Outdated databases leave trail of dismissed DWI cases cold

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Outdated databases leave trail of dismissed DWI cases cold (Image 1)_24581

Night after night, law enforcement officers take people into custody for driving while impaired, but it doesn’t end there.

Everyone who is pulled over for a DWI gets their day in court, and that’s where WNCN Investigates found a shockingly inconsistent number of cases being thrown out.

The state average for DWI dismissals is around 21 percent, with some counties like Durham, Wake and Orange below that average. But in Vance, Granville, Lee and Harnett counties, nearly half of all DWIs are being dismissed.

“When it gets too far out of whack though, it certainly is a red flag that requires somebody to explain something,” explained Judge John Smith, the director of the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts.

With such a discrepancy between dismissal rates, it begged the question why?

WNCN Investigates tried several times to ask the district attorney for Lee and Harnett counties about why his county had the highest dismissal rate in the state, but Vernon Stewart turned down on-camera interview requests.

Stewart did, however, issue a statement thanking WNCN for its investigation and bringing the issue to his attention.

“My office takes seriously our role in the prosecution of all criminal cases including DWI offenses,” Stewart wrote. “WNCN’s efforts and inquiries are certainly appreciated and have given us cause to look into our existing policies and procedures, and to make changes as necessary.

“It is our goal to continue improving our efforts to prosecute DWI offenses and promote public safety.”

Stewart acknowledged in an email that the dismissal rates in his counties are too high and said he will “look into ways to reduce those rates.”

“Our biggest challenge is a lack of funding,” Stewart wrote. “Presently, we are understaffed. If I am not mistaken my district ranks in the bottom 10 percent when looking at case load per assistant prosecutor.

“Generally, we have several hundred cases on any District Court day. If we try three DWI cases on any given day, nothing else will be accomplished.”

Stewart added that law enforcement officers are also overworked, meaning they “generally are on patrol even during their court dates,” which can lead to a case being dismissed.

Any time a prosecutor dismisses a DWI case, state law requires them to provide detailed reasoning on a CR-339 form.

“[The Prosecutor’s Explanation of Dismissal or Reduction form] was more to create a transparency for dismissals that — up until that point — had been shrouded in mystery,” Smith said.

Smith’s office is responsible for the CR-339 forms, which he said “should be more easily available.”

“We don’t contest that,” Smith added.

The Administrative Office of the Courts said the court system’s databases are out of date and CR-339 forms are buried in each individual case file in each county’s courthouse, so the AOC could not provide documents for Harnett County’s dismissals.

“It requires some labor, as you probably know, to get that information. And it’s harder to get, but it’s not impossible,” Smith said.

In 2005, lawmakers passed a law requiring the documents to be part of a new integrated data system so that the AOC and the public could keep tabs on things like high dismissal rates.

That still has not been done, and Smith said it comes down to a financial issue.

“Our budgets have been continually cut instead of increased,” he said. “It comes down to the re-write of that database.”

Smith estimated it would cost close to $25 million. He said he believes a system upgrade is coming soon, but said it’s in hands of lawmakers.

“It seems to me they ought to be able to find the funds to help us,” Smith said.

State Auditor Beth Wood pointed out that the problem keeping track of records was highlighted in a 2013 audit that called out the AOC for “lack of transparency.”

“To date, they haven’t really done anything to provide that transparency,” Wood said. “You would think that for something this important — statutorily mandated and over 8 years now. They get $29 million a year, they haven’t been able to come up with $25 million to provide the transparency to the citizens of North Carolina?”

She said, “I just have to step back and ask, ‘Are they really trying?’ “

To find out more about Harnett County’s DWI dismissals, WNCN Investigates combed through every closed DWI case from 2012 and 2013 in the county’s file room. More than 550 files later, WNCN found a myriad of excuses and a lot more questions.

The so called “all-telling document” that is CR-339 was anything but all-telling. Some documents were only half way filled out and gave no detailed explanation

“The statue clearly says there should be a more detailed statement,” Smith said.

Of the cases dismissed, about 18 percent were thrown out because officers were not showing up in court. Another 23 percent had no probable cause.

Cases were also being dismissed because prosecutors were not able to prove impairment, even when drivers were above the legal limit. One file said the driver blew a .16, but because the officer was not available the case was dismissed. That driver had two previous DWI convictions.

Another case was thrown out because of “unavailable witnesses.” The file said that driver was nearly three times over the legal limit.

Smith said the Administrative Office of the Courts does to review CR-339 forms to verify that written reasons are valid.

Wood, however, said she believes it is the AOC’s responsibility to review the dismissals.

“I believe it is their responsibility to look at these dismissal rates and look into why some are not a little higher but a lot higher,” Wood said.

Smith said that while the problem may involve many players, the answer should lie in one place.

“It’s the elected DAs who are ultimately responsible,” he said.

Wood said her office will return to the AOC in the coming months for a follow up audit.

Meanwhile, Stewart said that more training is required to make sure law enforcement officers and prosecutors understand what is required in prosecuting DWI cases.

“DWI cases are some of the most technically challenging matters that go to court. Proper training for law enforcement as well for prosecutors is essential to effective prosecution and is an ongoing process,” Stewart wrote. “We try to take advantage of additional training opportunities when they arise. The most effective training for prosecutors and law enforcement is the actual trial of these cases.”

He added, “I can’t speak as to why dismissals and conviction rates vary greatly from district to district, I can only evaluate our district and strive to improve with the information I have.”

WNCN is encouraging people not to drink and drive. Share you thoughts on social media at #BoozeItLoseIt

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