Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Title Transfers and Accessing a Government Computer

In 2010, Betty Barr was charged with and convicted of illegally accessing and aiding and abetting in the access of a government computer in violation of North Carolina General Statutes § 14-454.1(a)(2) and appealed. State v. Barr, __ S.E.2d __, 2012 WL 387867 (North Carolina Court of Appeals 2012). According to the opinion, Barr was “the owner and operator of Lexington License Plate Agency No. 29 (`Lexington Agency’). State v. Barr, supra.

The opinion explains that when a car dealer completes a vehicle sale, he or she has to

transfer title of the vehicle to the new owner, which entails delivering relevant paperwork, such as the bill of sale and application for new title, to a license plate agency such as the Lexington Agency. Defendant underwent training at the North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles (`DMV’) in order to operate the Lexington Agency, and Defendant applied for and was granted a contract from DMV as the operator of the Lexington Agency. Defendant was also a licensed RAC–F Title Clerk (`title clerk’).

When a car dealer requests that a license plate agency transfer title of a vehicle, a title clerk checks the paperwork for accuracy and accesses a computer system called State Title and Registration System (`STARS’) by entering the title clerk's unique number called an RACF number, which is issued to the title clerk by DMV; the title clerk also enters a private entry code number that the title clerk creates as her password. STARS allows the title clerk to process the transfer of title, but only after the title clerk enters the relevant information for the transfer into STARS, including the car dealer's identification number. All North Carolina vehicles are titled and registered through STARS.

State v. Barr, supra.

Barr worked with four other title clerks at the agency: Mary Byerly, Arlene Cornatzer, Bettina Granados and Miranda Stokes. State v. Barr, supra. The Lexington Agency had a policy for when questions arose about title transfer issues: The clerk would first check the DMV manual; if the clerk couldn’t find the answer in the Manual, she would ask the other clerks “for guidance.” State v. Barr, supra. If none of them had dealt with that issue, the clerk would call the DMV help desk in Raleigh. State v. Barr, supra.

The opinion also explains that Randall K. Lanier was a car dealer who

owned Lanier Motor Company. For more than thirty-five years, Lanier had bought salvaged vehicles, repaired them, and sold them at Lanier Motor Company. In 2007, due to `tremendous financial losses’ affecting [his] credit, Lanier's bonding company refused to renew the company's bonds for 2008-2009. On 12 August 2008, Lanier's license, Lic. # 7736, was terminated. Lanier, however, continued to sell vehicles without a license.

State v. Barr, supra. The opinion says Barr’s agency “transferred title for sixteen of Lanier Motor Company’s vehicle sales” while it was unlicensed. State v. Barr, supra.

According to “several” of the title clerks and Barr, the following happened on September 25, 2008:

Lanier went to the Lexington Agency to transfer title for two vehicle sales. [Barr] was not present. Lanier gave the paperwork to the clerk, Stokes. Stokes entered Lanier's dealer identification number into STARS, and the computer responded, `invalid dealer number.’ Stokes asked Granados how to resolve the issue. Granados typed `OS’ for the dealer number and told Stokes to continue.

`OS’ was an abbreviation for out-of-state. When Stokes asked Granados why she entered `OS[,]’ Granados [said] Lanier `was in the process of combining two lots or moving a lot to make his dealer number present. It was in the stage of being perfected by Raleigh, and that's what we were told to do.’

Stokes understood that Granados had called the DMV help desk to confirm that entering `OS’ was the proper procedure for Lanier Motor Company. Entering `OS’ for Lanier's transfers of title became the recognized procedure for the office. Several days [later], Lanier came to the Agency to transfer title for another vehicle. [Barr] entered [his] dealer number into STARS, and the system indicated Lanier was an inactive dealer, which means the dealer has not renewed his dealer license.

State v. Barr, supra.

I’m assuming they did the same thing for Lanier with this transfer, because the opinion says Barr had instructed Granados (and maybe other clerks?) to “enter `OS’ for Lanier Motor Company's transfers.” State v. Barr, supra. The opinion says Barr was “directly involved in only three transfers” and “earned $59 in fees for the sixteen [Lanier] title transfers.” State v. Barr, supra.

As I noted above, Barr was charged with and convicted of violating North Carolina General Statutes § 14-454.1(a)(2), which makes it a crime to “access or cause to be accessed any government computer for the purpose of . . . [o]btaining property or services.”. Barr’s first argument on appeal was that her conviction should be reversed because the prosecution did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she “accessed a government computer `for the purpose of obtaining services”. State v. Barr, supra.

North Carolina General Statutes § 14-453(4a) defines computer services as “computer time or services, including data processing services, Internet services, electronic mail services, electronic message services, or information or data stored in connection with any of these services.” And North Caroline General Statutes § 14-453(9) defines “[s]ervices” as including “computer time, data processing and storage functions.”

