Local News

Disbarred Raleigh attorney sentenced to prison for altering DWI convictions

Posted December 4, 2012

— A Wake County judge on Tuesday sentenced a former Raleigh defense attorney to 12 to 34 months in prison on charges that he altered court records relating to dozens of DWI convictions in an effort to lessen driving penalties for his clients.

James Crouch Full video: James Crouch sentencing hearing

James Crouch pleaded guilty last month to charges that he backdated convictions in an effort to shorten or eliminate license suspensions in approximately 50 driving while impaired cases from May 2008 to April 2012.

The sentence, handed down by Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway, was the harshest possible under state sentencing guidelines.

"The offenses for which I have imposed judgment erode the trust and integrity that is so important to our system of justice," Ridgeway said. "It is now the task of each of us to redouble our efforts to repair that damage, to recommit ourselves to the administration of true justice and to fully restore the confidence and trust of the citizens of our court.”

A long-time Raleigh attorney whose practice handled more than 2,000 cases each year, Crouch was also disbarred as part of his plea deal with prosecutors.

"I stand before you, judge, a man who's been disgraced, humiliated and had stripped away from my soul any dignity that I've earned in my life," Crouch told Ridgeway before sentencing. "I have lost my reputation, my livelihood, my name and the trust of my fellow man. I've lost all of those things, and I deserve it. I've embarrassed and humiliated my wife and my family, and I've caused a lot of pain and embarrassment to my profession. I'm embracing that. You don't have to tell me, I know."

Defense attorney Joseph Cheshire said Crouch had become arrogant and took on too many cases, took shortcuts and made serious mistakes.

"James Crouch would come into this courtroom and act like he was the man," Cheshire said. "He was probably too arrogant, too self-assured. He took way too many cases because that was his way to prove that he was the man when, in, fact, he wasn't."

James Crouch Web only: James Crouch speaks to court

Witnesses testified during the two-day sentencing hearing this week that many of Crouch's clients in the questionable cases paid him an extra $750 to change the date of their DWI conviction using a legal action to correct clerical errors called a "nunc pro tunc" order and that former District Judge Kristin Ruth unknowingly signed off on the orders.

Defense attorney Brad Bannon said that, over the course of the five years in question, Crouch represented between 1,000 to 2,000 people on DWI charges and the number of cases in question was a relatively small percentage of them.

"He obtained this relief in 80 cases," Bannon said.

Doing so, he added, was no different than what other attorneys do, but there were distinct differences in how he went about it.

Ex-attorney gets prison time for altering DWI convictions Ex-attorney gets prison time for altering DWI convictions

"He went and did it outside of court. He went to a judge who did not preside over the case, and he did not notify opposing counsel," Bannon said.

Crouch was indicted in June on two felony counts of obstruction of justice and one felony count each of criminal conspiracy and altering court documents – charges that carry a maximum of 13 years in prison.

Ruth, who was also indicted in the case, resigned from the bench in May and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor of failure to discharge the duties of her office.

She testified Monday that she signed the orders without reading them because she trusted Crouch, a longtime colleague and family friend.

She was among a number of people Crouch apologized to Tuesday.

"I know more than anyone that I do apologize to this court, and first and foremost, to Judge Ruth," he said. "It's my fault. The consequences to her, I feel responsible for, and I will have to live with that for the rest of my life. I hope, at some point in her life, that she will forgive me."

But District Attorney Colon Willoughby said Ruth, a highly respected judge who had the potential to go on to the state Court of Appeals or state Supreme Court, was not the only victim of the crime.

Crouch's actions also caused "tremendous harm" to his family, the people who worked for him and how the Wake County Courthouse operates.

"It's caused great harm to the practice of law and how we'll be able to practice law in this district and how we'll be able to do the business that the people expect us to do because of the level of distrust created because of this defendant's conduct," Willoughby said.

Crouch also damaged the public's faith in the court system.

