North Carolina’s larger counties are overwhelmed with the high volume of cases, and an inefficient system that doesn’t process cases as efficiently as it could. The result is overcrowded court rooms, expanding dockets, and long delays for defendants and victims seeking justice.
A once-efficient system has fall prey to attempts by the legislature to remove discretion from judges and prosecutors, particularly as it related to Driving While Impaired cases and offenses that affect a person’s ability to drive.
The Division of Motor Vehicles has become a super-court, with its own hearing process and complex rules and opaque regulations, holds a great deal of power over whether one can legally operate a vehicle in North Carolina.
That fact has meant that defense attorneys, seeking to try to help their clients restore driving privileges, prolong cases in District Court until something breaks from the DMV that lets the client get a driver license back.
Quite apart from the driver license issues, North Carolina’s criminal justice system suffers from the fact that appeals from District Court are de novo which adds time and cost to the whole process. Because defendants are promised a jury trial under the North Carolina constitution, the de novo appeal is automatic, even though the legislature has, periodically, attempted to thwart that right.
Finally, the criminal justice system has few built in time-restrictions. While a public might be wary of letting a murderer go free because of a violation of his speedy trial rights, such a scenario is so implausible as to border on the absurd.
In fact, time restrictions would impose a great deal of rationality into the system, forcing prosecutors and defendants alike to come to resolution, ensuring that victims had their day in court in a relatively short time.
There are five simple reforms that would create a more efficient, just, and fair criminal justice system:
- District Court should become a court of record and jury trial court in criminal cases, where there would be no right to appeal. The legislature could save the highest level cases for Superior Court. But Class G through H felonies could be tried in District Court.
- District Court Judges should be permitted to have more power over the Division of Motor Vehicles with respect to licensing and traffic-related matters. DMV should be able to set points, but District Court Judges should be able to easily restore licenses.
- A plea option should be created for Driving While Impaired charges. One potential plea option might be a wet careless and reckless. The legislature should get out of the business of telling professional prosecutors when and to whom they can offer pleas or reductions for DWIs.
- Control of the criminal calendar, just like control of the civil calendar, should be given to a Trial Court Administrator. For misdemeanors, this exercise would mainly be academic. But for felonies, this process would mimic what goes on in 49 other states and what’s fair in terms of judge selection. It would eliminate potential for prosecutorial abuse.
- A speedy trial statute. North Carolina has no effective speedy trial rules. Constitutional protections only kick in after massive delays. The lack of a speedy trial statute creates all kinds of problems, but chief among them is it eliminates the need for prosecutors to quickly resolve cases.