DWI charges hard to escape

Eight in 10 convicted in 2012-13
Oct. 29, 2013 @ 10:42 AM

Investigators say Bradley Poovey was driving on Alfred Hartley Road, just outside Lenoir, early morning of Oct. 11 when he struck a newspaper delivery driver. Late that same night, investigators say, Gregory Cannon struck a vehicle on Knox Sherrill Place near Lower Creek, injuring himself, the driver and a passenger of the other car. Both men were charged with driving while impaired.

Thirteen years ago, Poovey and Cannon would have had nearly even odds of not being convicted. Now, only one out of five DWI defendants in Caldwell County avoid being convicted. According to data from the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts, the percenage of those charged with DWI who were convicted has risen from 56 percent in fiscal year 2000-01 to 80 percent in 2012-13.

The same pattern is reflected throughout the 25th Judicial District, which is made up of Burke, Caldwell and Catawba counties.

Nationally only 60 to 70 percent of DWI cases result in convictions, said Frank Harris, state legislative affairs manager for the the Mothers Against Drunk Driving national office in Washington.

"This reflects well on law enforcement and the district attorney's office," Harris said.

How the 25th District compares to other jurisdictions within North Carolina is not clear. Sharon Gladwell, a spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the Courts, said that the AOC database could not provide even comparisons.

District Attorney Jay Gaither said he has taken a hard line in DWI cases since he was first elected in 2002.

"When I was first elected to represent Caldwell County as district attorney, I entered into an office that had a history of plea-bargaining drunk driving cases, even when there was sufficient evidence to gain a conviction," Gaither said. "This practice encouraged repeat offenders and created an atmosphere in which law enforcement did not feel as if their efforts and sacrifice were valued."

According to the figures provided by Gaither's office, in the two years before Gaither took office, the charges were reduced in a total of 459 DWI cases in the entire 25th District, though none of them were in Caldwell County; 240 of those reductions were in fiscal year 2001-02. In fiscal 2003-04, the first full fiscal year that Gaither was in office, the number of reductions dropped to 15: one in Caldwell, eight in Catawba and six in Burke. In fiscal 2012-13, there was one, and it was in Catawba County.

Gaither's tenure also coincided with both a state and national change in attitudes about drinking and driving.

In 2000, a federal transportation law signed by President Bill Clinton pushed most states to drop the blood-alcohol level at which drivers are presumed to be drunk to 0.08 percent by 2004. In most states at the time, the level had been 0.10 percent. The law also called for even tougher limits for commercial drivers -- 0.04 percent -- and no allowable alcohol level at all for underage drivers.

In February 2011, the N.C. General Assembly passed Laura's Law, named in honor of Laura Fortenbury, a Gaston County teenager killed in July 2010 when Howard Pasour, a repeat drunken driver, ran into her. The law gives more jail time and higher fines to anyone convicted of impaired driving in North Carolina under certain aggravating factors. Pasour had three prior DWI convictions. and was drunk when he hit Fortenbury. He was sentenced for her death and could spend the next 28 years behind bars.

A bill under consideration in the General Assembly would allow someone to be convicted as a habitual offender on the third DWI conviction instead of the fourth.

And the National Transportation Safety Board is recommending that the blood-alcohol limit be reduced nationwide to 0.05 percent, saying that a driver stands only half the the risk of crash with that level of alcohol than with 0.08 percent.

The tougher laws and greater attention to DWI cases by law enforcement may have contributed to a higher conviction rate because casual drinkers became convinced of the danger of an accident, the higher risk of getting caught and the stiffer penalties it would carry. The total number of DWI cases filed in the 25th District has dropped considerably since the 2000-01 fiscal year, from 2,882 then to 2,361 in Gaither's first full fiscal year in office to 1,406 in 2012-13. In Caldwell County, there were 711 cases in 2000-01 and just 340 last year.

BY THE NUMBERS

Drinking and driving in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010):

• 112 million -- Number of times adults reported drinking and driving

• 85 percent -- Percentage of drinking-and-driving episodes attributed to binge drinkers

• 4 in 5 -- The proportion of people who drink and drive who are men