RALEIGH — The State Bureau of Investigation has spent months conducting a criminal inquiry into the handling of records in the Wake County Clerk of Court office that determine whether bail bondsmen or their insurance companies turn over money owed when a criminal defendant fails to show up for court.
Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby confirmed Tuesday that he asked the SBI in August to look into irregularities after Lorrin Freeman, the Wake County clerk of court, brought problems to his attention.
Willoughby said the case could go to a Wake County grand jury next week for possible criminal indictments.
Though Willoughby and Freeman declined to discuss specific targets, Freeman, the chief clerk for the past eight years, said Tuesday that one person in her office has been fired as a result of the investigation, and another has resigned.
The inquiry stems from a complaint that Freeman received about the handling of bond forfeitures. Professional bondsmen or others who post money or property a portion of the bail set by a court for a defendant to get out of jail while awaiting trial forfeit it if the defendant fails to show up for court. The cash or property becomes the property of the court jurisdiction in which the criminal case is to be heard and cannot be refunded.
Under North Carolina law, the money collected is to go to the public school system in that jurisdiction.
Willoughby said Tuesday that he did not think clerks had been embezzling or stealing money. He said he expected the investigation to show that at least $100,000 that should have been collected had not been because of the possible alteration of court documents.
I think what this will show is how vulnerable we are to electronic fraud, Willoughby said.
North Carolina law provides several reasons that a bondsman or party does not have to pay the bond promised to the courts when a defendant misses a hearing.
Sometimes a defendant is in jail for another crime. Sometimes the defendant has settled a case and the court calendar did not reflect that, prompting a judge to issue a notice that the person failed to appear.
Process to challenge forfeiture
State law provides a 150-day window for someone to challenge or set aside a forfeiture. The bondsman or insurance provider doing so, though, must serve a copy of the request to the district attorney and the county board of education.
If the district attorney or board of education does not file an objection to the request within 20 days, the bondsman or party responsible for the bail money is released from obligation to pay.
North Carolina laws governing bail bondsmen have been changed immensely in recent years, and court officials say antiquated technology has made it difficult to pick up on problems with records as quickly as they would like.
Freeman, a Democrat who has been at the helm of the Wake County clerks office since 2006, is a former prosecutor campaigning for district attorney this year.
She has spoken often about her efforts to bring a court system operating in the technological dark ages into a more modern era by offering electronic document filing for lawyers and developing electronic payment systems.
The state is primarily responsible for funding the technology used by the courts.
Freeman said she acted immediately after finding out about the bond money that should have been collected but was not.
Largely, this was a situation borne yet again from the technology, Freeman said Tuesday.
Willoughby said had it not been for Freeman, the possible criminal problems might have gone undetected. He also praised her office for aiding state investigators.
The clerks office has been instrumental in trying to retrieve documents and go through records, Willoughby said.
Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1