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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Ind. Courts - "Title process in Madison County raises concerns: Anonymous letter reveals 'secret' court files"

From the Sunday Anderson Herald Bulletin, a lengthy story by Traci Moyer. Here are some quotes:

ANDERSON – For more than a decade, at least two local judges circumvented the Madison County Clerk’s Office and issued court-ordered titles for vehicles and other properties without creating a publicly traceable paper trail.

And, in some cases, people obtaining the titles were not charged a $141 clerk fee associated with the court filing. While it is impossible to determine an exact amount of revenue lost from this practice, more than $13,000 in potential clerk fees was not collected in 2014.

This unofficial title process abruptly stopped after three anonymous letters detailing the processing practice in Madison County were circulated in October, less than a month before Election Day. As of this week, all court proceedings involving titles are now properly routed and maintained by the clerk’s office.

Before the recent change, residents would typically go to Madison County courts if they needed to replace a lost or unavailable vehicle title. At least two judges kept the title files in their offices and did not turn the records over to the clerk's office.

Titles generated by bypassing the clerk's office might have saved residents money and prevented the court system from being bogged down with miscellaneous filings. But the process was patently unfair to local residents who filed for titles through the clerk's office and paid the $141 fee. The process also offered no way to determine whether money exchanged hands or to provide a way to correct or track old orders.

The process, according to some in the local judicial system, circumvented the way the legal system is supposed to work.

Madison County Circuit Court 6 Judge Dennis Carroll called the “secret” files a potential problem.

"In terms of policy, it’s not going to happen anymore – so I’ve been told," he said. “I have been here 30 some years, and I have never used a process where things are not filed through the clerk’s office.”

In 2014, titles processed by Madison Circuit Court 3 Judge Thomas Newman without involving the clerk's office included a 1931 Ford Model A, a 1979 Chevrolet Camaro, a 2012 Harley-Davidson, a 1970 Dodge Charger, a 1974 Chevrolet Corvette and a 2003 Mercedes Benz. * * *

At least one state investigation, by the Indiana Commission on Judicial Qualifications, is underway. And in Madison County, old cases — previously not filed with the clerk — are being backlogged into the county court system, court officials said. * * *

Court-ordered titles are issued when a title has been lost or destroyed, a vehicle has been salvaged for parts, or the vehicle was abandoned by the owner. In those cases, titles are issued through the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles after an order is issued from an Indiana court showing a vehicle was not unlawfully obtained. The order is to include vehicle and owner identification, along with other required documentation. * * *

Newman created and assigned a case number to the paperwork — something he said he has been doing for more than 14 years. Usually, the issuance of docket numbers is left to a county clerk. Newman, who has the right to waive costs, insists that no one paid court fees on the titles and acknowledged that these particular orders and documentation were not filed in the clerk's office.

"My impression was no fees were ever charged," he said.

At least two Madison County judges, both of whom say they have handled very few title cases in the past couple of years, did file title cases through the clerk's office.

Newman said the miscellaneous case numbers he created were for an index system, not an official number for the courts. “This is a common practice,” he said.

Judge Thomas Clem of Circuit Court 5 told The Herald Bulletin that he confronted Darlene Likens more than a year ago about Newman allegedly circumventing her office. Clem said he was upset when she told him she was not only aware of the situation, but that she had personal experience with the process.

“I said, ‘Darlene, I think there is potentially a fraud on your office, I think it’s a fraud on the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, and I think you should have an attorney look into it,’” Clem said. “I don’t know what to think of this. I’m concerned. I don’t think it's right. I don’t think it represents good government or transparency.”

Clem said he never approached Newman regarding the titles and how they were handled.

A BMV spokesperson told The Herald Bulletin that as long as a judge signs the court order and the paperwork is in order, there is no fraud in any of the allegations raised. * * *

[Judge Carroll] emphasized that keeping secret files in judges' chambers is not a good practice.

“My view is it shouldn’t be secret, unless the law says it should be secret,” he said. “I just think it is not a good idea for us to decide to make things secret in the absence of statute or a rule that authorizes that.”

Carroll said he does not believe anyone was trying to act unethically.

“If you do things secretly, people do not know what is going on, and that runs counter to what we think generally ought to happen,” he said. “It should be public, it seems to me.”

Newman said he was baffled by the allegations.

“I don’t know what is going on,” he said. “I am here to do my job. When a judge’s integrity is impugned, it’s very upsetting — and that’s the end of that.”

Posted by Marcia Oddi on November 11, 2014 10:04 AM
Posted to Indiana Courts