Judges and NC DWI Laws

I’ve written elsewhere about the harm that NC’s poorly structured DWI laws cause to the court system and to prosecutors. Let me now write about judges.

All standard DWIs start in District Court. Upon a guilty verdict, a defendant may appeal his or her case to Superior Court. In Superior Court, the Defendant is entitled to a jury trial.

I’m writing now about District Court judges, the judges who make rulings and are the fact-finders in District Court and who ultimately render the verdict in place of the jury.

First, all judges are elected in North Carolina. Wake County has 19 District Court judges, about 10 of whom focus their efforts in the criminal courts.

Because judges are elected in North Carolina, they are keenly aware of the importance of DWIs to the public. For instance, WRAL’s report – which provided a one-sided and somewhat incorrect characterization of DWI sentencing – was probably very helpful in generating citizen pressure to increase DWI punishments in 2011.

People don’t like drunk drivers, unless and until they themselves are stopped for a DWI, in which case they then want leniency.

Also, Mothers Against Drunk Driving is probably one of the more powerful constituent groups that actually generates votes for or against judges who are perceived to be tough or weak on drunk drivers.

As a consequence, judges understand where the pressure is. (In my view, judges should not be elected, but that’s for another post.)

Local rules in Wake County generally provide for two continuances for each side, before the case is marked LAST for resolution. Most misdemeanors are resolved within about three months.

However, DWIs are almost never resolved within three months. It’s true that the defense will request seemingly endless continuances. But it’s also true that the State receives many continuances beyond the two it’s permitted under local rules.

It has gotten to the point in Wake County where a DWI is not considered old even if it’s been around for nine months.

These endless continuances – and “not reacheds” – are because of the failure of the system to efficiently resolve DWI cases, which, again, is the result of the way NC Driving While Impaired laws are structured.

Judges, in addition to rendering fair and impartial verdicts and in deciding matters before the court, should be concerned with judicial efficiency, including having ownership over the proceedings in their courtroom.

One way to do this is to hold both sides to account. Judges should decide which cases get tried (which, I understand, would involve rewriting NCGS 7A), which cases get not-reached (which is now decided by the prosecutor), and should be willing to mark cases LAST upon two continuances for either side, and deny continuances where one is requested (without good cause) on a shuck that is marked LAST.

This requires that a significant number of DWIs would be dismissed. But until North Carolina’s General Assembly figures out how to write proper criminal code, it’s not the judge’s fault! It’s the lawmakers’ shortcomings.

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.