Local News

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

Posted June 26, 2012 11:54 a.m. EDT
Updated June 27, 2012 6:58 a.m. EDT

— 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.

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.

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.