SMITHFIELD, N.C. (WNCN) - A Johnston County judge is now a defendant against felony charges involving misuse of a work computer.
A grand jury indicted magistrate Velody Foye-Byrd on three counts of illegally accessing a government computer. A State Bureau of Investigations spokesperson said the Johnston County Sheriff’s Office and the district attorney’s office requested SBI assistance on Oct. 12, 2017 regarding the violations.
Investigators said Foye-Byrd used her position and passwords to search for personal information of one person starting February 14 and two others from March 22 through mid-October 2017. Court records show deputies arrested two of the three people in May 2017.
Johnston County Chief Magistrate Chris Sullivan said he had no comment on the case and referred questions to Chief District Court Judge Jackie Lee, who did not return calls. Foye-Byrd's attorney also did respond to requests for comment.
Wake County Chief Magistrate Dexter Williams said the 27 magistrates in his team are given great trust and have a big responsibility.
"We have access to a lot of information, and we can put in a lot of information into the system," Williams said. "It's very important that these are kept confidential."
As a chief magistrate, Williams completes a background check on all of the other magistrates each year. There are also annual conferences with ethics training.
Williams said it is important to maintain the public's trust and only use access to personal records for their intended purpose.
"If we don't, then things could be said or things could be done, or information could get out that is not allowed to get out. It's a trust factor. It's the fact that we are given certain responsibilities. We're given a lot of responsibility," he said.
"Having responsibilities and authority is part of the ethics and the fact that you fulfill your obligations under those."
When accessing records, magistrates have to indicate one of five reasons they are logging into their system: Employment, Criminal Justice Purposes, ID Check, Pre-Trial Release, and Protective Order Check. The system keeps a record of every search.
Williams said he sometimes checks hundreds of profiles in a single court session,
"The one we use most, of course, is criminal justice purposes to determine somebody's past record, to look at the situation, to make sure that what they are doing meets the criteria. Most of the time people are either under arrest, or we're getting ready to do a warrant," he said.
With totals tallying in the thousands each month, Williams said it could be hard for investigators to notice an improper individual search. He said a review to determine those would most likely come from a complaint.
Mitch Kokai of the Raleigh-based John Locke Foundation said he hopes this will be an example to make other magistrates think twice about doing anything improper.
"Perhaps this is going to be one of those cautionary tales that's used for other magistrates or other officials who have access to these computers, to say look, you have the access and you need to follow the rules, and if you don't, you could end up charged like this person," Kokai said.
"The positive sign here is perhaps this person thought they were getting away with it, and something detected that she was accessing the computer in some unauthorized way. Now the hammer's coming down."
The John Locke Foundation is a watchdog group with a mission of holding North Carolina legislators and regulators accountable. Kokai serves as the foundation's senior political analyst.
"It's hard to build in safeguards. This could be happening in other parts of the state. If you're a government official and you have access to all of this information, the main thing safeguarding it is your own integrity. Most people are going to do that, but there are some people who say 'I have access to this,' and that's what we're trying to safeguard against," Kokai said.
"You can't rely completely on trust. You've got to have some sort of way for folks who are bad apples who want to take advantage of the system to know that 'you know, I might think that I'm getting away with something, but maybe this is what's going to get caught, or this is what's going to get checked, and so I better not.'"
Kokai said judges including magistrates take oaths to uphold the Constitution and serve citizens.