WRAL Investigates

Johnston has high rate of DWI dismissals

Posted May 22, 2008

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— Drunken-driving charges are dismissed twice as often in Johnston County as in most other North Carolina counties, according to state records, prompting a call from authorities for change.

Forty-six percent of the driving while impaired charges filed in Johnston County in 2006, the latest year for which records are available, were dismissed, according to the Administrative Office of Courts. Statewide, the dismissal rate for DWI charges is 21 percent. In neighboring Wake County, the dismissal rate is 20 percent.

When acquittals and pleas to reduced charges are factored in, the actual DWI conviction rate in Johnston County is about 27 percent, state records show.

"The defendants are laughing at our justice system and going right back to driving drunk again," Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell said.

Hipolito Hernandez is one of those drivers.

Hernandez, 30, of Parkertown Road in Four Oaks, had two DWI cases dismissed and a third reduced to a lesser charge in recent years. A fourth DWI charge was pending against him when he was arrested in connection with a hit-and-run that killed a 7-year-old.

Marcus Lassiter was trying to cross a road in Four Oaks on April 13 when a car hit him. He suffered brain damage and was taken off life support a few days later.

Hernandez is charged with second-degree murder, felony hit-and-run, felony assault, possession of a stolen vehicle, driving without a license, speeding and reckless driving – as well as his fifth DWI.

"It's time for the court system to do their job," Bizzell said. "Quit letting the DWIs just walk out the door."

Johnston County District Attorney Susan Doyle said she was surprised by the number of dismissed DWI cases.

"I'm frustrated," said Doyle, who was elected in 2006.

In many cases, charges were dropped when arresting officers didn't show up for court. Yet, the files often show legitimate reasons they couldn't go to court: they were in training, serving in Iraq or on vacation. One case was dismissed because the arresting officer was at a funeral, while another was tossed because a Highway Patrol trooper was at the hospital with his wife for the delivery of their baby, records show.

Chief District Judge Andy Corbett said defense attorneys "shop" for judges by trying to get on court calendars when judges they consider more lenient will be presiding in Johnston, or they seek dates when officers might not make it to court.

"I would have some problems about that," Corbett said.

WRAL tried to contact several defense attorneys who practice in Johnston County, but none returned phone calls.

In two DWI case files, trial dates had been continued so many times at the defendants' request that new court dates had to be scribbled in the margins. One defendant got 21 continuances, while the other got 18.

"Then, the one or two times that the prosecutor asked for a continuance because the officer is out of place for a legitimate reason, it's not allowed. That is disturbing," Doyle said.

"They're getting put off – some of them are getting put off way too far. But we need to look at why. What are the reasons for it so we can better deal with it?" Corbett said.

The judge called for better communication between prosecutors, officers and judges to limit the dropped cases – and possibly undo Johnston County's reputation for being lenient on drunken driving.

83 Comments

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  • Panther May 23, 2008

    nccopper
    You post says it all. Thanks for the info.

  • nccopper May 23, 2008

    Here is the DWI law for NC. pay close attention to section 20-138.1 paragraph 2. That is all the evidence needed to CONVICT ! the judges obviously don't interpret the language of the law.

    20‑138.1. Impaired driving.

    (a) Offense. – A person commits the offense of impaired driving if he drives any vehicle upon any highway, any street, or any public vehicular area within this State:

    (1) While under the influence of an impairing substance; or

    (2) After having consumed sufficient alcohol that he has, at any relevant time after the driving, an alcohol concentration of 0.08 or more. The results of a chemical analysis shall be deemed sufficient evidence to prove a person's alcohol concentration; or

    (3) With any amount of a Schedule I controlled substance, as listed in G.S. 90‑89, or its metabolites in his blood or urine.

  • Corvus May 23, 2008

    Under North Carolina Law, judges can't be sued for their past rulings. So just remember, to vote in November. The only way we are going to get new judges is to vote new ones into office. Same goes for the District Attorney, although she is not up for re-election for 2 more years.

  • NCMOMof3 May 23, 2008

    DWI shouldn't even be defensible. You either blew over the legal limit or your blood tested over the legal limit. Cut and dried. There should be minimum punishment for first offense and permenant revocation of your license for the 2nd.

  • lslmsmith400 May 23, 2008

    It is funny that this story was run when it was. I was in court in Johnston County on Wednesday of last week. I was there with someone else who had a speeding ticket there. At one point and time the Assistant District Attorney for the day told all of Law Enforcement to leave for the day because there were no trials for that day. It was about 10:30. About 45 minutes later an attorney was there with his client asking for a trial. Of course all the officers were told to leave.

    The case was thrown out. The defense attorneys are to blame for continuing cases and mess like that, but there is no way the DA that day should have told them to leave. What did she think was going to happen.

    LS

  • OrdinaryCitizen May 23, 2008

    Proper punishment for first time offense ---- AA meetings and community service. I'm tired of lawyers making a ton of money and families being ripped apart. A young kid that has a life ruined cause of one mistake. Plus the money involved is robbery and causes debt to many.

    or

    No limit, any alcohol on your breath while driving is mandatory 30 days in jail.

    I wish the State would pick one of these as the laws.
    Can you really argue with one of these arguments?

  • Centurian May 23, 2008

    For those that ask WHY these Judges keep getting re-elected, stop and think for a moment.

    Who benefits from the DWI dismissals? LAWYERS
    Who is eligible to run for Judge? LAWYERS
    Who joins the Judges in the Bar Assoc. fraternity? LAWYERS
    Who runs the Court System? LAWYERS

    The answer should be clear now.

  • Common Sense Man May 23, 2008

    "I am glad you find the issue of violating the Constitutional rights and liberties of citizens a matter of fun and humor and it's heartwarming to know that an automoton such as yourself can be entertained thus."

    Yawn.

  • Adelinthe May 23, 2008

    SHAMEFUL!!!

    The District Court Judge who dismissed Hipolito's previous DWIs should be held accountable for Hipolito's further DWI incidents, including the murder (cause that's what it was) of the 7-year old.

    That's the only way some judges will ever learn that they are elected officials responsible to the constituents who put them in office.

    God bless.

    Rev. RB

  • Reason May 23, 2008

    DA Susan Doyle wanted to meet with the media about this. This was part of her campaign: Drunks, Drug Dealers, and Habitual Felons. So far she is doing everything she can to lock them up. The tides are changing in Johnston (most of those stats are from 2006 before she was elected). The DA and the sheriff are putting their feet down and standing up to the District Court Judges. Good for them.

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