It was 4 a.m. when a "very pregnant" South Carolina woman got in her car bound for Knoxville.
Officials in the Knox County Criminal Court Clerks' office had told her days before that she needed to be here in court if she wanted more time to pay her speeding ticket.
That wasn't true, according to records. She could have stayed at home.
"They told her she had to pay it by her first appearance in court or that she had to appear in court," according to an email sent from the county's district attorney's office to officials in the criminal court clerk's office and the law director's office. "The clerk didn't give the defendant the one continuance to pay as allowed by the judges."
The district attorney's office eventually "nolle prossed" the case, meaning it declined to present it to the court to prosecute.
The woman, who was not named in the records, represents just one of more than 100 driving-related cases that prosecutors during the past eight or so months have asked the general session court judges to set aside due to errors in what officials are now calling a systemic problem inside the criminal court clerk's office
Officials say the office workers are entering wrong data into the records management system, losing crucial paperwork, and providing defendants with bad information, according to a series of emails, memos and documents obtained by WBIR Channel 10 under the state's open records law.
As a result, authorities have wrongly arrested defendants and kept others locked up longer than their scheduled release date, according to the Channel 10 investigation.
Many of the mistakes, though, also focus on traffic citations, and earlier this month, officials in the Knox County District Attorney General's Office asked the sessions court judges to consider doing away with the county's Driver Improvement Program, or DIP, which lets some traffic offenders take to avoid a ticket.
"It is my opinion that we need to stop the program completely and immediately until more training is done in the (Criminal Court) Clerk's Office with anyone involved in handling anything regarding traffic citations," Assistant District Attorney Samyah Jubran wrote Oct. 8 to the five sessions court judges, the law director's office and to officials in the criminal court clerk's office.
She noted that officials in the office are entering "convictions" for "many cases that should have been dismissed."
"I'm not sure where the breakdown is happening in the (Criminal Court) Clerk's Office, but too many driving records and (bookkeeping) records are being adversely affected at this point," the email also said.
Officials in the District Attorney's Office declined to comment.
Here's a snapshot of some more of the problems WBIR discovered:
- Dismissed tickets still appear on a driver's record.
- Clerks entered county ordinance traffic citations into the system as state charges, which carry stiffer penalties. The cases were set aside.
- Cases dismissed after clerks failed to bring the paperwork to the courtroom until noon, leaving the defendants waiting for hours for a judge to hear a traffic citation
- Clerks entered wrong convictions into the system. In one case, the clerk entered "Driving Under the Influence" instead of the much lesser offense of "Public Intoxication." Another time, officials didn't update the system, so one offender appeared to be on probation when he wasn't.
- Clerks entered wrong charges into the system. Cases dismissed.
- Clerks entered wrong fines into the system. In one case, the fine was supposed to be $250, but entered as $25.
Knox County Criminal Court Clerk Joy McCroskey, whose office includes Fourth Circuit Court, General Sessions and Criminal Court, declined to comment. In the past she has suggested that the problems in her office are few and far between.
At this point, the general sessions court judges will keep the Driver Improvement Program open.
Knox County General Sessions Court Judge Andrew Jackson VI said officials discussed the matter last week but "we think the driver improvement program is a good thing . . . and we're not ready to give up on that program."
He did, however, note that the judges will more than likely call a meeting with other top county leaders to talk about the problems in the criminal court clerk's office and look for solutions, which will more than likely include additionaly training for the office and better technology.
The criminal court clerk's office uses an antiquated FoxPro system for bookkeeping and Justice Information Management System, or JIMS, for recordkeeping. The two, however, are not synched, which has led to problems, since the District Attorney General's Office and the Sheriff's Office rely on and access JIMS, and don't have access to FoxPro.
"Over the past year at least, multiple defendant's driving records and records in FoxPro are inaccurate due to the Clerk's errors," a Sept. 18 email from the DA's Office to officials in the criminal court clerk's office and the judges notes. "The cases were dismissed after completion of the Driver Improvement Program (or DIP), yet the Clerk's records in FoxPro indicate convictions, and then some of the disposition sheets sent to the Dept. of Safety indicate convictions."
Jackson said officials have met a number of times to talk about the matter and try to fix the problems, and there's been "some success."
But, he said, it's still a work in progress.
"All we can do is try to make sure they don't happen again, and until everything is correctly entered into the computer they can happen again," he said. "But we've been trying to make sure it doesn't happen. And each time we hope it won't happen again."
SEEKING MORE ANSWERS
Officials in the Knox County Sheriff's Office are still upset about the problems, particularly after McCroskey blamed some of the mistakes on law enforcement.
Sheriff Jimmy "J.J." Jones criticized the criminal court clerk during Monday's Knox County Commission work session when officials asked him about the WBIR investigation. He encouraged McCroskey, who quickly left the forum, to attend next Monday's commission meeting and publicly address the errors.
Knox County Commissioner Ed Shouse said he, too, wants McCroskey there.
"I'd like to hear her response, her side of the story, to hear what she's doing to hopefully turn this situation around to get it on a positive footing where we don't have this exposure," he said.
The commissioner added that he also is concerned that the county could lose revenue because of the errors.
"(Whenever) a ticket is booked it should be paid unless dismissed by a judge for cause, but not just because of bad paperwork," Shouse said. "That's terrible. That's terrible."
Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett agreed.
"If somebody is speeding through a school zone, then they need to get popped and we don't need errors leading to the dismissals," he said. "Plus, you're talking about money that's not getting collected. People need to be held accountable."
Contact Mike Donila at email@example.com and Eleanor Beck at firstname.lastname@example.org.