Raleigh lawyer pleads guilty in DWI backdating scheme

ablythe@newsobserver.comNovember 13, 2012 

— James Crouch, a lawyer who handles a high volume of traffic and drunk-driving cases, has risen before a Wake County judge many times as a client enters a plea.

On Tuesday, Crouch was the one doing the pleading, adding another twist to a case that ended the rein of a popular district court judge and created a somber mood in a typically collegial courthouse.

Crouch pleaded guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice, one count of altering documents, a felony, and one count of conspiring with Elizabeth Daniel, his legal aide, to obstruct justice.

He is scheduled to be sentenced the first week of December.

The accusations stem from his handling of dozens of DWI cases from May 1, 2008, to April 30, 2012, and a backdating scheme that typically resulted in either the sparing of a license suspension or a shortened time without a license for Crouch's clients.

Kristin Ruth, a former district court judge, was pulled into the scheme by unwittingly signing orders for Crouch that she had not read, according to her testimony at a plea hearing this summer.

Ruth, who in her 13 years on the bench developed a reputation as being a community-spirited judge who tried to work with defense lawyers to develop options other than jail for defendants, resigned in May. She pleaded guilty in July to failing to discharge the duties of her office, a misdemeanor.

Ruth testified that Crouch, a defense attorney she first got to know in law school, abused her trusting nature. She said Crouch or his paralegal would slip orders into a stack of court documents for her to sign in which she backdated convictions.

“I absolutely trusted James Crouch,” Ruth said at the hearing on July 29. “I had no reason not to trust him.”

Crouch, a Winston-Salem native who got an undergraduate degree in economics and political science from East Carolina University, received his law degree from Campbell University in 1992. For a while, his friends say, he practiced law at the N.C. Prisoner Legal Services, then went into practice with Raleigh defense attorney Tommy Manning in 1993. Eventually, Crouch set off on his own. Over the years, he built one of the largest traffic case practices in Wake County. In court, Crouch has a reputation as being a tough and dogged litigator, whose personality is laced with a heavy dose of arrogance.

Though Crouch knew in February he was the target of an SBI probe, the lawyer continued to represent clients. He continued to take cases to court after being indicted in July, too.

But on Friday, the State Bar, the organization that oversees North Carolina lawyers, froze the trust accounts of Crouch.

In the order doing so, the Bar stated that he had "mishandled entrusted client funds."

Crouch agreed to work with the bar as it further investigated his trust accounts.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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