The Guilford County judicial system is getting a brand new court – one geared toward helping reduce what has become a giant backlog of driving while impaired (DWI) cases.
The Guilford County DWI Trial Court, which will be designated specifically for those charged with driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, was made possible through a coordinated effort of area justice officials along with some help from the state.
Guilford County Chief District Court Judge Tom Jarrell said the county’s court system currently has 4,226 pending DWI cases. By contrast, Mecklenburg County – the state’s largest county, with nearly double the population of Guilford County – has a backlog of 3,184 cases.
The current average age of pending DWI cases in Guilford County is 19 months. Jarrell said there was widespread agreement among Guilford County justice system officials that action was necessary.
Concerned about the recalcitrant and increasing backlog, Jarrell and Guilford County District Attorney Doug Henderson began talks that have led to the coming DWI court.
“Doug Henderson and I sat down and said we need to do something about the situation,” Jarrell said of the huge backlog.
Jarrell said court workers of all types got on board with the plan and he added that prosecutors, public defenders, clerk of courts staff and others have worked hard and will alter their schedules to run the DWI court.
According to Jarrell, the NC Administrative Office of the Court (AOC) is assigning an emergency judge to help out in Guilford County for six months while the county attempts to address its backlog with the new court.
“It will be in courtroom 3-D, as in ‘DWI,’” Jarrell said of the court, adding that it will be officially in place on Jan. 1. (It might have some added DWI cases the day after New Year’s Eve as well.)
Jarrell said the court will be established in the Greensboro courthouse where the need is the greatest, but he added that a similar operation could be set up in High Point once the court in Greensboro is up and running and the kinks are worked out.
“I plan to do the same thing in High Point,” Jarrell said.
According to Jarrell, two prosecutors will be assigned to the DWI court and there will be a rotation of judges who will hear those cases. He said the various assignments to the DWI court will be forthcoming. Cases moved to the new court will be those in which people have pleaded not guilty. Some will be cases continued from traffic court in courtroom 1-D.
“It’s not for pleas of guilty, which will stay in 1-D,” Jarrell said.
That typically jam-packed courtroom is well known to many county citizens who have been unfortunate enough to wait long hours there along with perhaps 500 or 600 other drivers to deal with a traffic infraction.
Jarrell said one reason for Guilford County’s huge backlog of DWI cases is that this area has a very effective multi-agency law enforcement task force focused on getting drunk drivers and other impaired drivers off the road.
“I think we have the world’s most productive task force,” Jarrell said.
That unit, headed up by Guilford County Sheriff’s Department Sgt. Kevin Wallace, consists of two officers from the Greensboro Police Department, two from the High Point Police Department and three Guilford County Sheriff’s Department deputies plus an educator. Those officers work largely on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights with their focus being DWI enforcement as well as catching other motor vehicle violations in the process.
While most DWI cases are brought against drunk drivers, they often include those of drivers impaired by other substances as well. With the rise in heroin use, especially in the High Point area, for instance, officers sometimes see cases involving drivers under the influence of that drug.
Jarrell said one major cause of the backlog is slowness of the state’s criminal lab in Raleigh.
“Part of the problem has been the blood test were not coming back,” Jarrell said.
He said Guilford County could, however, try those cases where all the lab results were back or where local breathalyzer results were being used.
In some DWI cases, officers have gotten a search warrant to take a blood sample that was sent to the state lab and the lab can take a year or more to conduct the test and send the results back.
Jarrell said that the long wait times for lab results interfere with the swift dispensation of justice.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Jarrell said.
He added that the clerk to court, the DA’s and the public defenders, along with others in the court system, had worked very well together to make the new court a reality.
“I can’t thank everyone enough for coming together on this,” he said.
According to Jarrell, the state is sending a judge to Guilford County for the first six months of 2017. He said Guilford County has a persistent judge shortage that hurts its ability to try cases as fast as it should. Guilford County, which has 14 judge slots, is now down a judge as it awaits an appointment by Gov. Pat McCrory.
Jarrell said he’s very optimistic about the prospects for addressing the problem.
“We think this will cut into our DWI backlog considerably,” he said.
Like others attempting to address the problem, Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes said the two main causes of the current DWI backlog are the highly active task force and the state’s slow crime lab. Barnes said the crime lab overseen by NC Attorney General Roy Cooper has been doing an abysmally poor job in getting results back to this area. The sheriff is a close friend of McCrory, who seeking reelection as governor in a battle with Cooper, and the state’s crime lab has been a key issue in that debate. Barnes said that, in this case, the criticism of the state lab isn’t political, but is instead just a simple statement of fact.
“He didn’t fix the problem,” Barnes said, alluding to some current Cooper campaign ads that suggest otherwise. “It has literally taken us years in some cases to get results back.”
“I don’t like to politicize law enforcement, but in this particular case it is really holding us back,” the sheriff said of the state’s crime lab.
Barnes added that all area justice officials being open and honest about the issue would also state the crime lab was a major part of the problem.
Barnes also said that it’s not just DWI cases where getting results from the lab is absurdly slow.
“We’ve also got issues with rape kits,” Barnes said, adding that that was why Guilford County and other counties in the state were attempting to conduct more testing themselves. He said that sometimes the long delays and other complications make it hard to get the case tried and, in some cases, they end up being dismissed.
“It’s a perfect storm,” Barnes said.
Barnes also praised the work of the DWI task force, which he said catches a lot of people who have had too much to drink and then got behind the wheel.
“The DA’s are doing the best they can,” Barnes said, “but they can’t get the results back from the state,” adding that the lack of enough judges was also an issue.
Guilford County Chief Assistant District Attorney Howard Neumann also listed the state lab is a major part of Guilford County’s problem.
“There is a huge backlog in Raleigh,” Neumann said.
He said that, with blood drawn today, it might take 90 to 120 days to get the results back, and he added that those results have often taken much longer – even years. He said that, in some cases, the state has held blood samples for a very long time and then sent them to a private lab in Pennsylvania, which meant the results took even longer. According to Neumann, when there are long delays in getting test results back, it makes prosecuting those cases more difficult for a number of reasons.
He added that the shortage judges and court staff has also led to problems.
“We’re just dealing with the resources we have,” Neumann said.
Guilford County District Court Judge Randle Jones – who is running for election to the seat he was appointed in 2014 and is facing off against opponent Tonia Cutchin – also said that having a fair system means trying these cases in a timely manner.
“The judges and attorneys are all looking to address it in order to ensure a fair trial,” Jones said.
Jones said the frustration level at the state backlogs is often very high in the courthouse.
“I’ve known attorneys who wanted permission to send it to private labs,” he said.
The judge said law enforcement in this area is very aggressive in dealing with impaired driving. He said that the new DWI court is a proactive step that Guilford County can take to clear up that backlog.