WRAL Investigates

DWI dismissals not always for right reasons

Posted September 25, 2008

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— About one-fifth of the approximately 5,000 driving while impaired cases on the docket in Wake County last year were dismissed, according to court records.

Statewide, there were about 70,000 DWI charges – 20 percent of which were dropped.

Although the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts doesn’t record why DWIs are dismissed, Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby says some of those dismissals have nothing to do with guilt or innocence.

“We lose hundreds of cases a year because of the unavailability of officers,” he said.

An examination of 30 randomly selected case files found delays eventually led to dismissals because the arresting officer never appeared in court to testify. Some of those suspects had extremely high blood-alcohol levels; others had criminal records.

Approximately 15 to 20 of those cases were dismissed because they were handled by a state Highway Patrol trooper who was fired last year because he was accused of profiling young women for late-night traffic stops.

Another law enforcement officer had six DWI cases dismissed when he left for the military.

Even a tragedy like the death of Trooper Andrew Stocks, who was killed earlier this month when his patrol car went out of control and hit a garbage truck in Garner, could lead to the dismissal of as many as 20 of his pending DWI cases.

The reason for such dismissals, prosecutors and defense attorneys say, is that the arresting officer is often the only witness who can place a DWI suspect behind the wheel of a vehicle.

Defense attorney Karl Knudsen admits some cases do not deserve to be dismissed, but says it is crucial to have the key witness in court to testify.

“It’s one of the fundamental principles of our system of laws,” he said. “We don’t have a trial-by-paper or a trial-by-affidavit.”

Willoughby says repeated delays increase the chance of losing a witness.

Out of the approximately 1,000 cases dismissed last year in Wake County, 269 were more than a year old.

“The biggest solution is resources,” Willoughby said. “Put pressure on the judges to try these cases quicker.”

District Judge Jane Gray says scheduling conflicts and crowded courtrooms slow down the system.

“We’re trying, but it’s very difficult,” Gray said. “When you have a courtroom of 200 cases and 11 of them are DWIs, you cannot reach all of them.”

And defense attorneys will sometimes ask for delays, knowing time is on their side.

“The honest answer to that question is ‘Yes,’” Knudsen said. “It’s not unethical. It’s not illegal. It’s just part of the process.”

Gray says Wake County is trying to be more efficient. For example, a new DWI court on the ninth floor of the Wake County Courthouse is devoted to the older cases.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys both feel the dismissal rate sounds high. They believe charges, such as aiding and abetting DWI often get dismissed.

They also say drivers under 21 usually get DWIs dismissed and replaced witha charge for drinking and driving under age.

“If they took it seriously enough, then it wouldn’t happen as often,” said Marcy Henly, whose 61-year-old mother, Kay Stokes, was killed in 2005 by Kenneth Maready, a repeat drunken driver whose blood-alcohol level was more than three times the legal limit when he crashed into a pickup truck Stokes was driving.

At the time of the crash, Maready had a revoked driver's license and six DWI convictions on his record.

Henly says she does not understand how cases can so easily be dismissed and says she questions whether DWIs are taken seriously enough by the courts or the people charged.

“It’s kind of selfish just to get a buzz to get a high and never think of the consequences,” Henley said.

44 Comments

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  • james27613 Sep 26, 5:46 p.m.

    If the officer is in court and the defense gets continuance, then the defendant must pay for the officers time when he/she returns to court. we need new laws about this stuff.

    copeyes wrote
    NOT to mention that some departments do not pay an officer for going to court on their off day or compensate for overtime. So of course if the court allows for several continuances then eventually the case will be lost by default.

  • illegals--GO HOME Sep 26, 4:02 p.m.

    Before you jump on the officers, it is the oldest ploy on the books for the defense attorneys to postpone the cases over and over and over just hoping an officer quits, dies, or changes depts. or jurisdictions and can no longer come to court. I have seen them delay DWI trials for up to 2 years sometimes.

  • bulls41 Sep 26, 12:42 p.m.

    Obviously the reporter has never sat through hours and weeks and months and years (yes I said years) of court waiting on 1 DWI case to come to trial. Don't be sick, don't let your children be sick, don't get married, don't attend a funeral, because that will be the day the defense attorney has been continuing the case until just to have it dismissed. Wake County needs to step up and quit letting defense attorneys run the courts. I have seen far too many traveling judges come to this county and laugh about how it is run.

