Smithfield, N.C. — A court set up in Johnston County to handle only drunken-driving cases has racked up a conviction rate of nearly 90 percent in the last year, District Attorney Susan Doyle said Tuesday.
The Driving While Impaired Court, which has been funded by the Governor's Highway Safety Program, obtained convictions through trials or guilty pleas in 426 of 479 cases from Oct. 1, 2009, through Sept. 30, Doyle said.
The 89 percent conviction rate compares with the 64 percent rate statewide between July 1, 2009, and June 30.
The DWI court had an 85 percent conviction rate in its first year of operation, and because of its success to date, the Governor's Highway Safety Program has funded the program for a third year, Doyle said.
“I am extremely appreciative of the hard work done by all the parties involved to make this court such a success," she said in a statement.
The conviction rate marks a turnaround for Johnston County, which a few years ago had one of the highest dismissal rates for DWI cases in North Carolina.
A 2008 WRAL News investigation found that 46 percent of DWI cases filed in the county were dismissed in 2006. The rate compared to a statewide dismissal rate of 21 percent.
When acquittals and pleas to reduced charges were factored in, the actual DWI conviction rate in Johnston County was about 27 percent in 2006, WRAL News found.
Johnston County also was rocked last year by a ticket-fixing case that snared a former prosecutor, four defense attorneys and a former court clerk.
Former Assistant District Attorney Cyndi Jaeger pleaded guilty in February to obstruction of justice and altering court records and is serving a three-year prison sentence.
Seventy dismissal forms with Jaeger's signature on them were filed after she left her job in September 2007. The dismissal forms were filed for clients of defense attorneys Chad Lee, Lee Hatch, Vann Sauls and Jack McLamb. Deputy court clerk Portia Snead deleted the attorneys' names from at least two cases from the courthouse computer system.
A few months after Jaeger left, Doyle asked the State Bureau of Investigation to look into the high rate of dismissed DWI cases in Johnston County. A tracking system installed in October 2007 found several discrepancies in cases that were scheduled for trial but had been dismissed months earlier.
Thirty-two cases that were part of the SBI probe involved alcohol-related charges, primarily DWI. Eleven of the defendants had been charged previously with drunken driving or have had subsequent DWI arrests, WRAL News found.
Lee and Hatch surrendered their law licenses and were sentenced to prison for their roles in the scheme, while Sauls, McLamb and Snead were placed on probation.