WRAL Investigates

Clayton gets tough on drunken driving

Police chief vows to reissue DWI charges dismissed before trial. Almost half of such charges are dropped in Johnston County.

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CLAYTON, N.C. — To combat Johnston County's reputation for being soft on drunken driving, Clayton Police Chief Glen Allen has ordered his officers to recharge people whose charges were dismissed before trial.

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

Records show many cases get tossed out when arresting officers didn't show up for court. Allen now requires his officers to detail why they didn't make it to a trial date, and he then has them refile the charges.

A WRAL investigation found many DWI cases were dismissed despite legitimate reasons for officers' absences, such as attending a funeral, assisting with the birth of a child or serving in the military.

Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell said defense attorneys delay for months, getting repeated continuances, hoping to hit a date when an officer misses court.

"For a DWI to be continued 10, 12, 16, 18 times – there's no excuse for that," Bizzell said.

Refiling charges against suspected drunk drivers will help combat that practice, Allen said.

"I think what the defense attorneys are doing is they're using every tactic available to them, and I think we as law enforcement officers and the prosecution should use every legal tactic available to us," he said.

More than 60,000 people were charged with DWI statewide in 2006, the last year for which data is available. About 8,400 cases were voluntarily dismissed by a prosecutor, and another 5,300 were dismissed with a possibility of reopening the case at a later date.

Other counties also have high rates of DWI dismissals. Harnett County drops 50 percent of its cases, while the rate in Lee County  is 34 percent.

The sobering statistics don't sit well with Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

"It was startling. It really was. I could not believe it because (it was) right here in our back yard," said Craig Lloyd, executive director of MADD North Carolina. "When it's happening like this, justice is not being served."

Lloyd said MADD would try to help improve the DWI conviction rate in Johnston County by having volunteers monitor court dates, cases and trends.


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