Blank orders from a judge led to scrapped cars in Hamlet

acurliss@newsobserver.comNovember 23, 2013 

About two dozen vehicles scrapped with police blessing in the city of Hamlet were taken to a junkyard with paperwork that appeared to authorize their disposal. City officials now say that the disposals were not handled properly and that they are preparing to pay motorists for the vehicles.

But Anna Jordan, a manager at Quality Salvage, which purchased the seized vehicles, said there was no reason to question junking them because, in part, police produced judges’ orders that granted Hamlet police proper authority over each vehicle.

Some of those documents, however, appear to be copies of pre-signed orders that were filled in with the vehicles’ information. It is unclear whether a judge approved the facts on the orders.

Some of the orders do not have a case number, the defendant’s name or other basic information.

A judicial assistant identified the signature on the orders as belonging to District Court Judge Lisa Blue Thacker, who presides in Richmond, Stanly and Anson counties.

Multiple attempts to discuss the blank orders with Thacker failed. Thacker responded in an email message: “I have no comment.”

Michael Crowell, an expert on the judiciary at the UNC School of Government, reviewed the documents. He said that such pre-signed orders are a problem because an order must contain facts and take actions that were considered by the judge.

“Generally, the problem with a judge signing a blank order is the judge can’t know what finding or findings are going to then be put into that order,” Crowell said.

Paul Ross, director of the state’s Judicial Standards Commission, said he could not comment on matters that might come under his agency’s review.

James Coman, a senior deputy attorney general who reviewed the investigation, said that he was aware of one blank order but that the SBI’s inquiry could not determine much more about it.

A News & Observer review of the files shows one blank order was used to dispose of two vehicles. A second blank order that is similar to the first was used to dispose of five vehicles.

“You’ve got one that we don’t have,” Coman said.

Hamlet City Manager Marchell Adams-David said the blank orders, which were found in files at the police station, were a concern because any vehicle could be filled into the blanks, thus transferring its ownership to the city for its use or sale.

She said there may have been a third blank order, but that she believed it was provided to the State Bureau of Investigation already in the course of its probe into what happened with money from the seized vehicles.

Coman said investigators didn’t contact the judge to ask what happened.

“We only had the one, is my recollection,” Coman said. “If there had been a whole bunch of them, I can assure you that we would have probably sent (an agent) back and had him look into it. But there was one there that had a judge’s signature. It seemed not to have any bearing on anything. It appeared to be, for lack of a better way of describing it, a rabbit that I wasn’t willing to chase.”

Thacker was the area’s chief district judge until early this year. She gave up that administrative post to resume duties as a regular judge following several controversies involving an assistant. The episode included accusations by a lawmaker, Rep. Justin Burr, of “questionable actions” on her watch.

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