Editorial

An attorney's hard fall

Raleigh attorney James Crouch broke the rules and now will pay the price.

November 14, 2012 

Lawyer James Crouch came to be known as one of the “people to see” for those charged with criminal offenses in Wake County, particularly at the District Court level and more particularly, when the charges involved drunken driving. With his shaved head and piercing eyes, Crouch gave the impression of being someone who could cut skillful deals to save driver’s licenses or at least limit the damage from a suspension.

It was true. What was also true, as it turned out, was that Crouch achieved success for defendants by pushing and in fact tearing the envelope when it came to making pleas.

For that, he will no longer practice law and faces prison time for a guilty plea to obstruction of justice. It is an unfortunate end to a career.

Wake District Attorney Colon Willoughby came under criticism from some lawyers for pursuing this case. It turns out he was right and he deserves to be commended for his investigation and pursuit of the truth.

Kristin Ruth, now a former Wake District Court judge, signed many forms she thought were routine in Crouch’s cases, and didn’t read them, trusting the attorney, whom she had known in law school at Campbell University. But in those papers were orders submitted by Crouch’s office that backdated convictions, a maneuver that could result in a lessening of the time of a license suspension in a DWI case, for example.

Ruth, a popular judge, resigned her position and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor of not discharging her duties. She told the story of Crouch’s actions in a plea hearing last summer.

Crouch was planning a spirited defense, but that collapsed, The News & Observer’s Anne Blythe reported, after his attorneys found that he had altered his law firm files even after being charged with obstruction of justice. Crouch apparently was trying to hide the fact that he charged clients from $500 to $750 extra to get convictions backdated.

His attorneys, including the well-known Joseph Cheshire V, realized they’d inadvertently given those doctored documents to the district attorney. Crouch acknowledged what he did.

“When something like that happens,” Cheshire said, “the case is essentially over.”

The vast majority of the attorneys who do business daily in downtown Raleigh are upright people who properly are trying to do the best they can for their clients, within the law. While many were friendly with Crouch, none would condone his actions and all recognize that an incident such as this can be troubling when it comes to the public’s confidence in the courts.

North Carolina’s DWI laws are tough, and procedures for processing pleas and sometimes trying cases can be complicated. The combination of harsh penalties and flexibility in how cases can be handled – a flexibility that can be exploited by knowledgeable lawyers – unfortunately can lead to a brand of justice that falls short of even-handed. But lawyers should know and respect the difference between aggressive representation and gaming the system.

At the end of the day, even when understanding the variables such as the skills of individual lawyers and the attitudes of different judges, the public must believe that the system is basically fair. That is all, really, that makes it work.

When it doesn’t work, all of those within and without the system are hurt. Now the State Bar must talk with Crouch and other attorneys to examine how that system can be protected.

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