WRAL Investigates

Johnston has high rate of DWI dismissals

Authorities say defense attorneys shop for lenient judges, and charges are often dismissed when officers can't show up for court.

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SMITHFIELD, N.C. — Drunken-driving charges are dismissed twice as often in Johnston County as in most other North Carolina counties, according to state records, prompting a call from authorities for change.

Forty-six percent of the driving while impaired charges filed in Johnston County in 2006, the latest year for which records are available, were dismissed, according to the Administrative Office of Courts. Statewide, the dismissal rate for DWI charges is 21 percent. In neighboring Wake County, the dismissal rate is 20 percent.

When acquittals and pleas to reduced charges are factored in, the actual DWI conviction rate in Johnston County is about 27 percent, state records show.

"The defendants are laughing at our justice system and going right back to driving drunk again," Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell said.

Hipolito Hernandez is one of those drivers.

Hernandez, 30, of Parkertown Road in Four Oaks, had two DWI cases dismissed and a third reduced to a lesser charge in recent years. A fourth DWI charge was pending against him when he was arrested in connection with a hit-and-run that killed a 7-year-old.

Marcus Lassiter was trying to cross a road in Four Oaks on April 13 when a car hit him. He suffered brain damage and was taken off life support a few days later.

Hernandez is charged with second-degree murder, felony hit-and-run, felony assault, possession of a stolen vehicle, driving without a license, speeding and reckless driving – as well as his fifth DWI.

"It's time for the court system to do their job," Bizzell said. "Quit letting the DWIs just walk out the door."

Johnston County District Attorney Susan Doyle said she was surprised by the number of dismissed DWI cases.

"I'm frustrated," said Doyle, who was elected in 2006.

In many cases, charges were dropped when arresting officers didn't show up for court. Yet, the files often show legitimate reasons they couldn't go to court: they were in training, serving in Iraq or on vacation. One case was dismissed because the arresting officer was at a funeral, while another was tossed because a Highway Patrol trooper was at the hospital with his wife for the delivery of their baby, records show.

Chief District Judge Andy Corbett said defense attorneys "shop" for judges by trying to get on court calendars when judges they consider more lenient will be presiding in Johnston, or they seek dates when officers might not make it to court.

"I would have some problems about that," Corbett said.

WRAL tried to contact several defense attorneys who practice in Johnston County, but none returned phone calls.

In two DWI case files, trial dates had been continued so many times at the defendants' request that new court dates had to be scribbled in the margins. One defendant got 21 continuances, while the other got 18.

"Then, the one or two times that the prosecutor asked for a continuance because the officer is out of place for a legitimate reason, it's not allowed. That is disturbing," Doyle said.

"They're getting put off – some of them are getting put off way too far. But we need to look at why. What are the reasons for it so we can better deal with it?" Corbett said.

The judge called for better communication between prosecutors, officers and judges to limit the dropped cases – and possibly undo Johnston County's reputation for being lenient on drunken driving.


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