Superior Court and DWIs: Part I

One possible solution to the crush of DWIs (about which I’ve written recently) would be to assign DWIs to the original jurisdiction of the Superior Court.

Currently, a DWI can take anywhere from 3 to 15 months to resolve in Wake County District Court. Once that process is over, and if the defendant has been found guilty, the Defendant can appeal for a trial de novo in Superior Court.

That begins another year-long wait for a Jury Trial. During that time, the State simply does not call the case for trial, even though it is on the trial calendar, usually, once a month.

The whole process can take anywhere from 6 months to 2 1/2 years to resolve, depending on the avenues the defendant takes.

While the right to a speedy trial has been broadly interpreted – courts have ruled that three or four years is not an unreasonable delay in certain circumstances – taking 2 1/2 years to handle a common DWI certainly creates a hardship on most defendants and overwhelms a court system.

Placing DWIs in the original jurisdiction of Superior Court would do a couple of things. First, it would create at least some risk for criminal defendants to truly evaluate the merits of their case.

As it currently stands, a DWI defendant in Wake County District Court is unlikely to receive anything other than a probationary sentence if convicted of a Level 4 or Level 5 DWI. In large part that’s because the person has probably already taken steps to remedy the situation – such as being assessed – and the person likely has little or no other criminal record.

In addition, the facts of most DWIs are not egregious – a person was stopped by an officer, the odor of alcohol was detected, and various Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (SFSTs) were performed. District Court judges will impose a probationary sentence, knowing that if they don’t, the defendant will likely appeal the case for a better result in Superior Court.

Knowing that they’re virtually certain to receive the same or close-to-the-same sentence whether they plead guilty or not, many DWI defendants will try the case even when there is a very small chance of success. The reason being that if nothing is offered by way of a plea, then why should a defendant give up a constitutional right to a trial.

By placing the DWI in the original jurisdiction of Superior Court, the DWI defendant is a lot less certain about the outcome. That’s because, following a Superior Court jury trial, the defendant is not entitled to a de novo appeal. His trial rights have been exhausted (unless there’s a legal defect discovered by an appellate court).

Whatever sentence the Superior Court judge imposes is, almost always, the final sentence. Consequently, a Superior Court judge can impose an active sentence for a low level DWI, knowing that the case can’t be appealed for a trial de novo.

This increased uncertainty of making putting a DWI in the original jurisdiction of the Superior Court will (along with my other proposal of creating a plea option for first-time DWIs) will clear out the vast majority of DWIs from Wake County’s court system in 90 days.

The second thing that will occur is that prosecutors will be forced to offer genuine plea deals for DWIs in Superior Court. That’s because, Superior Court will simply be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of DWIs that, without effective plea deals, all cases will grind to a halt in Superior Court.

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.