Normally, Get Out of Jail Free cards come from Monopoly game stacks. However, on Wednesday, Feb. 28, the Guilford County clerk of Superior Court’s office handed a dangerous felon what amounted to the same thing – paperwork that let him walk out of the High Point jail rather than be hauled off to prison to serve the 15 to 27 month sentence he’d just been given.
The convicted felon, 27-year-old Dathan Marque Abney, was apprehended on Friday evening, March 2, but his mistaken release has left plenty of questions in its wake about the procedures being used to process criminals after their cases are adjudicated. Questions are also being raiseda about the antiquated, paper-based system the Guilford County courts use for that purpose.
On Feb. 28, Guilford County Sherriff’s Department staff released Abney based on faulty paperwork provided by the clerk of court’s High Point office. Later, court officials and the Sheriff’s Department learned of the clerical error that led to Abney’s release, when he should instead have been held and sent to prison to serve time for the charge of possession of a firearm by a felon.
Guilford County Sheriff’s Department Col. Randy Powers said that, based on paperwork court officials provided officers, his department had no legal right to keep Abney behind bars.
“We couldn’t hold him,” Powers said. “If we did, it would be kidnapping.”
Powers added that Sheriff’s Department officers, when given the paperwork that didn’t include any hold order and thus would free Abney, had immediate concerns whether that paperwork was correct and complete, so they called the clerk of court’s office to question whether Abney really should be released. When they did so, Powers said, they were assured the paperwork was correct and Abney was clear for release.
“They called and said, ‘Is this everything?’” Powers said of the Sheriff’s Department’s officers who were processing Abney after his court appearance.
Powers said the court handles a great number of cases every week and a situation may be complex because of multiple charges.
“It can be easy to make a mistake,” Powers said.
He added that it’s rare that a mistake would lead to an unjustified release.
Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes said his officers sensed there was something wrong when they saw Abney was marked for release because Abney was in for a serious charge and didn’t seem to be in a legal situation in which his release should be warranted.
“The bad part is that they called over there and said, ‘Are you sure?’” Barnes said.
Barnes, like Powers, said his department, at that point, had no legal authority to hold Abney so their only choice was to release him.
The sheriff, when asked, said he suspects Abney knew a mistake had been made and was aware he wasn’t supposed to be released. He added that, if that was the case, Abney chose not to speak up and call attention to the error.
One law enforcement official said some alarmed court officials working the case heard soon after the fact that Abney had been let go and asked why in the world that had happened, and soon after that the Sheriff’s Department was informed of the mistaken release.
Barnes put a special crime suppression team on the streets to find Abney and get him back behind bars. On March 2, detectives with the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department, working with the Winston-Salem Police Department, located and arrested him “without incident” at a house on the 2000 block of Bowen Boulevard in Winston-Salem. Abney was served with an order for arrest based on the possession of a firearm by felon charge for which he’d been sentenced two days earlier.
While court and law enforcement officials are relieved Abney was apprehended, they are examining the events that led to his improper release and exploring whether changes to the system need to be made to assure something similar doesn’t happen in the future.
Barnes said the paperwork for the dropped charges was given to his officers but not the all-important document that relayed that Abney had pled guilty to the felony and been sentenced. The sheriff said it’s his understanding that the order to hold Abney was filled out but not handed over and, he said, court officials later found that paper tucked away in a folder, briefcase or document pouch.
In the Feb. 28 court case, Abney had six misdemeanor charges from four cases in addition to his felony firearm possession charge. It’s not uncommon in cases when a defendant has misdemeanor charges along with felony charges for those lesser charges to be dropped as part of a plea bargain, and that may have been what happened in this case. Despite those misdemeanor charges being dropped, Abney should have been held on the felony and had to serve at least 15 months.
Barnes said that, for cases of inmates being held in jail, the clerk will place the defendant in a holding cell while the paperwork is processed, and deputies use those court documents to determine who gets released and who is incarcerated.
Barnes said he didn’t want people thinking that his officers made a mistake in this case. He wrote in an email after the incident, “As you know, if it’s ours I’ll take it and fix it, if not I don’t want them accused of messing up.”
Guilford County Clerk of Superior Court Lisa Johnson-Tonkins said her office owns up to the error.
“I don’t make any excuses – it was a mistake,” she said.
Johnson-Tonkins, who filed last month to run for a second four-year term as clerk of court, faces no opposition in the race, so she doesn’t have to worry about an opponent making political hay out of this case.
She said the operations at the High Point courthouse can be more confusing than those in the courthouse in Greensboro since High Point has a “hodgepodge” of cases that must be handled by fewer staff.
Johnson-Tonkins said she’d spent much of Friday, March 2 trying to find out exactly what happened. She said the paperwork was handled by a new clerk and added that Abney’s case was the very last one of the day, when court officials were attempting to wrap things up.
She also said that the clerk of court’s office handles hundreds if not thousands of cases a week and it’s very rare that someone will make a mistake of this nature.
“She accurately put down that all misdemeanors were dismissed,” Johnson-Tonkins stated, adding that Abney’s felony conviction, however, didn’t get passed on to the officers.
“She feels horrible about it,” Johnson-Tonkins said of the clerk who made the mistake.
Johnson-Tonkins added that staff has been told to “slow down” and make sure all the paperwork is complete before handing it over.
She also said the court’s record keeping system in Guilford County is very outdated. She said it’s still largely DOS-based and it relies much more on paper than it should in an era when modern technology could protect against errors of this kind. She said that, while it wasn’t an excuse, she thinks the mistake might have been caught if the court system were better funded and more computer-based.
Johnson-Tonkins said she’d recently attended a clerks of court conference at which many clerks expressed concern over a lack of funding for court operations or new computer systems.
“It is frustrating not having the tools we need,” she said.
Johnson-Tonkins said that there’s some state money in the pipeline to help address the situation but it’s not enough.
“We’re so far behind that really the funding wasn’t adequate,” she said.
The Guilford County court system got the core of its computing system over three decades ago – in 1983. In 2014, the Rhino Times reported on the loud complaints of court officials regarding a lack of funding for updated technology of money for ordinary tools of the business. At that time, court workers complained that even some very simple tools were often in short supply for court workers. For instance, in the courthouse in Greensboro, clerks certifying criminal records didn’t have enough mechanical stamps to each keep one at their desk. The devices were in short supply, and the ones the clerks did have didn’t work properly. So at that time workers constantly had to locate a stamp and then fiddle with the ones that didn’t work well.
That’s a minor problem compared to a felon being accidentally released, and, while all those involved say that there will always be cases of human error in processing court records, some say a more modern records system and better court tools could help prevent this type of error from happening in the future.