Legislative leaders said Monday that the General Assembly should immediately begin plugging loopholes that allow chronic speeders and drivers charged with extremely high speeds to escape punishment.
House Speaker Joe Hackney and Senate leaders Marc Basnight and Tony Rand may differ on the details, but they agree on major points. The three legislators say, for example, that in high-speed cases, judges should not be permitted to hand out prayers for judgment continued. A PJC keeps a speeder from losing his license and paying higher auto insurance premiums.
In the final installment of a four-part series, "Speed Unlimited," The News & Observer reported that District Court Judge William "Pete" Hunter of Guilford County gave PJCs to 101 of the 100 mph speeders who asked him for a break in the last four and a half years.
"Who would have ever thought that judges were acting in this way?" said Basnight, a Democrat from Manteo who is president pro tem of the Senate.
Rand, a Fayetteville Democrat who is Senate majority leader, outlined steps he said the legislature should take now to strengthen enforcement. He also said the legislature should authorize a study later this year of other speed-related laws, including harsh insurance penalties and their impact on overcrowded traffic courts.
Under current law, for example, a driver with a clean record charged with driving 81 mph in a 70 mph zone faces mandatory loss of license for 30 days and an 80 percent increase in insurance costs for three years. Over the years, legislators have created several ways for drivers to avoid penalties that legislators themselves created.
Rand said some fixes could be made now, including:
* Requiring the state Division of Motor Vehicles to record "improper equipment -- speedometer" convictions on a driver's record. Statewide, about 30 percent of all speeding cases are pleaded down to improper equipment, helping speeders avoid loss of license and steep insurance penalties. Those convictions aren't recorded now, so police and district attorneys don't always know when they're dealing with a chronic speeder.
* Limiting improper equipment pleas to two in a five-year period. Under current law, there's no limit. In the five years ending June 30, 36,099 people charged with speeding were given three or more improper equipment pleas, according to an N&O analysis of data from the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts.
* Prohibiting judges from granting a prayer for judgment continued in high-speed cases. Depending on the speed limit in a particular case, that could include speeds of less than 100 mph, Rand said.
Hackney, who sponsored a bill in 2004 to rein in aggressive drivers, also says the legislature should give the state Highway Patrol more help.
"We really do need some more troopers on the road and more troopers in areas where speeding is really, really bad," said Hackney, an Orange County Democrat. "Tickets do cause a change in behavior."
Gov. Mike Easley's press office issued a statement Monday afternoon saying he read the newspaper's series and endorsing the legislative changes outlined by Rand.
"The Governor said he has been following your articles and you've hit the nail on the head," the statement said. "The Governor believes the steps are headed in the right direction, but more is needed."
Easley's office said the governor supports removing minor speeding tickets from District Court. They would be handled by magistrates.
Some rank-and-file citizens were also provoked by reports of chronic speeders' receiving meager punishment.
Don Mott of Cary became angry after reading The N&O's stories. On Sunday, he turned on his computer to write to the people who could clean up the mess, he said. He fired off an e-mail message to the governor, key legislators, court officials and the director of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys.
"I'm hoping that the people who have something in their pocket that says 'I'm boss' will do something about this," Mott said Monday.
To accomplish much, a leading district attorney said, the legislature will have to provide more money.
Garry Frank, president of the district attorneys' group and district attorney for Davie, Alexander, Davidson and Iredell counties, said tightening the laws on speeding could be helpful, but only if legislators provide money to allow prosecutors to handle cases properly.
"It would certainly give DAs their marching orders," Frank said. "But we have to make sure there are the funds to do it."
Action could extend to the city level. Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker said he will ask the city attorney to review Raleigh police officers' use of a city code violation to cite speeders. The N&O reported Sunday that Raleigh police treated about a quarter of the 20,000 people they reprimanded for speeding with a city code citation instead of a ticket for breaking state law. The city code citation carries no insurance or driving record penalties. Raleigh police have no policy on which drivers get this break.
(Database editor David Raynor and news researcher Brooke Cain contributed to this report.)
Staff writer Pat Stith can be reached at 829-4537 or email@example.com.