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New Laws Could Boost Cumberland's Low DWI Conviction Rate

Several changes in North Carolina's drunken-driving laws took effect Friday, and some authorities hope they will boost Cumberland County's low conviction rate in such cases.

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FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Several changes in North Carolina's drunken-driving laws took effect Friday aimed at reducing the high number of alcohol-related deaths on state roads.

According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, North Carolina ranks sixth in the number of drunken-driving deaths, even though the state is ninth in the number of licensed drivers.

Last year, 549 deaths resulted from alcohol-related crashes statewide, and more than 400 of those were caused by drivers who were legally drunk, authorities said. Only California, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Texas had more drunken-driving deaths, they said.

The state's new DWI law now requires people to get a permit to purchase a keg, which could affect underage drinkers; stengthens checkpoint rules, giving officers more power to get suspected drunken drivers off the streets; increases the penalties for drunken drivers who injure or kill others; and closes some of the loopholes that previously allowed defendants to get off without penalty.

Cumberland County has had one of the lowest drunken-driving conviction rates in recent years.

From July 2005 through last June, the statewide conviction rate was more than 55 percent, but Cumberland County's rate was 37 percent. That was an improvement from a few years ago, when a WRAL investigation showed the county was convicting less than 30 percent of those charged with DWI.

"That tells us that there's something wrong," said Lt. Everett Clendenin of the state Highway Patrol. "We believe that our troopers are doing the right thing, and we believe the evidence is sound when they come to court."

Last month's election was seen by some as a referendum on drunken driving in Cumberland County. District judges Ed Donaldson and John Hair, who have among the lowest conviction rates in the state, were voted out of office.

Donaldson said Friday that Fayetteville is a transient community and officers and defendants often don't show up for court. He also said Breathalyzer machines are old and unreliable.

David Courie, a prominent drunken-driving defense lawyer in Fayetteville, said the new law isn't going to stop him and his colleagues from trying to get defendants off the hook.

"I'm one of those who doesn't equate a statistic of high conviction with justice," Courie said.

One provision of the new law provides that a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent is sufficient evidence to convict a driver of driving while intoxicated. But Courie said that doesn't mean a person is automatically guilty.

"Had the legislature wanted to tell judges, 'If a 0.08 comes into evidence, you must find them guilty,' that's a pretty easy sentence to write, and I think they would have written it that way," he said.

Law enforcement authorities see the issue differently.

"It removes a lot of those loopholes they've been using in Cumberland County," Clendenin said. "A 0.08 is a 0.08. In North Carolina, that means you've had too much to drink to be driving."


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