No Love Lost for DWI Defendants

Having spent years defending DWI suspects charged with drunk driving in Wake County, I can tell you these are tough cases to defend, requiring skilled representation, a thorough knowledge of the various tools police use to stop and arrest DWI suspects, and an understanding of the machines the State uses to cheaply and efficiently convict and punish impaired drivers.

Since the 1980s, the laws in North Carolina have become increasingly harsh, with the legislature seemingly each year imposing even stricter guidelines limiting prosecutorial discretion and judicial flexibility. While the vast majority of my clients charged with high-blow DWIs would gladly plead guilty to a DWI in exchange for the ability to not have an Interlock device on the cars, the North Carolina General Assembly has denied prosecutors the ability to negotiate in this way.

The choice for clients is to plead guilty to a DWI, or face a trial at which they are likely – at least in District Court – to obtain the same or similar result even after a trial. The result is a clogged court system, judges who are increasingly frustrated at the pace of DWI resolutions, and prosecutors who have little discretion in how to dispose of these cases.

Defense lawyers are also placed in a tough spot. When asked by a client who has a factually bad DWI case – a blow of a .10 or above, a valid stop with the officer obtaining probable cause before arresting the defendant – the question from the client becomes: what can you do for me?

While I would never advise a person to deal with a DWI without an attorney, in a very significant number of cases, while I am very happy to fight the case as hard as the client wants, the case is likely to be lost.

Other jurisdictions have dealt with this problem in a much more reasonable way. Some jurisdictions offer defendants an opportunity to plead to a lesser crime if they resolve their case quickly. Other jurisdictions impose tougher penalties if the case drags out. Whichever way the defendant chooses to deal with the DWI – by accepting an early offer, or by dragging out – and however the plea is characterized (some leniency for not wasting court resources, or some penalty of wasting the resources) the structure of other jurisdictions response to DWI violations has a logic that is plainly lacking in North Carolina.

If North Carolina wants to have clogged courts, and a seeming rash of attorneys trying to work around the system in unethical ways, then it can encourage that behavior by having silly one-size-fits-all responses to DWI charges that don’t allow a defendant to make a reasonable, self-interested, and rational decision about his or her charge.

If North Carolina wants to resolve this problem, then it can reintroduce plea negotiation into the system by providing different sanctions to a defendant who, with a bad case, decides to resolve it early as opposed to dragging the case out for years simply because no reasonable alternative is available.

The choice is up to the General Assembly. Clogged and overworked courts? Or a sane system.

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.