"Our public expects lawyers to demand justice and be fair and do what's right. It's a system built on trust and honor, and Mr. Crouch violated his clients' trust," Wake County Assistant District Attorney Boz Zellinger said. "He violated a well-respected District Court's trust, and he violated this court's trust, and in doing so, has violated the public's trust in the system, and that's truly what this case is about."

149 Comments

This story is closed for comments.

Oldest First
View all
  • piene2 Dec 6, 9:20 a.m.

    "If you read the post you will learn that he "charged extra" for special services. He did it for the money. John Edwards should be back at work and take over the lucrative practice.
    superman"

    So you are saying that he was in practice to make money right? Well guess what, that is why everyone works. I for one worked hard, very hard because I knew I did not want to retire when I was too old to do everything I wanted to do. I left my engineering firm at forty and since than have spent my time tinkering with businesses that interested me and having major good times. Had i waited till I was sixty two, who could have known what my health or general conditions would be like.

  • ashe323 Dec 5, 7:12 p.m.

    @reddherring07 and just what qualifications do you have to be such an authority on this?

  • superman Dec 5, 5:08 p.m.

    If you read the post you will learn that he "charged extra" for special services. He did it for the money. John Edwards should be back at work and take over the lucrative practice.

  • jackcdneh1017 Dec 5, 2:22 p.m.

    @sinenomine. I do apologize if I offended your sensibilities by stating that a belief in the legal system in the USA of the state having to " prove your guilt" is naive. I certainly don't question your experience and knowledge of the system you are so proud of. But your faith in it is what troubles me. Calling it a "justice" system is the first mistake. The system as it stands is horribly broken where over 300 exonerations of factual innocence have been proven to date. Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in Texas after being "proven" to have killed his family in a Texas fire. Bottom line is that police and prosecutors are immune from criminal prosecution no matter the degree of their misconduct in hiding exculpatory evidence, manufacturing incriminating evidence, suborning perjury with bribes known as plea deals for witness testimony, failures in adequate investigation of crimes that may show their "choice" of perpetrator may be wrong-headed. There is no truth or justice here.

  • Bartmeister Dec 5, 2:13 p.m.

    I agree, and the same goes for politicians...especially presidents. lessismore

    ===========================

    ooooooooo! Cyber slap.

  • In Decisive Dec 5, 12:33 p.m.

    Crouch played the system for all he could. That's what defense attorneys do and if you are in need of a defense attorney you expect they will do everything they can to protect your interests. Defense attorneys don't care if their client is guilty or not guilty and they don't worry about a moral code. They fight to get their client out of the charges or at least minimize the legal impact on the client to the extent they can. That's what they do. Period. Crouch crossed way over the line on many occasions and got caught. He's not the first defense attorney to cross lines and he won't be the last. Like most criminals, he's not sorry he did it, he's just sorry he got caught.

  • lessismore Dec 5, 10:25 a.m.

    cynda-ur-way says, "Im going to have to agree with piene 2 on this one. people dont hire defense lawyers for their moral code."

    I agree, and the same goes for politicians...especially presidents.

  • cynda-ur-way Dec 5, 10:13 a.m.

    Im going to have to agree with piene 2 on this one. people dont hire defense lawyers for their moral code.

  • Bartmeister Dec 5, 9:23 a.m.

    "Anyone that would want James Crouch "on their side" needs to seriously re-evaluate their lives. Crouch is a lying, corrupt theif with NO MORAL COMPASS at all!

    ==========================================

    Why would you take a knife to a gun fight? You hire a lawyer to get you the best deal possible, Couch did that. He got caught and will pay a price for it. But the guy was money in court.........

  • piene2 Dec 5, 9:01 a.m.

    "Anyone that would want James Crouch "on their side" needs to seriously re-evaluate their lives. Crouch is a lying, corrupt theif with NO MORAL COMPASS at all!
    kodac31"

    I beg to differ. Mister Crouch is exactly the sort of lawyer I would hire. I want a winner, not some mealy mouthed Milquetoast lawyer that shrugs off a loss. I do not care what he does as long as we win and truthfully I do not want to know what he did to win. To me the only thing that counts is winning.

More...