Speeding up DWIs in Wake County District Court

Recenty I heard a discussion while in a courtroom about how the state of North Carolina might develop a more efficient way of handling the thousands of DWI or Driving While Impaired cases that pass through Wake County’s courthouse each year.

The problem is two-fold. First, DWIs have overwhelmed the District Courts to the extent that hundreds are handled each week, far more than any other individual type of case.

Second, DWIs are frequently appealed to Superior Court, which means that they overwhelm the Misdemeanor Appeals courtroom of 3D which every other week handles all sorts of misdemeanor appeals. Out of roughly 1500 cases on appeal, half are probably DWIs.

The discussion I heard, however, focused almost entirely on prosecuting DWIs more harshly, rather than focusing on how DWIs might be handled more efficiently.

One person suggested that DWIs be moved to Superior Court by presentment. Or that DWIs be turned into felonies.

As a defense lawyer, I would love if DWIs were immediately sent to Superior Court so that we could have jury trials immediately. The problem is that moving DWIs straight to Superior Court will have the effect of crushing an already overwhelmed Superior Court system which, I’ve heard, has some 15,000 pending felonies in Wake County alone.

If DWIs were turned into felonies, the Defense would automatically have a right to all discovery, which would do a better job of protecting our clients.

In addition, the more the State raises the stakes with respect to DWIs, the more juries are going to side with Defendants.

If a DWI were turned into a felony, then I could certainly argue to a jury – many of whom have driven and had alcohol in their system – that they should be very sure of my client’s guilt before convicting, because they’re turning someone into a felon.

No one wants to look soft on crime. But a DWI appearing in District Court is, at the point of the hearing or trial, NOT GUILTY and should be presumed to be NOT GUILTY.

North Carolina wants to look tough in DWIs, but it doesn’t want to adequately fund the court systems to properly handle these cases.

If North Carolina’s General Assembly wants to go the cheap route, maybe it should look at being more reasonable for a common DWI.

1. Restore sensible guilty pleas. It’s absolutely absurd for me to plead a client guilty to a DWI if, after going to trial, they’re going to be sentenced at the same level. I might as well fight a trial or a motion if my client has nothing to lose.

Restoring sensible guilty pleas – allowing clients to plead to a subsidiary charge such as a Careless and Reckless or a non-criminal drunk driving offense where the person gets treatment with a lot of fines would be a good way of encouraging the rapid disposition of DWI cases. Many states, including New York, for instance, have alternative ways of pleading down a non-serious DWI that gives the defendant a good reason to resolve the case early.

2. End the Interlock. The Interlock device is a silly – and not very reliable – method of keeping drunks off the roads. It’s expensive. It can’t be challenged properly. It’s onerous. It leads to people losing jobs.

Encourage those who face the Interlock to plead quickly by allowing them to escape the Interlock device. This would save the state a TON of money.

3. Guilty – Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. Too often it seems as though District Court verdicts don’t mirror what juries would decide. Consequently, if someone is convicted in District Court and a defense attorney believes they can win the case before a jury, a sensible defense lawyer will appeal.

This renders the District Court verdict moot, since the appeal creates a de novo (or new) trial.

Consequently, the whole purpose of District Court – to be a giant disposition court – is rendered pointless if District Court judges do not try to mirror what juries would decide.

I’m convinced District Court judges have more difficult (and challenging) jobs than Superior Court judges, but only if they are focused on the role of District Court which is to mirror (in an efficient way) what a jury might decide.

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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.