News

Bail agent charged with assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill

Regular Policy Watch readers will be familiar with our recent series on the for-profit bail bond industry, its dangers and flaws.

A recent shooting by a bail agent – now facing multiple charges – now joins a long list of arrests, convictions and predatory behavior that has come

From the Winston-Salem Journal story:

Thermon Desmond Sellers, 31, of Elderbank Drive in Charlotte, was charged with assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill, discharging a firearm into an occupied moving vehicle and violating a city ordinance by discharging a firearm within city limits, the Winston-Salem Police Department said in a news release.

Capt. Steve Tollie of the Winston-Salem Police Department said Sellers turned himself in at the Orange County Sheriff’s Office on Friday. He was released on a $250,000 bond and is scheduled to appear in Forsyth District Court on Thursday. He made a first appearance in Forsyth District Court on Monday, where a judge formally read out the charges against him and informed him of his right to an attorney.

The shots were fired about 7:15 p.m. March 17 outside Hanes Mall. Sellers was one of two bail bondsmen who were attempting to take into custody Nathaniel Artillery Taylor, who had several outstanding warrants. Winston-Salem police have not named the other bondsman. Tollie said that bondsman does not face any criminal charges.

As we’ve written previously, licensed bail agents do enjoy some police-like powers in North Carolina. They can use reasonable force to apprehend a person for whom they have provided bail, even if they have not yet forfeited their bond. They can use force to “overcome resistance of a third party who impedes their efforts to apprehend a person on bond.”

A U.S. Supreme Court case from 1866 even allows them to break and enter a home to recover a suspect without a warrant. But bail agents aren’t granted any special powers with regard to carrying or using guns. Bail agents who choose to do so must be licensed in the same manner as any typical civilian. They can, and often are, charged with discharging their weapons in public, even when they do so in commission of their duties.

North Carolina Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey, whose department regulates the industry, issued a statement about the Winston-Salem case.

“I will not condone, nor will I tolerate any actions by bail agents that put the public in danger, particularly in such as public place as a large shopping mall parking lot,” Causey said in the statement.

Courts & the Law, News

Governor appoints Joe John as head of Courts Commission after Duane Hall resigns

Rep. Joe John

Rep. Joe John (D-Wake)

Rep. Duane Hall (D-Wake) quietly resigned as head of the North Carolina Courts Commission a month ago, shortly after NC Policy Watch detailed sexual harassment allegations against him.

Gov. Roy Cooper this week appointed Rep. Joe John (D-Wake) to take his place.

John said in a phone interview this week that he was honored by the Governor’s appointment. He is a first-term representative but had a 25-plus year career within the court system — he’s been a prosecutor, defense lawyer, district court judge, chief district court judge, superior court judge and court of appeals judge.

“I pretty well covered the waterfront and I have broad experience and overview as to how the court system operates,” John said. “I’m probably as familiar as anyone with the things that courts do well and the areas where probably there could be some improvement.”

The Commission, which has around 30 members, is tasked with evaluating changes to the state’s court system and making recommendations to the General Assembly.

The state court workload is one thing John hopes to address during his tenure.

“One of the issues faced not only by courts, but all agencies of state government is having more to do than people to do the work,” he said. “I don’t see any indication that that has necessarily changed, so we’ll be doing our best to hopefully make some recommendations down the road.”

He plans to send a letter to court groups and stakeholders this week to announce his appointment and solicit feedback on other areas the Commission should review.

John also mentioned potentially having the commission look at the state’s bail bond system, given the negative attention it has garnered since a series of NC Policy Watch articles on the subject.

One area he doesn’t expect to delve into is judicial redistricting, which is expected to be voted on in the upcoming short session.

GOP lawmakers have introduced several maps in the last year that redraw judicial and prosecutorial districts, which would change the way judges and prosecutors across the state are elected. The effort has been met with widespread opposition, not just from Democrats but from court officials and experts.

John said the Commission made a recommendation in the fall that the General Assembly didn’t formally respond to, so it’s best to wait and see what happens during the session.

“The plans and the intentions for the short session, I think, are already in place, even though they may not necessarily be public at this point,” he said. “Trying to reconstitute the courts commission in the short period of time between now and the short session, without knowing specifically what actions are intended, would probably not be a practical use of the commissioners time.”

John said he expects the Commission will meet after the short session for planning and goal-setting.

“The commission has been sort of quiet here late and I think it will probably take a little while to get folks back up to speed and so forth,” he said.

He added that Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Surry, Wilkes), who was at the helm before Hall, did a good job reviving the commission, which had, prior to her appointment, been fairly dormant.

Courts & the Law, Education, News

N.C. Supreme Court to hear arguments in pivotal Halifax County school case Monday

Mark Dorosin, attorney for the Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights

A potentially precedent-setting legal case challenging Halifax County commissioners over decrepit school facilities will go before the state Supreme Court Monday.

