Thousands of DWI cases in Guilford County have waited years to be heard
Greensboro News & Record November 19, 2016
Author: Joe Gamm Staff Writer
In Guilford County, 4,177 DWI cases linger in the courts. The county’s average case for driving while intoxicated is more than a year-and-a-half old, but some cases have taken more than three years to wind through the system. This is the second-largest backlog in the region, and it places a burden on police, the court system, defendants, attorneys, prosecutors and victims.
Defense attorney Don Vaughan has represented several defendants in cases that have taken years to resolve. One client received a DWI citation Oct. 13, 2012. Seventeen times Vaughan appeared in court to resolve that case, only to have it continued. The case finally went to trial July 12 this year, almost three years and nine months after the defendant was cited. The driver, who was found to have several narcotics in his blood, received a suspended, six-month sentence and was ordered to pay restitution for two accidents in which he was involved.
Others are waiting, too. As of Nov. 10, the number of pending cases in Guilford County was second in the state, just behind Wake County, which had 4,339. Only two other counties have more than 3,000 pending cases — Mecklenburg County, with 3,184, and Forsyth County, 3,205. Next are Cumberland County (1,988) and Davidson County (877). This backlog has caused a jam in traffic court that officials said they hope will be helped by the addition of a special court. Three factors are most responsible for the huge backlog — an active DWI task force, the time it takes to get blood work back from the labs and a massive daily court docket.
Guilford County Chief District Court Judge Tom Jarrell has a plan for reducing the backlog. Beginning in January, the county will hold DWI court for six months, five days a week. “I really anticipate knocking our backlog down,” Jarrell said, “hopefully, by about a thousand cases. I really think we can move some cases.” Will that be enough? The number of cases continues to rise everywhere. During the four-day Halloween weekend, Guilford County law enforcement agencies issued 42 DWI citations, second again only to Wake County’s 53.
‘Their day in court’
The physical reality of those numbers are on display every day in Greensboro, when 300 to 600 defendants file into Courtroom 1-D to resolve their traffic-court issues. Jarrell said the alleged offenses include speeding, possession of fake identification, operating a vehicle without insurance, reckless driving, restraint violations, equipment violations, unsafe movement and hundreds of others, including DWI. “It’s every traffic offense imaginable,” Jarrell said. “To just concentrate on the DWI cases, I have to open up another court.”
There have been mornings when nearly 900 defendants were scheduled for court, Greensboro police Officer A.D. Reed said. Reed, the department’s lead instructor for standardized field sobriety testing, said each of the city’s patrol officers has a single day scheduled each month, when he or she testifies in court. Mornings in traffic court are spent working through the massive case load, resolving charges to which people plead guilty or continuing the cases. “My job as chief district court judge is to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to have their day in court,” Jarrell said. Afternoons are set aside for trials, many of which involve DWIs, Jarrell said.
About 10 DWI cases are scheduled for trial every day. The trials have to be scheduled far in advance because all parties are required to have 30 days’ notice so they can prepare and subpoena officers who are bringing the charges. The trials are arranged to correspond to dates when the officers involved have been scheduled for court. Jarrell said officials can’t simply “snap our fingers” and send cases to trial. So if a case isn’t reached on the day it’s scheduled, it must be continued again. Of the 10 trials ready to go on any given day, the court might be able to get through only two or three. Jarrell said, if possible, court officials hear the oldest cases first.
“If it’s ready for trial, and it’s on a trial list, and that case isn’t reached, it has to be continued,” he said. “This happens every day.”
Mecklenburg County resolves its pending DWI caseload more quickly than Guilford County. Jarrell said the average age of the cases in Guilford County is 19 months. By comparison, the average age of a Mecklenburg case is 13 months. The reason for such disparity is unclear.
“That’s my focus,” Jarrell said. “These old cases.”
Reducing the caseload
Initially the job of reducing the number of DWI cases crowding the Guildford County courts fell to Chief District Judge Wendy Enochs. Jarrell was appointed to take over the task when she retired earlier this year. Jarrell had worked as a defense attorney and as an assistant district attorney in Guilford County before being appointed to the bench in early 2000. Guilford’s defense attorneys and prosecutors support Jarrell in finding a way to reduce the backlog, Vaughan said, and that goes for officers, defendants and also victims. “It’s wear and tear on everyone in the system,” Vaughan said. “It’s been a nightmare, an absolute nightmare.”
Vaughan takes on 50 to 100 DWI cases every year. And like other attorneys, he is paid before the cases go to trial. So, for defense attorneys, there is no benefit in a delay. One of Vaughan’s clients lived out of state but insisted on returning for each scheduled court date, only to be rebuffed because the lab work on his blood hadn’t been completed. The client’s situation illustrates the frustrating cycle defendants and their attorneys face, Vaughan said. But also frustrated are victims, prosecutors and judges, Jarrell said. So he reached out to a law school classmate, Marion Warren, director of N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts. The men discussed finding a way to move some of the oldest cases.
Warren suggested sending an emergency judge to Guilford County, which would free up other judges to run a DWI cleanup calendar. Having an extra judge is a start. Jarrell approached the Guilford County Defense Bar, prosecutors and other district judges to see if they would be interested in having the extra court. Vaughan said some defense attorneys have reservations about the additional court, but, when they see cases being resolved more quickly, he thinks they’ll come on board. Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes agreed to provide an extra bailiff. And county clerk and court administrators agreed to take on additional workloads.
