WRAL Investigates

WRAL Investigates: Speeding tickets changed to 'improper muffler'

Posted July 26, 2010
Updated September 15, 2010

WRAL Investigates

— The deaths of two pedestrians are shining a light on the way speeding tickets are handled across the state.

In June, Jimmy Coleman was charged with hitting and killing 25-year-old Amie Sullivan and 22-year-old Nikki Whitley in Wilson. Coleman was driving with a revoked license at the time after a 2008 DWI conviction.

Prior to the DWI, his record showed he received break after break on speeding tickets. Coleman had five speeding tickets in a five-year period reduced to a charge called "improper muffler.” Twice, tickets were reduced in the same year. The conviction doesn't show up on a driving record and it doesn't affect insurance.

Courts are busy and dockets are always full, so when it comes to speeding tickets, getting them reduced is a common way to keep things moving. What's unusual is the way they are sometimes reduced. The law says every conviction should have facts that back it up.

WRAL News found moving violations such as lane change and speeding reduced to "improper muffler” and decided to investigate. It was common in the judicial district of Wilson (36,817), Edgecombe (32,427) and Nash (49,409) counties from 1997 to 2009. More than 118,000 such convictions were posted in that district during the past 12 years.

Halifax (8,341), Pitt (4,670), Robeson (8,013), Rowan (31,528) and Iredell (63,086) counties posted high numbers as well during that same 12-year period. Iredell continues to post the highest numbers in the state.

The conviction doesn't show up on driving records, and WRAL found frequent speeders, some at 20 to 25 miles per hour over the limit, who received improper muffler convictions time and time again.

Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, helped pass a bill in 2007 that made it harder to get frequent breaks on speeding tickets. The law places convictions for "improper equipment" on driving records. "Improper muffler" was never included.

“District attorneys need reasonable flexibility, but we don’t want to see abuses,” McKissick said. “It certainly is not consistent with the spirit of the new law. It flows under the radar. If we see frequent abuses, we may need to address this at the General Assembly.”

The practice of using improper muffler may have come about because of this: a person has to pay both court costs and fines, fines that go to the school system. A prayer for judgment is common in other counties. Those don’t yield fines, but it will show up on your driving record.

“If somebody is willing to pay $300 to $400 every ticket and keep on speeding, we’ve got to find a way to keep them from getting multiple breaks,” said Judge William Farris, the chief district court judge for Wilson, Edgecombe and Nash counties.

Harris says district attorneys make policies on reducing tickets because only the extreme speeding tickets go before judges.

Improper muffler convictions dropped sharply in Wilson, Edgecombe and Nash counties in 2009 – the same year new district attorney Robert Evans came in. He would only say that he has changed policies since coming on board.

Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt says he put a stop to "improper mufflers" in his office after he discovered his assistant DA's using the charge, which he calls inappropriate.

Rowan County District Attorney Bill Kenerly says using "improper muffler" was in practice before he came on board and that he has continued the practice. However, he requires defendants to show their criminal record in Rowan County to avoid frequent breaks.


This story is closed for comments.

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  • rlee1117 Jul 28, 2010

    I feel we have enough laws on our book fot theses type of people and other repeat offenders. The problem I see is the judges not enforcing the Laws as they are written.Sssms to me they make or change the Laws as they see fit in our courts!! Lets get back to days when you do the crime you do the time!Dwlr and drugs are big crimes that you see get little fine and do it some more

  • JustOneGodLessThanU Jul 28, 2010

    lprop, if you're going to suggest suing "the parties who are rsponsible" and allowing offenders to "repeat the same thing over and over until they do kill someone"...you may want to look in the mirror...or at most of the GOLO folks.

    Do you think police, DA's, judges, clerks, etc. all work for free? Are jails free to build, staff & maintain?

    Are driver's education programs really as good as they can be? Are driver tests thorough enough? Are there enough qualified license screeners at the DMV...with enough time to thoroughly screen each new potential driver?

    So...look around at all the so-called "less government" people screaming to cut budgets. And...here you go. You're cutting driver education, the courts & the jails. It certainly looks like these people are INTENTIONALLY letting these repeat offenders go. Go sue them.

  • ConcernedNCC Jul 28, 2010

    The reason that moving violations can and do get reduced to "improper muffler" is proof that the state courts are in business to raise money, not uphold the law.

  • thepeopleschamp Jul 27, 2010

    "He has even been in trouble for speeding & he gets out of trouble every time I turn around." Heartless

    That's easy, quit turning around.

  • atbatasi Jul 27, 2010

    To see all possible ways to reduce tickets of any kind, please go to Nash County, look up Thomas Austin Rose. Austin died last May,before his death he had over 200 court cases in five years,half of the five years was in prison. This young man had so many DMV violations reductions, that one time when he left for prison in February 2005 the DA's office made nine disappear. Take a look, you will be amazed.

  • ForTheLoveOf Jul 27, 2010

    You know, like I've tried to explain to some people, the justice system isn't broken. It's like trying to blame a gun for shooting someone, or our government for having a huge deficit. You can only blame the people running the show, and the participants. This means the voters or lack there-of, as well as the "criminals" and speeders. Just as an example for our over-extended court system, let's say we have a car with five people and one just robbed a bank. The other four just picked the guy up b/c he called and wanted to hang out. All four get pulled while speeding, a gun is seen on the floorboards, and so all are searched, and items from the robbery are found. Everyone takes the "no snitch" policy and all are brought to jail. Now you've got five guys for the crime of one because "no snitching". Let's say this happens 10 times a week. 50 court dates, 50 attorneys needed, 50 mouths to feed, etc. Who's fault is that? Now you can see why the system is inefficient.

  • mpheels Jul 27, 2010

    Nope ajeralddavis, there is a third group - those of us who just don't speed. I don't speed, not even on the interstate (don't worry, I stay to the right and let the rest of you pass me). I know I'm not the only one either - I routinely find myself following 2-3 cars also going the speed limit.

  • afteradeal Jul 27, 2010

    Speeding tickets are reduced all the time in Wilson Co; this is nothing new.

  • Sidekick Jul 27, 2010

    Record ALL tickets so the insurance companies can get access to it. Then, becasue they can make it very difficult on drivers, maybe something will change. Drivers are more affraid of insurance rates than the courts who aren't strict enough.

  • mamabearprotectinghercub Jul 27, 2010

    What gets me is these people drive by with these mufflers that are so loud that you can't hear. I worry about my baby ears, & other people & there kids ears. And I know of a boy name Michael Lawrence & he has muffler's like that & every time I look he is getting out of trouble. He has even been in trouble for speeding & he gets out of trouble every time I turn around. I wish they would start getting hard on them mufflers, I wish there were stronger laws on them which I thought there was. I don't know. I just wish people would have respect.