Oral arguments will be heard in Silver, et al v. the Halifax County Board of Commissioners, which began in 2015 when parents and community members in the eastern North Carolina county claimed the maintenance of three racially-distinct school systems in the relatively small county created a system of haves and have-nots.

It’s a pivotal court case because it may determine who holds the blame for inequality in the local districts—local boards or the state. Historically, the state funds K-12 operations while local governments are responsible for infrastructure.

Thus far, courts have held that it’s the state that’s responsible for the conditions in some Halifax County schools.

Halifax schools are also at the center of the long-running Leandro court case, which found that the state needed to do more to equalize school funding between wealthy and poor counties.

Mark Dorosin with the Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights is lead counsel in the Silver case.

A Policy Watch report last year detailed the claims made against county commissioners.

From last year’s report:

Crumbling ceilings. Failing air conditioning and heating systems. Broken down school buses. Mold infestations. Rodents scurrying through the hallways. Students forced to traipse over sewage from flooded toilets. Dismal academic performance year in and year out.

These are just some of the complaints parents are leveling in court against local government leaders in rural Halifax County, home to one of North Carolina’s most chronically under-performing public school districts and a key player in the state’s 23-year-old Leandro case over equity in school funding.

Yet a panel of North Carolina appeals court judges ruled this week that it’s the state government, and not the Halifax County Board of Commissioners, that’s responsible for the “serious problems” in the eastern North Carolina county.

“It’s disappointing,” says Mark Dorosin, managing attorney for the UNC Center for Civil Rights, which represented five Halifax students and their parents or legal guardians in this pivotal case.

It’s a damaging, but perhaps not decisive, setback for Dorosin’s clients, who hoped the courts would force county commissioners in Halifax to reconstruct three small, racially segregated school districts in the county that they blame for fundamental inequities in Halifax school funding.

Reached Tuesday, Brenda Sledge, one of those Halifax parents, said she was “shocked” by the decision.

Their case, Dorosin explains, targets, among other things, the county’s system of collecting and distributing local sales and use taxes, which they say has long favored one district more than others, a district composed of mostly white students.

Additionally, the poor state of some local school facilities—which, in North Carolina, are traditionally funded by local governments and not the state—contributes to a system that deprives some of a “sound basic education,” the legal benchmark set decades ago by the N.C. Supreme Court’s landmark Leandro decision.

Environment

A second natural gas pipeline proposed for NC would run through Rockingham, Alamance counties

This is a developing story and will be updated this afternoon.

An extension of the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline has been proposed for North Carolina, potentially opening the door for fracking operations in Rockingham County.

Known as MVP Southgate, the 300-mile pipeline would extend from Pittsylvania County, Va., into Rockingham and Alamance counties.

Once in North Carolina, the pipeline would route for about 50 miles: east of Eden, north of Reidsville and then into Alamance County, near Graham and I-40.

The routing is ominous because western Rockingham County is one of the areas of the state eyed for fracking. Rockingham County, along with Stokes County, sit atop the Triassic Rift Basin, thought to be a source of methane.

Coincidentally, the state’s Oil and Gas Commission recently reconvened after being on hiatus for several years. Headed by Jim Womack, an avid fracking proponent from Lee County, the commission is expected to restart the interest in natural gas exploration in North Carolina. Chatham and Lee county governments both have established moratoria on fracking; earlier this year, Womack said the oil and gas commission would challenge those moratoria.

Like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which is running through 160 miles in eastern North Carolina, the MVP starts at a fracked gas facility in West Virginia and routes through Virginia.

MVP is owned by a conglomerate: EQT Midstream Partners, NextEra Energy, Inc., Consolidated Edison, Inc., WGL Holdings, Inc., and RGC Resources.  PSNC Energy, which serves North Carolina, has committed to using the gas should the Southgate portion be built.

Since the Southgate portion of the MVP was not in the original proposal to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the extension would need its approval.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

CANCELLED: Judicial redistricting, reform meeting re-set for end of month

If you were planning to delve back in to GOP lawmakers’ plans to redistrict the judiciary today, go ahead and cross it off your calendar.

The Joint Select Committee on Judicial Reform and Redistricting cancelled it’s 1 p.m. meeting today and rescheduled it for 9:30 a.m. Friday, April 27.

There’s no word on why the meeting was cancelled and the committee co-chairs — Representatives Justin Burr (R-Stanly, Montgomery) and David Lewis (R-Harnett) and Senators Dan Bishop (R-Mecklenburg), Warren Daniel (R-Burke, Cleveland) and Bill Rabon (Bladen) — never responded to an email asking why the meeting was scheduled in the first place.

The short legislative session this year starts May 16, and it is expected that lawmakers will vote on some sort of judicial reform, whether it be new judicial maps or a merit selection plan that would rid the state of judicial elections altogether.

Committee meetings are open to the public.