WRAL Investigates

WRAL Investigates: Speeding tickets changed to 'improper muffler'

Posted July 26, 2010 6:00 p.m. EDT
Updated September 15, 2010 2:05 p.m. EDT

WRAL Investigates

— The deaths of two pedestrians are shining a light on the way speeding tickets are handled across the state.

In June, Jimmy Coleman was charged with hitting and killing 25-year-old Amie Sullivan and 22-year-old Nikki Whitley in Wilson. Coleman was driving with a revoked license at the time after a 2008 DWI conviction.

Prior to the DWI, his record showed he received break after break on speeding tickets. Coleman had five speeding tickets in a five-year period reduced to a charge called "improper muffler.” Twice, tickets were reduced in the same year. The conviction doesn't show up on a driving record and it doesn't affect insurance.

Courts are busy and dockets are always full, so when it comes to speeding tickets, getting them reduced is a common way to keep things moving. What's unusual is the way they are sometimes reduced. The law says every conviction should have facts that back it up.

WRAL News found moving violations such as lane change and speeding reduced to "improper muffler” and decided to investigate. It was common in the judicial district of Wilson (36,817), Edgecombe (32,427) and Nash (49,409) counties from 1997 to 2009. More than 118,000 such convictions were posted in that district during the past 12 years.

Halifax (8,341), Pitt (4,670), Robeson (8,013), Rowan (31,528) and Iredell (63,086) counties posted high numbers as well during that same 12-year period. Iredell continues to post the highest numbers in the state.

The conviction doesn't show up on driving records, and WRAL found frequent speeders, some at 20 to 25 miles per hour over the limit, who received improper muffler convictions time and time again.

Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, helped pass a bill in 2007 that made it harder to get frequent breaks on speeding tickets. The law places convictions for "improper equipment" on driving records. "Improper muffler" was never included.

“District attorneys need reasonable flexibility, but we don’t want to see abuses,” McKissick said. “It certainly is not consistent with the spirit of the new law. It flows under the radar. If we see frequent abuses, we may need to address this at the General Assembly.”

The practice of using improper muffler may have come about because of this: a person has to pay both court costs and fines, fines that go to the school system. A prayer for judgment is common in other counties. Those don’t yield fines, but it will show up on your driving record.

“If somebody is willing to pay $300 to $400 every ticket and keep on speeding, we’ve got to find a way to keep them from getting multiple breaks,” said Judge William Farris, the chief district court judge for Wilson, Edgecombe and Nash counties.

Harris says district attorneys make policies on reducing tickets because only the extreme speeding tickets go before judges.

Improper muffler convictions dropped sharply in Wilson, Edgecombe and Nash counties in 2009 – the same year new district attorney Robert Evans came in. He would only say that he has changed policies since coming on board.

Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt says he put a stop to "improper mufflers" in his office after he discovered his assistant DA's using the charge, which he calls inappropriate.

Rowan County District Attorney Bill Kenerly says using "improper muffler" was in practice before he came on board and that he has continued the practice. However, he requires defendants to show their criminal record in Rowan County to avoid frequent breaks.