Local News

Lawyers, ex-clerk surrender in ticket-fixing case

Posted March 31, 2009 11:47 a.m. EDT
Updated April 2, 2009 1:54 p.m. EDT

— Four defense attorneys and a former court clerk surrendered Tuesday, a day after a Johnston County grand jury indicted them and three others on charges that they fixed drunken-driving and other traffic cases.

Former assistant Superior Court clerk Portia Snead and defense attorneys Chad Lee, Vann Sauls, Jack McLamb and Lee Hatch were booked and released on bond. All declined to comment as they entered and exited the Johnston County Courthouse.

Cyndi Jaeger, a former Johnston County assistant district attorney, was expected to surrender Wednesday.

Jaeger signed 70 dismissal forms, which defense attorneys used after she left the Johnston County District Attorney's Office in September 2007 to illegally drop charges in drunken-driving and other traffic cases, according to the indictments.

In one of the cases, a driving while impaired charge was dropped against a man who authorities said had a blood-alcohol content of 0.19 – North Carolina considers a 0.08 level too drunk to drive. The dismissal form contained no reason for the dismissal, aside from the statement "no reason to stop – no bad driving."

Other cases were dismissed because law enforcement officers purportedly wrote the wrong date on a ticket, because a magistrate was supposedly tardy in prosecuting a case or because there was no witness to an offense. The grand jury determined in handing down the indictments that such statements were false.

Jaeger was indicted on three felony counts for obstruction of justice and two misdemeanor counts for failing to perform duty of office. She faces 81 additional misdemeanor charges for failing to perform duty of office, which the grand jury will take up May 4 – that's the same day the other defendants will make their initial court appearance.

Snead was charged with six counts of altering official case records, felony obstruction of justice and illegally accessing a government computer. The indictments alleged that she removed Lee's and Hatch's names as the attorneys in two of the suspect cases from the computer system used by the state court system to track cases.

Lee was charged with 65 counts of altering official case records, felony obstruction of justice and conspiracy; Hatch was charged with 30 counts of altering official case records and felony obstruction of justice; McLamb was charged with six counts of altering official case records and felony obstruction of justice; and Sauls was charged with 11 counts of altering official case records, felony obstruction of justice and conspiracy.

The state Attorney General's Office is handling the prosecution of the case, and in an interesting twist, people whose DWI charges had been dismissed could be called as witnesses against the attorneys they hired.

Katherine Jean, general counsel for the North Carolina State Bar, said she couldn't comment specifically on the case nor acknowledge whether grievances have been brought against any of the attorneys.

"Ordinarily, while charges are pending against an attorney, the attorney is able to continue practicing law," Jean said.

District Attorney Susan Doyle last year asked the State Bureau of Investigation to look into the high rate of dismissed drunken-driving cases in the county. A WRAL investigation found that 46 percent of the driving while impaired charges filed in Johnston County in 2006 were dismissed, compared with 21 percent statewide and 20 percent in neighboring Wake County.

Doyle said a tracking system installed in October 2007 found several discrepancies in cases that were scheduled for trial but had been dismissed months earlier.

"Further inquiry revealed that the former assistant district attorney dismissed an alarming number of driving while impaired cases by utilizing an inappropriate dismissal form and by not stating the reasons for the dismissal orally in open court as required by law," Doyle said in a statement.

Jaeger left her job as an assistant district attorney in Randolph County last Wednesday, and Snead left the clerk of court's office the same day.

Investigators wouldn't say if the cases that were illegally dismissed could be tried again. Any decision would likely come after these six cases play out.