When a defendant faces possible jail or prison time as the result of a court proceeding, he is entitled to be represented by an attorney. The court will appoint an attorney to represent an indigent defendant who cannot afford one on his own.
For defendants who are found not guilty, or for whom all charges are dismissed, the state pays the costs of the attorney. If a defendant is found guilty at trial or pleads guilty for any offense with which he is charged, however, the court has the option of ordering the defendant to pay the state back for the services of the attorney. Under certain circumstances, these orders to pay attorney fees are converted into civil judgments against the defendant. These judgments for attorney fees are debts owed the state, and may be collected through interception of a defendant's income tax refund through the NC Department of Revenue.
Older judgments for attorney fees were recorded manually on the civil judgment docket books in each county. This process was time-consuming, requiring thousands of personnel hours every year to maintain these judgment records and submit them to the Department of Revenue for collection. Even then, collection was uncertain and inaccurate, due to the difficulty in tracking multiple judgments, in different counties, with different judgment amounts and interest for a single defendant/taxpayer.
In 1997, the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 39, requiring all state agencies to submit to the Department of Revenue all debts owed to the state. As part of our rapidly expanding automation efforts, the AOC opted to automate this process for attorney fee judgments, consolidating all debts for a single defendant/taxpayer across the state for collection.
Developed simultaneously with the Bond Forfeiture Tracking System, the Setoff Debt process was automated as a subsystem of the Civil Case Processing System (VCAP). Using the same electronic judgment record features as the bond forfeiture subsystem, the Setoff Debt subsystem allows the clerks of Superior Court to record all attorney fee judgment information in VCAP.
Using those electronic records, AOC consolidates all judgments against a single taxpayer for submission to the Department of Revenue, records the receipt of an intercepted tax refund, and electronically applies the intercepted money to each judgment. After the initial entry of the judgment information, the clerk is removed from the process, saving those thousands of personnel hours each year.
The Setoff Debt automation was implemented in November, 1999. Since that time, the AOC has collected a net of more than $2 million from the Department of Revenue, to help cover the costs of indigent defense in North Carolina.