WRAL Investigates

'I'm telling you the law': Questions about Franklin County clerk of court's actions

Posted February 13, 2020 6:00 p.m. EST
Updated February 13, 2020 6:29 p.m. EST

— Body camera video from a Franklin County sheriff’s deputy shows the county’s elected clerk of court out of the courthouse and in the middle of a feud between neighbors.

Adam and Sarah Diaz say they’re constantly harassed by their neighbor, Ann Gayden. They took their concerns to a judge, who issued a restraining order against Gayden.

The judicial ruling spelled out where Gayden could and couldn’t go, particularly on a driveway owned by Diaz but shared by both homeowners. After judicial officials continually denied Gayden’s motions against the Diazes, she went to the clerk for help.

“I have reviewed her file. By law I’m obligated at this point to mediate this case,” clerk Patricia Burnette Chastain told Adam Diaz on his front lawn.

The entire discussion was caught on the body camera of a deputy called by Chastain on Dec. 27:

Diaz says: “I already have an approved restraining order, and hers has been denied by a judge.”

Chastain says: “Well, as far as I’m concerned, it’s for both of you. It’s for both of you.”

Diaz replies: “It’s not what the paperwork says.”

The back and forth continued:

Diaz: “You’re not saying what the judge said.”

Chastain: “I’m telling you the law.”

Chastain told both neighbors she was also concerned about the Diaz family abusing 911 by calling to report Gayden for violating the protective order. In one exchange with Gayden, Chastain threatened to take action against the Diazes:

The video shows Chastain saying, “I’m going to take this with me, and I’m going to enter an order today, um, that you have the legal right to do this and any further thing is a violation of our law enforcement.”

She also chastised Diaz for calling 911, saying, “You can call them when it’s something illegal, not something legal.”

Diaz argued that in violating the restraining order, Gayden was doing something illegal.

Attorney Jeffrey Thompson, who represents the Diaz family, said Chastain's actions amount to intimidation of his clients.

“In no way, shape or form is that the her job,” he said. “She has no authority to do anything as it relates to a 50-C [restraining order]. She can not get an order entered. She cannot do a mediation. She can’t do anything.

“She does not have the right to come out and lie and say that the law gives her the right to mediate,” he added.

Chastain refused WRAL's request for an interview on camera, but she did speak with reporters by phone while they were sitting in the Franklin County Courthouse parking lot.

“I feel like it was extremely helpful, and I’m here to help people,” Chastain said about her involvement in the civil matter. “If I can use my position in that way to help families, then I’m glad I was able to be there for them.”

In a follow-up email, she wrote to WRAL News, "I don’t know how every clerk in every county across our state conducts themselves in unusual circumstances such as these, but I do know I am always working to go the extra mile to resolve issues when I am contacted."

She seemed surprised when reporters told her the Diaz family felt like she overstepped her bounds.

“That’s certainly not how I feel,” she said.

Franklin County Sheriff Kent Winstead said Chastain's call put his deputy in an awkward position as well. Winstead said he feels his deputy handled the situation well. The clerk, he said, not so much.

“She just didn’t have the right to go out there questioning these people without an attorney and questioning court orders,” Winstead said.

On the phone, Chastain later admitted she didn’t read the standing court order the Diazes had against Gayden but downplayed concerns over her involvement.

“I think there’s some miscommunication here," Chastain said. "Some misunderstanding.”

The Diazes and their attorney feel the tense encounter goes well beyond a misunderstanding.

“I feel like she overstepped her bounds,” Adam Diaz said. “It just really gave me the impression that I was being berated, just spoken down to on behalf of the other party.”

Sarah Diaz, who was moved to tears of frustration after Chastain raised concerns about the abuse of 911, said the encounter was unsettling.

“There’s this person from the court coming to basically yell at us, and saying we’re doing something unlawful is very upsetting,” she said.

Thompson feels the only misunderstanding is the clerk’s knowledge of her statutory duties.

“I just don’t think she understands her role as clerk, and I believe sometimes it’s hard for her to stay in her lane,” Thompson said.

Thompson says he may file a formal complaint against the clerk.

In a separate incident, District Attorney Mike Waters sent a letter to Chastain last month calling out her decision to invite a judicial candidate to speak to a jury pool. Waters called it improper and cited another instance where the clerk gave gift certificates to jurors.

In her response, Chastain called Waters' allegations "baseless" and wrote, "This politically charged letter serves not only to distort the facts, but to discredit my office."

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