  • forensics Sep 26, 12:07 p.m.

    I have read comments here talking about officers being subpoenaed and not showing up etc. What I know happens based on my years in law enforcement is that the defense attorneys will have the case continued over and over until someone finally sets it on a date that is not the officer's scheduled date. The officer then doesn't appear and the attorney says that his client is ready to proceed an the dismissal occurs.

    Officers are assigned district court dates because their agencies must be able to have adequate staffing and officers are entitled to time off. If any case involving an officer was set on any court date, an officer could potentially go to court 5 days a week every week. Then who would answer calls and protect us?

    The solution to the problem is to set court dates like they do in Virginia. The judge sets the docket, not the DA. On an officer's court date, the judge calls the officer and then hears all of his or her cases. No missed court dates and attorney games.

  • dcreek Sep 26, 11:17 a.m.

    Inter Alios I hear on a monthly bases from my husband that they delayed his DWI cases again. This is a game the defense attorneys play to get their client off. They request a continuence date after date hoping that the police officer will eventually not show up on one of the dates. This has happened many times and if you were honest you would admit it. Also, How can you say that someone is not guilty when they not only failed the field sobriety test but also blew over the legal limit. There is no reason someone could not be guilty of DWI with this evidence against them. The officer saw him/her driving; the officer smelled the odor of alcohol on him/her; officer observed him/her fail the field sobriety test; then lastly he/she failed the breathalyzer test. What move proof do you need to prove guilt? The officer has to swear to the specifics of the case during the arrest that should be enough to stand up in court.

  • rpd911 Sep 26, 10:20 a.m.

    Also not mentioned in here is "Dismissed with leave" or Dismissed without leave". Basically what that is is when the defendant never ever shows up in court. Sure a warrant for his arrest will be issued for the failure to appear but until he is picked up on that warrant and held he will never be in court. Add to that that warrants are only "active" for 180 days after which the warrant for the failure to appear is returned to the Clerk of courts office where it sits indefinitely, no attempts to locate the suspect. At this point the case is considered "dismissed with or without leave" and unless specifically requested by officers or the DA's office the warrant remains in a sort of pergatory, not an "invalid" warrant but not a "valid" one either. So don't place blame souly on the officers Mr. DA.

  • thepeopleschamp Sep 26, 10:08 a.m.

    Here is what I have personally seen. Lawyers continue cases to a date that is not the officers assigned court date and the officer was never told. Several times in the past 2 years has a bailiff called me on a day off or while on vacation out of state and asked if I knew I had a DWI that was getting ready to go to trial. The last time that happened the DWI case was 1 1/2 years old.

  • Common Sense Man Sep 26, 9:54 a.m.

    "My husband is a LEO and he gets so frusterated with drunk driving cases."

    He's not the only one. By the end of the year my DWI arrests will probably be about 40% less than last year. Why? Because I'm sick of our court system. I'm sick of being stuck in court all day on slam dunk cases. Cases where they are found guilty but aren't penalized by the judge. If you go to trial and are found guilty you should get hammered. That's the point of the plea bargain, to get a better deal by not going to trial. And I'm not afraid to tell the lawyers that they won't be getting as many clients from me because of their antics.

  • raleighres1 Sep 26, 9:24 a.m.

    cont. Now wonder why attorneys in general get such a bad name!

  • raleighres1 Sep 26, 9:11 a.m.

    From the article - "And defense attorneys will sometimes ask for delays, knowing time is on their side. “The honest answer to that question is ‘Yes,’” Knudsen said. “It’s not unethical. It’s not illegal. It’s just part of the process.” - It might not be illegal but it is definitely unethical. As an attorney your responsibility is to zealously represent your client. However, it is another thing and something completely unethical for a defense attorney to peer their head into a courtroom only to see the LEO sitting in the jury box and then go to another courtroom. Then the defense attorney will peer their head back into the courtroom to see the LEO has finally left because he/she has no other cases except for that DWI and doesnt think the attorney is going to show. Then the attorney shows with about 30 minutes left in the court session and tries to get a states motion continue or dismiss it on the basis that the LEO didn't show. Now wonder why attorneys in general

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