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Ex-Wake judge, attorney charged with altering records in DWI cases

Posted June 26, 2012
Updated June 27, 2012

— A Wake County grand jury on Tuesday indicted a former District Court judge, a Raleigh defense attorney and a paralegal on charges that they altered court records in numerous drunken driving cases.

Kristin Ruth, who stepped down as judge in May amid a state investigation into the cases, is charged with failure to discharge her duties.

Attorney James Crouch is charged with two counts of obstruction of justice and one count each of criminal conspiracy and altering court documents. Elizabeth Michelle Daniel, a paralegal in Crouch's office, is charged with obstruction of justice and criminal conspiracy.

In February, Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens asked the State Bureau of Investigation to investigate Ruth after allegations from the Wake County District Attorney's Office about "unauthorized scheduling" and "unusual judgments" in a dozen driving while impaired cases.

Ruth had entered an ex parte order that changed the judgment dates, effectively shortening or eliminating the driver's license suspensions for defendants, according to letters between Stephens and District Attorney Colon Willoughby.

Crouch was the defense attorney on record in each case.

Willoughby recently sought guidance from the grand jury on how to handle the SBI's findings, and members asked him three weeks ago to investigate the case further.

Exhibits attached to the indictments list 46 suspect DWI cases. Most of the cases involved back-dating the convictions, but the indictments allege that Crouch also prepared orders for Ruth to sign in seven cases suppressing evidence of blood-alcohol levels of 0.15 or higher.

James Crouch Ex-judge, defense attorney expected to surrender Wednesday

Such levels of impairment would have required a 45-day waiting period before becoming eligible for limited driving privileges and subsequent use of an ignition interlock system to determine whether the driver had been drinking, according to the indictments.

When she resigned in May, Ruth said that she signed orders from Crouch without reviewing them.

"I must admit that, because I trusted Mr. Crouch, I did not read the orders when they were presented to me," Ruth said in a statement. "Had I read the orders, I would not have signed them."

She said she stepped down "to maintain the integrity of the judicial system."

Ruth has been cooperating with the SBI investigation and the Wake County District Attorney's Office, her attorney, Joe Zeszotarski, said recently. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Attorney Joe Cheshire Indicted lawyer's actions weren't illegal, attorney says

Bill Young, an attorney for Daniel, said she was not trying to break the law.

"Her role in the process is that of being a good employee, a non-lawyer, trying to do what she thought was right," Young said.

Attorney Joe Cheshire, who represents Crouch, said prosecutors are going too far in the case, noting that the practices in question are common at the Wake County Courthouse.

Crouch's actions might be an ethical matter, he said, but not a criminal one.

"When you deal with thousands and thousands of cases, you can't cross every i and dot every t," Cheshire said. "People are looking to help people. People are looking to help themselves. It is what it is, but that doesn't make it criminal."

Willoughby couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday.

Claims of misconduct against Crouch first surfaced in court documents in January, when Willoughby accused him of misleading a judge and an assistant district attorney to move a DWI case involving a 16-year-old boy three weeks ahead of schedule.

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  • jjsmith1973 Jun 28, 11:39 a.m.

    I’m sorry Objective Scientist. If you are so knowledgeable of the effects of alcohol on the ability to drive and you believe that impairment begins even lower than .08 then you need to study more. Take in account tolerance for one. A person can be .04 and feel no effect and have no impairment. That is proven with any drug and building of tolerance over time. Yes, forfeiture of own civil right slowly builds to others. Ultimately leading to swat kicking down your door. I’m not in favor of the loss of any of my personal freedoms period. There is no such thing as constitutional because the benefit of violating a constitutional protection has greater benefit than maintaining it. If that is truly the case then it would call for an amendment of the constitution.

  • Objective Scientist Jun 27, 7:57 p.m.

    ThisAndThat & jjsmith1973: I value our freedoms as much as you. I truly do but I am also a very pragmatic person. I see a problem - drinking and driving. I am scientifically knowledgeable of the effects of alcohol on the ability to drive. I know that impairment begins well below a BAC of .08 and even the slightest decrease in reaction time and/or judgment make make the difference in life and death. I am not fearful that infrequent DWI checkpoints will cascade into swat teams charging through the door of my home. Furthermore, the Supreme Court of the USA ruled such checkpoints were constitutional primarily because the benefit was greater than the "loss" of personal freedom. The vote was 6-3, so it was not unanimous and there are still "arguments" about its constitutionality, hence still some degree of "un-settlement" about the issue. At a checkpoint, if someone has glassy eyes and alcohol breath - I want that person OFF THE ROAD! A life may be saved. Even one saved life is worth it.

  • ThisAndThat Jun 27, 7:54 p.m.

    I see here that for many that are willing to give away their rights for what appears to be a just cause would require a hard reality check. There may be a day, for example, while giving a friend you know or family member where a sobriety checkpoint or similar search is requested. You'll openly allow the officer free will to search your car only to not realize the person in the car with you has an illegal substance and dumps it under your car seat. Since possession is 9/10 of the law you will be the arrestee. Once those cuffs go on your wrists and you overcome your shock will you then realize what you really are giving up. Think it is not possible? Think again!

  • nanasix Jun 27, 7:28 p.m.

    It's not just Wake County things are done wrong. Try Checking Carteret County, especially Judge Peter Mack. He's famous for his wrongful acts, dismissals, giving young children to parents without a background check, signing orders when no state code is quoted in the motions, etc. etc.

  • jjsmith1973 Jun 27, 7:23 p.m.

    As for DWI law. I done think anyone is arguing that there needs to be law and prevention in place. That it is wrong. It is sensationalized by media and MADD. Punishment and regulation have been over stepped though when it comes to the crime. Stats made up and people making money from it. The MADD founder herself that had a child died even is quoted as saying the laws and group have gotten out of control and has gone to far. Once again that is the woman that raised awareness got some of the laws passed and lost a loved one. Saying enough is enough with the law.

  • ThisAndThat Jun 27, 7:19 p.m.

    The willing to give away your rights is a willing to give away your freedoms. That is one of the worst crimes of humanity you can be involved in.

  • jjsmith1973 Jun 27, 7:17 p.m.

    Objective you are correct they did ride horse. That isn't what the statement is about. It was about allowing the violation of your liberty and forfeiture due to very little in return for safety andgiven that power to the government. That still applies even more so today

  • ThisAndThat Jun 27, 7:04 p.m.

    The number of crimes doesn't make it right to give up your rights Ojective Sceientists. Should people in crime ridden neighborhoods give up their rights to privacy of homes because drug crimes and gang violance is high. Should they allow door to door raids because there are too many such crimes in their neighborhood? No! Nor, sould someoone give up their right to allow a officer to search in their car and ask questions without any evidence of a crime just because MADD dubbs DWI deaths as being too high.

  • Objective Scientist Jun 27, 7:00 p.m.

    jjsmith1973.. I very much appreciate Franklin's statement and the sentiment within it, but Ben Franklin and others during his time rode horses. Horses tend to avoid colliding with each other... even if their riders are drunk.

  • ThisAndThat Jun 27, 6:56 p.m.

    So regarding checkpoints, many here are willing to allow many wrongs in hopes of a few rights? In other words, forgot the wrong of the violation of privacy for many just so you nab one or two DWIs. This is not the way the legal system should work. This is not the way to respect the constitutional rights of individuals. What's next for you Objective Scientist …house-by-house raids? You just don't get what you are giving up when you allow random checkpoints where you are asked "Where have you been and where are you going?" ..."Have you have anything to drink" all the while some other cop is flashing his lights in your back seat. That is not justice that is the perversion of justice.

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