“We’ll be operating a full-time. DWI-only courtroom staffed by two assistant district attorneys and four of our resident district court judges,” Jarrell said. “We’ll take four judges through there every 28 days.” The court is expected to begin hearing cases the first week of January. The only hitch in the plan was location. A judge has to have a courtroom, and all 14 of the district courtrooms in Greensboro are in use. Then Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Lindsay Davis Jr., agreed to let the district judges borrow his courtroom. “It’s beautiful — I can’t wait to get in there,” Jarrell said. “It’s used mostly for big trials.”
The courtroom will address the most complex cases, Vaughan said. Plea agreements and simpler cases will continue to be resolved in traffic court. “I see our situation for defendants awaiting trial getting better,” Vaughan said. Vaughan said he has several clients whose cases have lingered for more than three years. Those old cases aren’t exceptions, he said. The case for a man who was charged in February of 2012 wasn’t heard until August this year — more than 4½ years after the citation was issued. It had been continued 20 times.
Another case was continued 19 times and lasted from August 2013 to Halloween this year. Delayed results from blood work and other toxicology results are often the cause of the delays in Vaughan’s caseload. When a defendant refuses to take a breath test, an officer can get a search warrant for his or her blood. The blood is then sent off to a lab to test for intoxicants, and the court cases are continued until the results are in. “These blood tests, we’ve got three different labs working on them,” Jarrell said. “And they just take time.”
Those labs are a combination of private labs and the state lab. “It’s a foul-up from the state of North Carolina,” Vaughan said. “We haven’t devoted resources to these types of cases.”
A problem with the “blood cases,” he said, is that the blood can’t simply be sent to a lab. It has to be documented meticulously. Every person who handles the sample has to document its chain of custody. The process is speeding up, he said. Results are now arriving in three to four months. “The situation is getting better,” Vaughan said. “So I see our situation for defendants awaiting trial getting better.”
Who is charged?
Another element of this backlog: It’s not just alcohol that is covered by the DWI law. People driving under the influence of narcotics also face the charge. But narcotics won’t show up in a breath test, Officer A.D. Reed, a drug recognition expert, said. With training, an officer can see that a defendant is “appreciably or noticeably impaired,” Reed said. “When they blow double-zeroes and the officer suspects an impairment,” Reed said, “we officers choose what kind of chemical test we want to have.”
Jarrell said blood cases do appear to be a great drag on the court system, but they only make up about 20 percent of the cases awaiting trial. There are other reasons the cases pile up in the courts — such as efforts by law enforcement to reduce drinking and driving. “We have an unbelievably productive task force,” Jarrell said. “They have probably 2,000 of the pending cases.”
Sobriety checkpoints find more than alcohol
Sgt. Kevin Wallace of the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office operates Greater Guilford County’s DWI Task Force. All the task force does is conduct checkpoints for DWIs and seat-belt use.
The unit is made up of Wallace, two other sheriff’s deputies, and two officers each from High Point and Greensboro police. “One thing we have noticed an increase in is drug impairment,” he said. “We have all these kids less than 21 years old smoking marijuana and driving.” He has two drug recognition experts on his team. “They go through pharmaceutical courses,” he said. “They know all these drugs and how they affect your body.” Wallace said the experts can tell what nature of narcotic is affecting a defendant.
Since its inception in October 2012, the task force has issued 3,955 citations for intoxicated drivers — more than 82 per month or 990 per year. Members have also cited 210 people with aiding and abetting DWI, which carries similar penalties. At the same time, members cited 2,620 people for not using seat belts. Additionally, the sheriff’s office and the Highway Patrol each issue hundreds of DWIs in the county each year. Data show that Greensboro officers outside the task force cite on average 756 people each year for DWI, and High Point officers average 470 citations issued each year.
Most of these defendants end up in Guilford County traffic court. And the officers who issue the citations have to be available to testify when cases go to trial. The back halls of the courthouse can be filled with officers, although most only schedule court days once a month, Reed said. “That’s for domestic (violence), DWI, speeding, any charges we make,” he said. “We also have it where we get called in on our off days to testify as well.”
Members of the task force, on the other hand, when the cleanup court begins in early January, will be scheduled to work checkpoints on nights for three weeks, then attend court for the fourth week of a month, Wallace said. That makes the task force members’ schedules a little more helpful to the courts, Jarrell said. Vaughan said he hopes the cleanup court will mean law enforcement officers spend less time in courthouses. “We really want them out on the roads patrolling,” Vaughan said, “not sitting and watching other cases.”
Despite law enforcement crackdowns and education programs aimed at informing drivers about the risks of intoxicated driving, people continue to drive impaired, Wallace said.
The initial four-year grant for the task force expired in October but will continue to be funded at 25 percent by the N.C. Governor’s Highway Safety Program because it has been so productive, Wallace said.
In its first year, the grant paid for salaries and all the vehicles, trailers, cones, blood-test kits and other equipment the task force uses. Most of the materials are still used. Squad cars have about 70,000 miles on them and are expected to last another two years, Wallace said. High Point and the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office now pay 75 percent of employees salaries and benefits for their officers on the task force. The grant pays the rest. Greensboro Police Department also has two full-time employees on the task force. The department pays 100 percent of their salaries and benefits.
More and more
Wallace said he sees progress, but it’s slow. “You’ve got so many people in Guilford County driving impaired,” Wallace said. “They feel like it’s OK to do that.” Every weekend the task force issues multiple charges, and the number of people facing DWI charges increases, Jarrell said.
And that’s why Jarrell has begun preparing for the first 2017 court dates now. Judges who will work the DWI cleanup court have to be scheduled. A court calendar has to be generated. Subpoenas need to be sent to officers so they can be ready to go. “So we feel like,” Jarrell said, “by giving this much lead time to January — all those things will be in place.”
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