the agency said. But DMV staff now spend three to four hours a day reviewing and making corrections.

“These error rates are a universe different than any errors that we may have had coming in prior to eCourts,” Goodwin said.

AOC offered to fund a temporary employee “in a good faith effort to mitigate the manual entry,” according to an email Boyce sent to Goodwin Monday.

Homan said it’s too soon to tell whether the fixes AOC added to eCourts have solved the problems. But he noted that the latest report the agency received Tuesday showed a reduction in the number of errors — and amounted to “perhaps the most positive step we’ve had in a while,” he said.

Goodwin said he continues to believe a delay in the rollout is appropriate. It’s important to err on the side of caution given the possible negative impacts of continued problems, he said.

“We’re hopeful there will be good news down the road,” Goodwin said. “But it is too soon to say that, given that there are other errors that have not been corrected.”