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Chatham County Judge Dismisses DWI Cases on Basis of Income

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PITTSBORO — Drunk driving is against the law no matter your age, race or gender. However, a Triangle judge says people charged with driving while impaired who do not have a lot of money should be treated differently by the courts.

Chatham County Superior Court Judge Wade Barber approved the dismissal of DWI charges against four people who could not afford the legal representation to reduce at least some of their penalties.

A DWI charge in North Carolina brings you an automatic 30-day driver's license suspension. You can get that dropped to 10 days by going through a set of legal procedures and fees that can sometimes cost several hundred dollars.

In a ruling this week, Barber says that is too much to ask poor people charged with DWI to pay.

He wrote: "... the effort and expense of obtaining a limited driving privilege were completely unmanageable."

The judge upheld the dismissal of the four cases because he says having the 30-day suspension and then going to trial amounts to double jeopardy, being penalized twice for the same crime.

The ruling is the latest twist in a battle over the constitutionality of the state's drunken driving law that erupted in Chatham County last year. It started when defense lawyers argued that new civil penalties imposed by state law are so stiff that some offenders essentially are punished twice for the same crime.

"...a driver's license is a privilege, and the state giveth, essentially, and the state taketh away," says Assistant District Attorney Doug Thoren, who prosecuted the DWI cases.

Thoren says the judge's decision sets a bad precedent.

"I think it's going to encourage a lot of people who otherwise might not be allowed to, to try to go to court now and say that they're indigent and try to apply for court-appointed counsel; because, essentially, that finding of indigency would lead to the dismissal of your DWI charges," he says.

The judge's decision appears to have even surprised an attorney for three of the defendants.

"This is the first time I've seen a distinction drawn on the basis of whether they were indigent or whether they were not indigent," says defense attorney Amber Corbin.

The groupMothers Against Drunk Drivingis upset over the ruling and says it gives poor people carte blanche.

Barber, who is out of town, could not be reached for comment on the decision.

Thoren says he will appeal the decision to throw out the cases. From staff and wire reports.