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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Problem with the DWI Caseload in Wake County

Recently, there have been several articles in local new papers addressing the issues the Wake County Courthouse faces addressing an influx of DWI cases.  There have been Federal Grants awarded to local Law Enforcement to up their DWI investigation efforts.  This includes additional officers, along with more check points and heavier presence on the roads during peak DWI periods. 

The issue addressed in these articles is the fact that with increase police efforts towards DWI detection and arrest, comes increase load on the Wake County Justice Center.  The Criminal Courthouse here in Wake county is already heavily overburdened.  Some of this has been caused by these Federal Grants, others are more innocuous, we have a blooming population and at the same time, financial resources at the Wake County Justice Center are willfully inadequate.  District Attorneys are not paid well to begin with and are a part of the Government employees who have seen little to no increase to their salary in the past few years (the same holds true for the Public Defenders Office, which is a wholly different discussion).  Additionally, cuts have been made to support staff in the D.A. Office as a result of the funding limitations.  As a Raleigh Criminal Attorney, I am appalled at the treatment of these civil servants and will be the first to say that these individuals are inadequately paid for their efforts and dedication to the office.

And that is where these articles end up, the court system needs more money to handle these higher case volumes, however I respectfully disagree.  While more funding may allow for additional DWI-dedicated Assistant District Attorneys, Clerks and Judges, it would not be enough to fully mitigate the struggles all of us are dealing with at the court house.  You see, while another DWI courtroom may provide some relief, it will always be limited by the fact that, while an individual officer may issue a hundred or more DWI's in a year, they can only testify at one trial at a time.  A DWI trial on the best of days will take at least an hour or so.  Typically they are closer to two or more.  The more complex can take several hours or more, and all of this is in District Court.  For a DWI trial in Superior Court, where a Jury is convened, a typical DWI will take a full day.  So, no matter how many DWI dedicated courtrooms there may be, those that are called for trial are handled one at a time.

In one article, it mentions that for the current fiscal year in Wake County, it is estimated that there will be 7000 DWI citations issued.  Even if only half of these cases are called for trial, they will not all be reached in a timely manner.  Let's do the math, there is roughly 250 working days in a year, if only half were all called for trial during that year, it would require the court to resolve 14 cases a day.  Given that there are presently 6 courtrooms that theoretically handle District Court matters, they would need to resolve a little more then 2 cases per courtroom, per day.  And while that may seem feasilble, the reality is that would be doing little else other then DWI trials in all of the courtrooms to pull this off, which obviously is not feasible.

Which brings me to the point of this post.  North Carolina is one of the toughest State's to receive a DWI charge in.  The law as it is written, has absolutely not option for the State to offer an offender something less then a DWI conviction in a plea deal.  Certainly one can envision circumstances where someone may receive a DWI that may deserve an outcome that is less serious then a DWI conviction.  I would think low-level BAC (say a .09 or below) with no injury and no prior alcohol-related offenses could opt for a program, where perhaps they complete a number of community service hours, and/or pay a heft fine, for the opportunity to avoid a DWI conviction.  See, as the law is currently written, the aforementioned set of facts is treated equally for conviction purposes as someone with much more serious set of facts.  And while a DWI conviction does have standards for sentencing purposes to distinguish from the most egregious to the less, the fact remains that these drivers are still facing a DWI conviction.    This is why many DWI clients elect to try their case instead of pleading it, there is no incentive for them to not take a 'bite at the apple.'

DWI's are extremely complicated and so are the politics that surround them.  That being said, the problem is not going away and it's not getting better.  Something needs to be done to serious address this problem at the courthouse and a solution that can help those who very benign facts deserve a better opportunity to avoid a DWI conviction short of trial.