A new state audit finds that North Carolina has failed to make detailed information about DWI cases publicly available, despite a seven-year-old law that was intended to do that.
The 2006 law came in response to a Charlotte Observer investigation disclosing how thousands of impaired driving suspects avoid court punishment, even after testing over the legal alcohol limit.
The stories showed that N.C. judges were acquitting more than a third of DWI suspects who tested over the legal alcohol limit – and that conviction rates ranged from more than 90 percent in some counties to less than 10 percent in others.
The law required the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts to make detailed information about DWI cases publicly available on its internet page. Among other things, the law called for sharing information about how individual judges and prosecutors disposed of cases.
The new report by the state auditor’s office found that AOC has not made much of the required data publicly available.
“Because AOC has not made detailed DWI case data readily available on its public website, the public’s ability to evaluate court performance and determine if state DWI laws have been applied equitably is limited,” the audit states.
The transparency requirements were to become effective after the AOC revamped its computerized criminal information system.
“Although it has been almost seven years since the Legislature created the law, AOC has not yet completed the rewrite of its criminal information system that would make the law effective and the disclosure requirements mandatory,” the audit states.
In its response to the audit report, the state Administrative Office of the Courts agreed that it should make more detailed information publicly available. But making the computer upgrades necessary for more detailed reporting will require an additional $25 million, the office said.
The AOC’s technology budget has been cut in recent years, from $45 million in fiscal year 2011 to $29 million in fiscal year 2013, the office said. Subsequent funding cuts made the transition “even more challenging,” the office said.
The AOC posts general information about DWI cases in an annual statistical report, but fails to provide more specific information that could prove useful to policy makers and the public, the reports says.
Among the pieces of information not posted on the AOC’s website:
• The types of dispositions by county, judge, prosecutor and defense lawyer.
• The amount of fines, costs and fees ordered at the disposition of charges.
• Information about compliance with court-ordered sanctions, such as substance abuse assessment and treatment.
High dismissal rates
The audit also found that the AOC does not look for unusually high DWI dismissal rates – a practice that could help the office identify significant weaknesses, errors or fraud.
For instance, the report said, an investigation several years ago found that defense lawyers had used the signature of a former Johnston County assistant district attorney to illegally authorize DWI dismissals.
Johnston County had an unusually high DWI dismissal rate in 2006. But the state did not select the county for an audit based on those numbers, the auditor’s office noted.
In fiscal year, 2011-2012, a number of counties – including Mecklenburg – had DWI dismissal rates that were more than twice the state’s average, the report noted.
Mecklenburg County Deputy District Attorney Bart Menser said those numbers are skewed because a new state computer system required the county to purge old warrants.
In response to the state report, the AOC said it is now examining whether available data could be used to improve its audit program
Joe Hackney, a former state lawmaker from Chapel Hill who sponsored the 2006 DWI law, said he thinks the problems highlighted by the auditor’s office stem from financial cuts, not AOC negligence.
“I know the funding has been slashed in ways that have been very damaging to the court system,” he said. “We should get the courts fully funded again.”
LaRonda Scott, executive director of North Carolina’s Mothers Against Drunk Driving office, said in a written statement that she found the audit’s findings “disheartening.” But she said they reinforce the importance of MADD’s court monitoring program.
“The public has a strong interest in knowing how these cases are being handled and that the law is being used properly to ensure the safety of our roads,” Scott said.
Staff Writer Gavin Off contributed.
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