In a previous post, I explained how pleas are the most important means by which the adversarial criminal justice system we have can process as many criminal cases as Raleigh sees each year.
When lawmakers – I’m looking at you, North Carolina General Assembly – create laws that interfere with ability to plead guilty out of a misguided attempt to get tough on crime, they do two things: they make the whole system more inefficient and expensive for taxpayers. They also turn the tables in favor of the defendant, to try even the weakest cases because no plea has been offered.
Let’s look at the structure of the typical NC DWI law.
North Carolina DWI Laws Prevent Pleas
North Carolina’s DWI laws, which I’ve written about elsewhere, create a very regimented sentencing structure, which takes control out of the hands of the parties in the courtroom. A prosecutor is virtually forbidden from reducing or dismissing a DWI in exchange for a lesser charge. A prosecutor must offer all statutory aggravating factors to the court. A prosecutor can’t even allow a defendant to escape the imposition of the Interlock device in cases where the blow was a .15 or above.
In addition, the particular punishments within each level are very narrowly defined. For instance, a judge has no control over the length of the license suspension. A judge can impose fines, but the difference between the high and low fines within a sentencing level is only about $200 for a Level 5 DWI. A judge is even discouraged from waiving various fees.
The prosecutor can dismiss other charges in exchange for a plea to the DWI, but many DWIs involve just the DWI charge plus, perhaps, a comparatively minor traffic infraction. So the offer to dismiss the traffic infraction is not much of an offer at all.
The inability of the judge or prosecutor to concede much to a DWI defendant means that the DWI defendant is not going to face any worse punishment in many DWI cases if he has a bench trial, than if he were to plead guilty.
The only consideration the state can extend to a defendant pleads guilty is that his case will be resolved on a court setting more or less of the defendant’s choosing, which can be important in cases where the defendant is certain to be found guilty, but needs time to get his personal affairs in order before taking the plea.