The adversarial criminal system – the system that we have in North Carolina and throughout the United States – is a very expensive system. It’s a system that ultimately gives every criminal defendant a right to a jury trial.
Whether a person’s been charged with a Raleigh DWI or with capital murder, the person is entitled to a jury trial. Jury trials are expensive. They require courtrooms, judges, bailiffs, lawyers, court reporters, and, of course, jurors. They also take a long time. Even a short jury trial will take a least a day, including the time it takes to pick a jury, empanel the jury, question witnesses, make arguments, and give the jury time to deliberate and return a verdict.
Given the time and expense involved in having a jury trial, the criminal justice system has developed the plea. A plea is basically a negotiated settlement between the prosecutor and the defendant (through the defense attorney) in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty in exchange for something: either a lesser sentence, a reduction in the number of charges, a dismissal of certain charges, or even a deferred prosecution agreement.
In a plea, each side gives up something. The prosecution gives up its right to seek a guilty verdict on all charged crimes and to ask for the maximum possible punishment. The defendant gives up his right to a jury trial, in exchange for some negotiated consideration, whatever that might be.
Pleas are the lifeblood of the criminal justice system. Pleas allow the adversarial criminal process to move forward under the weight of thousands of cases (in Raleigh, perhaps 10,000 cases a month) without requiring that every single case come to a jury trial.
Sometimes pleas are not offered. Or pleas are not accepted. In those cases, the matter goes before a jury following a jury trial.
But what happens when pleas aren’t possible. What happens when the legislature has created a scheme in which it forbids (or makes impossibly difficult) the taking of pleas for certain crimes? What happens then?
The answer to that question is to look at the current state of District Court in Wake County (and throughout the State) where DWI cases now represent more than 20 percent of all misdemeanors – assaults, drug crimes, theft crimes, domestic violence crimes.
This is not because there has been a recent rise in the number of drunk drivers. Quite the opposite: since 1982, the number of drunk drivers on the roads has dropped dramatically, according to statistics kept by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
In a future post I’ll explain what has happened to misdemeanor courts as a result of what I believe is a poorly structured NC DWI Law.