Probe of Wake judge focuses on altered DWI conviction dates

ablythe@newsobserver.comFebruary 29, 2012 

Judge Kristin Ruth

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— Judge Kristin Ruth was at the house of a longtime friend shortly after news broke about the investigation into her handling of a dozen driving while impaired cases.

Tal Holloway, a pilot who flew with Ruth when she was a flight attendant working her way through law school, had never seen his friend so upset.

Not only had the State Bureau of Investigation launched an inquiry into her work, Ruth had been pulled from hearing criminal cases until the outcome.

A District Court judge in Wake County since 1998, Ruth has a reputation among Raleigh lawyers and friends as a kind, community-spirited judge with a willingness to accommodate defendants in the hubbub of a busy courthouse.

It just might be that obliging attitude that puts her at the center of the SBI probe, her friends say.

Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby recently flagged a dozen questionable DWI cases in which Ruth's signature is on orders changing conviction dates. James Crouch, a Raleigh lawyer who handles a high volume of traffic cases, was the attorney on each case.

Both Ruth and Crouch have declined to comment on the specifics of the allegations. Joseph B. Cheshire V, the Raleigh attorney representing Crouch, said the entire truth had not come out yet.

"Everyone should hold their judgment until this investigation happens because the truth will hopefully come out and everyone will be able to be judged appropriately," Cheshire said.

Holloway, too, awaits the results of the investigation, hopeful that it will show a fuller picture of his friend, a judge who goes beyond presiding over cases and tries to help deadbeat fathers and other troubled defendants find a path to community-support programs.

"Judge Ruth, here she is this great judge who's been doing great things for the community she represents," Holloway said. "She represents the law. She does not represent one side or the other."

Appeals and suspensions

DWI convictions carry heavy penalties. Those convicted lose their licenses for a year. But if a defendant appeals his DWI conviction to Superior Court, that license suspension doesn't kick in until the case is formally resolved.

Often, as in the case with the 12 cases being investigated, defendants eventually give up their appeal in Superior Court and head back to District Court for sentencing. The year suspension is supposed to kick in when the defendant returns to District Court for sentencing.

In the cases being investigated, the documents show Ruth overruled another judge's conviction date. The new date is many months, sometimes a year, prior. The effect of those decisions could have meant a sparing of a license suspension or limited time without a license.

The Division of Motor Vehicles, which is alerted to convictions that result in license suspensions, noticed an irregularity in some cases and notified Willoughby. Willoughby was already looking into the handling of one of Crouch's cases.

Then Willoughby investigated the ones DMV flagged and learned that Ruth's "nunc pro tunc" rulings - Latin for "now for then" - were done without anyone from the District Attorney's Office being alerted.

"I don't know what legal basis a judge would have to do that," Willoughby said.

The process allows a judge to backdate a conviction and is often used in benign circumstances to fix clerical errors. The process is typically initiated when a defendant's attorney files a motion for appropriate relief, which has a space on the form for a prosecutor's signature.

In the dozen cases in question, there is no such paperwork. Almost always, a judge corrects his or her own order, not that of another judge.

"It's a basic tenant of law that one judge cannot overrule another judge," said Bob Denning, a veteran criminal defense lawyer from Johnston County. "As a lawyer, you just wouldn't even ask."

Marge Howell, a DMV spokeswoman, said none of the flagged cases resulted in the early reinstatement of licenses.

How many DWI cases could eventually come into question is unknown. Willoughby said in a letter to Donald Stephens, Wake County's chief resident Superior Court judge, that he had only done a "quick" review of DWI cases and found the 12 cases now under review.

'A hotshot'

Laith Qomaq, 24 of Raleigh hired Crouch after he got charged with a DWI in March 2010.

Qomaq called Crouch because many of his friends bragged that he'd gotten them out of drunk driving charges.

Qomaq said he felt confident when they walked into court in November 2010; he'd paid Crouch $1,900 and expected good results.

"He told me not to worry about it, that he'd handle it. He told me he was a hotshot and that cops were scared of him," Qomaq said.

Raleigh police pulled Qomaq over another time after that, Qomaq said, and when he mentioned Crouch was his lawyer, officers let him go.

In the end, though, Qomaq said he didn't benefit from any pull Crouch may have had in the courts.

As far as he knows, he was convicted of DWI and hasn't had a license since the day of his arrest in March 2010.

According to court records, Ruth backdated Qomaq's conviction date in July 2011 to November 2010, the date of his initial conviction in District Court.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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