DWI convictions, sentencing needs uniformity

by Jim Longworth

DWI convictions, sentencing needs uniformity

Seven years ago the Charlotte Observer reported something that we already knew: DWI sentencing was inconsistent from county to county, and from court to court. But the Observer also backed up its story with specific data that could no longer be ignored. For example, their investigation found that North Carolina judges acquit about one-third of all DWI cases. Even more disturbing, the Observer found that while some counties convicted 90 percent of drunk drivers, others convicted 10 percent.

The General Assembly had seen enough, and passed a law requiring the state Administrative Office of Courts to collect, maintain, and make public the data as to how all DWI cases were disposed of. Sounds like a reasonable request, but earlier this month, a state audit revealed that the AOC had failed to make their DWI records readily available on the internet as directed. The AOC told McClatchy Tribune that its non-compliance was due to budget cuts.

Hopefully, in time, the AOC will gets its act together so that we can accurately analyze and explain sentencing discrepancies. The immediate and long-term problem, however, remains. How do we guarantee uniform sentencing, so that someone who blows a .08 in Manteo receives the same pun ishment as someone who blows a .08 in Murfreesboro?

Perhaps such inconsistencies in sentencing, particularly with regards to cases of absurd leniency, wouldn’t be such a big deal if the drunk driver was the only person affected. Unfortunately, too often others are involved, and even killed. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, more than 16,000 people die in alcohol-related crashes each year. That translates to one death every 30 minutes. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that drunk drivers get behind the wheel 112 million times per year, and 30 people die every day as a result, one death every 48 minutes. No matter which study you cite, neither is encouraging. But when sentencing of these killers isn’t uniformly strict enough, those statistics become even more grim. MADD reports that one-third of all motorists arrested for drunk driving go on to become repeat offenders.

All of a sudden, AOC’s failure to report on inconsistent convictions and sentencing looms large, and should produce an immediate call to action. It hasn’t. A few days ago I talked with a sitting judge to try and understand why things are so bad, and why such discrepancies exist in sentencing which often lead to acquittals of drunk drivers. The judge spoke on condition of anonymity.

“I think it’s how judges interpret the law. The district attorney either approaches a conviction with proof beyond a reasonable doubt of appreciable impairment [meaning there are no test results available, and the case relies on the arresting officer’s assessment of the driver’s behavior], or you can go for a conviction based on impairment as shown in blood alcohol levels. There are some judges who feel you have to do both. It’s interesting to listen to them. I don’t know whether it’s generational, or the way they were raised, or the way they feel, but you might blow a .08 [and be acquitted] because you might not have seemed appreciably impaired. I think that’s where some of the breakdown might occur. But you also have to look at what point people are found not guilty, or had their case dismissed. Did the case survive pre trial motions? Did it survive reasonable suspicion? Did it survive probable cause? And then, if you survive those, was the State able to prove [its case] beyond a reasonable doubt?” Despite all of these permutations, the judge I spoke with still thinks the existing state statutes are clear on their face, but admitted that something needs to be done.

“A district attorney or someone from the state would have to appeal a judge’s finding that a person was not guilty even though he blew a .08 or above, and then try to get some clarification through case law.”

Until that time comes, we must all remain vigilant and stay informed. Most local newspapers publish reports on DWI cases, and we need to pay attention to which judges are handing down convictions with tough sentencing, versus which judges demonstrate a pattern of leniency. Those who fall in the latter category can be voted out of office while we wait on the general assembly to create a more uniform sentencing law.

Our pledge of allegiance boasts that, in America, there is justice for all. Our symbol for guaranteeing that pledge is a statue depicting Lady Justice as blind. How then can judges continue to only issue justice for some, with their eyes wide open? It’s a question that must be answered before more lives are lost.

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15).