Clogged Courts in Wake County

No one is happy with speed at which Wake County’s criminal justice system processes cases. Judges, particularly in District Court, are frustrated with what seem like endless continuances that mean that even the simplest DWI cases can drag on 8 to 10 months. Prosecutors, who (one has to admit) are woefully underpaid, are frustrated that in a single District Court session, they may be able to get through a single misdemeanor trial, if that, per courtroom. My clients are frustrated that it can take months in District Court or years in Superior Court to have their day in court.

And defense lawyers are frustrated about the endless delays and resulting scheduling conflicts that leave them running through the courthouse trying to please frustrated judges, prosecutors, and clients.

There are a few solutions. There are also a few non-starters, as I’ve written about elsewhere.

First, let’s talk about resources. Wake County is a county of about one million people. We’ve got a brand new courthouse coming on line. We need many more judges. And while I wouldn’t say we need more prosecutors, we certainly need more support and resources for prosecutors so that they can focus on preparing cases instead of taking turns at the reception desk. We also need more resources for the Public Defender Office and court appointed lawyers.

If the North Carolina General Assembly is too cheap to pay for it, then the NCGA needs to consider why we need so many criminal laws. The cost of passing a law making it a crime to do this or that act is not just the cost of the police officer to investigate. It is the cost of the prosecutor, the judges, the clerks, and even constitutionally guaranteed counsel. That’s the total cost of enforcing the law, leaving aside the terrible cost ultimately inflicted upon the defendant for what turn out to be a very high number of victimless crimes.

Take, for instance, Driving While License Revoked. Basically you need a piece of paper that is easy enough to get from the DMV, but also incredibly easy to lose from the DMV, that says you can drive. If your sole act is driving while having a revoked piece of paper from the DMV, you may be convicted of DWLR, a class 1 (higher) level misdemeanor punishable by up to 120 days in jail and at least an additional 1 year suspension.

Wow! All for having had a license revoked for, perhaps, failing to pay a ticket, you can be convicted of a higher level crime than even Simple Assault or Resisting a Public Officer. Remarkable.

Because you can be sent to jail for this crime, you are entitled to a lawyer. That means someone has to be paid by the State to deal with what is, in many cases, a purely paperwork issue (coupled with a failure to pay fines usually by the poor). And because lawyer’s basic strategy in most of these cases is to try to delay the inevitable in the hopes that the defendant/client will be able to pay off back fines (which can be hundreds or thousands of dollars), this results in multiple continuances. For what! All because automobiles were developed during the progressive era when the regulatory state was in full swing and every state and country believed licensing to drive needed to be onerous.

Back to the original topic: How can we fix our broken court system? More resources, more judges, and more money for Public Defense.

Short of that, what can we do? Speedy Trial statutes would help, forcing prosecutors to choose among which crimes they really want to punish. Plea bargains in DWIs. And a trial court administrator’s control of the criminal calendar.

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Damon Chetson

Damon Chetson is a Board Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law. He represents people charged with serious and minor offenses in Raleigh, Wake County, and the Eastern District of North Carolina. Call (919) 352-9411.