The Court of Appeals disagreed:

Assistant Supervisor Danny Barlow . . . from the DMV testified that during . . . his investigation, he discovered transfers were made by the Lexington Agency using the `OS’ code for Lanier Motor Company. [Barr] admitted . . . that she personally accessed STARS and made the `September . . . 2008 [transfers], for Lanier Motor Company[.]’ [Barr] also admitted she accessed STARS and personally made the transfers for Lanier Motor Company on 23 October 2008 and 3 November 2008.

Likewise, [she] admitted that on 30 January 2009, [she] told `Mary Byerly . . . to run a Lanier Motor Company title through as out of state dealer.’ For the foregoing transfers, [Barr] admits that she was `paid $59.20[.]’

We believe the foregoing evidence is substantial evidence to support the element of `[o]btaining . . . services’ pursuant to § 14-454.1(a)(1). . . . [Barr] had `computer time’ on STARS; [she] also accessed `information or data stored in connection with’ STARS. We therefore conclude the trial court did not err by denying [her] motion to dismiss on the basis that there was not substantial evidence that [she] `[o]btain[ed] . . . services’.

State v. Barr, supra.

Barr’s second argument was that the prosecution did not prove she acted “willfully” as required by § 14-454.1(a)(1). State v. Barr, supra. The Court of Appeals began its analysis of this argument by noting that “`[w]ilful as used in criminal statutes means the wrongful doing of an act without justification or excuse, or the commission of an act purposely and deliberately in violation of law.’” State v. Barr, supra (quoting State v. Williams, 284 N.C. 67, 199 S.E.2d 409 (North Carolina Supreme Court 1973)).

The court then explained that while there was evidence to support the

foregoing assertions by [Barr] -- in particular, the testimony of Stokes and [Barr] -- there is also evidence to the contrary -- Granados' testimony. When asked, `did you ever call the Department of Motor Vehicle Division in Raleigh to receive any information or assistance regarding that particular issue?’ Granados responded, `No, sir.’

State v. Barr, supra.

Granados also testified, in part, as follows:

Q. Ma'am, I want to bring your attention to the date January 6, 2009. Did you have occasion to again process titles for Lanier Motor Company on that date?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. Could you indicate to the ladies and gentlemen of the jury how that came about and what, if anything, unusual took place?

A. I picked up the dealer packet out of the back room again. . . .

Q. What did you do with that Lanier Motor packet on January 6th, 2009. . . ?

A. I brought it to my work station. . . . [and] opened up the dealer packet and proceeded to see if I could do the work and it still said the dealer was inactive.

Q. Was the Betty Barr present in the office on that date and time?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. What conversation, if any, did you have with Betty Barr regarding the finding that you just learned on your computer as it relates to the Lanier Motor Company transfer?

A. I told her the dealer number was inactive. And she said to go ahead and process it as an OS and that when Raleigh received it they would see he had applied for his dealer . . . and would go ahead and send it through.

Q. Based upon your training and education and experience as a title clerk for the license plate agency, was that a proper protocol that you have learned or experienced as a clerk?

A. No, sir.

Q. How many transfers did you make for Lanier Motor Company on January 6, 2009, if any?

A. I recall about three pieces.

State v. Barr, supra. Granados also testified that she used the OS code in the transfers because “[m]y supervisor, Betty Barr, told me to process it.” State v. Barr, supra. Based on this and other evidence, the Court of Appeals rejected Barr’s argument that the evidence didn’t show she acted willfully. State v. Barr, supra.

Barr’s third argument was that she was improperly convicted of committing two crimes with regard ton one of the Lanier title transfers. State v. Barr, supra. With regard to the January 30, 2009 transfer, she was charged with and convicted of aiding and abetting (i) the access of a government computer for the purposes of obtaining services in violation of North Carolina General Statutes § 14-454.1(a)(2) and (ii) the access of a government computer for the purpose of improperly processing the transfer of a motor vehicle title in violation of North Carolina General Statutes § 14-454.1(b). State v. Barr, supra.

As I’ve noted in earlier posts, in criminal law aiding and abetting is a principle of vicarious liability, i.e., it allows A to be held liable for crimes B actually committed as long as A facilitated (abetted) the commission of those crimes. As Wikipedia notes, it’s also referred to as accomplice liability. So in these two counts, Barr is being charged with aiding and abetting two crimes – crimes that are created by a single criminal statute.

The Court of Appeals agreed with Barr on this issue:

The plain language of § 14–454.1(b) requires that the purpose for accessing a government computer must be one `other than those set forth' in [§ 14–454.1(a)]. As both the count charging Barr] with a violation of § 14–454.1(a) and the count charging [her] with a violation of § 14–454.1(b) allege that [she] aided and abetted the access of a government computer for the purpose of `processing the transfer of a motor vehicle title[,]’ the second count fails to state a purpose `other than those set forth’ in subsection (a), and the portion of the indictment charging a violation of § 14–454.1(b) is, therefore, fatally defective.

State v. Barr, supra.

The court therefore found that the § 14–454.1(b) count was “arrested”, i.e., vacated. State v. Barr, supra. It affirmed Barr’s convictions on the other counts. State v. Barr, supra.

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