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Prosecutor eyes low DWI conviction rate

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SMITHFIELD — A state prosecutor says the conviction rate for impaired driving cases in Johnston County District Court is lower than other North Carolina counties.

While Lanny Freeman said he was concerned about Johnston County’s low DWI conviction rate, he won’t be filing a complaint about the local court with the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission.

Freeman is one of the state’s five Regional Traffic Safety Resource prosecutors. He assisted the Johnston County District Attorney’s Office during February’s DWI Week, a special court session in which only DWI cases are heard.

“While I disagreed with some of the rulings that week, I will not be making a complaint to Judicial Standards,” said Freeman. “Judges are to be independent and attorneys are to defer to the rulings of the court. I see this more as an issue for the citizens of Johnston County to determine for themselves. “

Freeman said it’s up to the public to make informed decisions and determine which steps need to be taken.

Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell said it’s time District Court judges were held accountable.

“We need to make the public aware of our concerns,” said Bizzell. “It’s time the people held the judges accountable.”

District Court judges are elected officials who serve four-year terms. None are up for re-election this November.

The high rate of DWI dismissals in the February proceedings prompted a WRAL investigative report by Cullen Browder featuring a press conference in which District Attorney Susan Doyle and Sheriff Steve Bizzell were joined by state law enforcement officials and every municipal police chief in Johnston County.

A phone call to the office of Senior District Court Judge Jackie Lee, who appeared in the WRAL report, was not returned.

“The WRAL story focused primarily on the dismissal rate, which is itself concerning, but cases can be dismissed for a variety of reasons,” said Freeman. “I believe the conviction rate would be a better reference for comparison.”

The overall conviction rate in Johnston County’s February DWI week was 48 percent, said Freeman. His office compiled numbers by assisting other counties all over the state in multi-day court sessions like Johnston County’s.

“From 2015-17, our worst overall conviction rate was 70 percent, excluding sessions in Johnston, Harnett and Lee counties,” said Freeman.

Freeman said the overall conviction rate for 2015 was 86 percent, 90 percent in 2016 and 93 percent in 2017.

“No one expects to win every case,” said Freeman. “However, DWI cases are usually not a ‘whodunnit.’ The state only need prove that the defendant operated a vehicle on a street, highway or public vehicular area and was impaired.”

Freeman said the officer on the scene usually has firsthand knowledge of most or all elements of the alleged crime.

“Cases are now largely captured on video,” said Freeman. “So the judges can evaluate the evidence themselves as well as weigh the testimony of the officers.”

Freeman said under state law, “the results of a chemical analysis shall be sufficient evidence to prove a person’s alcohol concentration.”

“While DWI cases can be highly technical, they are not a case that’s particularly difficult for the state to prove,” said Freeman.

To blame the low conviction rate on “a lack of preparation by the state would be ridiculous,” said Freeman.

“No matter who your opponent is, they can’t change the facts of the case,” Freeman explained.

Freeman said there were three prosecutors, including himself, assigned to the courtroom that week in Johnston County.

“We met beforehand to discuss our trial strategy, division of labor and assignments,” said Freeman. “ The Johnston County (assistant district attorneys) already had files put together, the law enforcement videos were available on their server and they were already very familiar with the cases.”

Freeman said it was evident the state had put a lot of effort in to selecting the cases to be heard and had notified arresting officers to be present.

“We took files home each night to prepare for the cases the following day,” said Freeman. “We argued the issues to the best of our ability and provided case law to back up our arguments. The officers did a fine job testifying and video was played that illustrated their testimony.”

Freeman said Johnston County has some of the state’s best prosecutors.

“The two ADAs assigned to DWI court that week had recently been to a training session I taught,” said Freeman. “They were very knowledable regarding DWI cases.”

Freeman explained why he decided to speak out.

“It’s not intended to be critical of any particular individual. I decided to speak out because I saw the impact it’s had on Johnston County prosecutors, law enforcement and public safety,” said Freeman. “I hope they keep their heads up and keep doing their best work. Most citizens are hard at work and cannot take a day off work to make sure the local court system is functioning properly.

“I hope these stories help provide the information to keep the general public informed of the issues that are present,” Freeman added “As I heard Chief District Court Judge Scott Ussery say last week in a misdemeanor death case, ‘If we ever stop striving for perfection in our system, then we have failed.’ There is much that can be done to improve our justice system.”

Freeman serves 18 counties in his region and assists other counties, including Johnston, as requested.

“Our task is to assist with high volume impaired driving court dates, special DWI court sessions, conflict cases, and readiness through education and training,” said Freeman.

Freeman has been a practicing attorney since 2009, a prosecutor since 2012 and has served in his current role since 2015.

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