Senate takes fast action to close speed loopholes

Staff WritersMay 24, 2007 

The state Senate hurriedly approved a bill Wednesday that would help slow down high-speed drivers and repeat offenders.

Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand, a Fayetteville Democrat, explained the bill in only a minute or two. There were no questions, no comments, and almost no opposition. The vote was 49-1. The bill now goes to the House, where it will be considered later in the year.

Rand's bill would restrict the number of special plea bargains available to drivers and prohibit judges from granting prayers for judgment continued for speeders traveling more than 30 mph above the limit.

"As you have recently read in the paper, there has certainly been a very significant discussion about the speeding charges in North Carolina," Rand told the Senate.

In "Speed Unlimited," a series that ended Sunday, The News & Observer reported easy deals for extremely high-speed drivers and chronic speeders. The newspaper reported that 30 percent of all speeding charges are being reduced to "improper equipment," the next best thing to an outright dismissal. And these pleas are not recorded on the driver's record.

The N&O also reported that some judges were granting prayers for judgment continued for drivers traveling 100 mph or more. A PJC essentially wipes the charge off the driver's record, allowing the driver to avoid insurance penalties and loss of license.

Rand's legislation first appeared in a Senate committee Tuesday, and he brought the bill to the floor Wednesday afternoon. Only Sen. Austin Allran, a Hickory Republican, opposed it. The bill would:

* Require that charges bargained down to "improper equipment -- speedometer" be recorded on the driver's official record at the state Division of Motor Vehicles.

An improper equipment conviction means no loss of license and no increase in the driver's auto insurance. Under current law, officers and prosecutors often can't tell by looking at a DMV record that they are dealing with a chronic speeder.

"Now, you can get 10 improper equipments and there's no indication on the record that you've ever had a speeding charge," Rand told senators.

* Prohibit drivers charged with speeding more than 30 mph over the limit from receiving an "improper equipment -- speedometer" plea deal from a district attorney or a PJC from a judge.

Under current law, a judge may grant a PJC regardless of how fast the driver was going, or how many miles per hour over the speed limit. The same goes for an improper equipment plea.

That provision in Rand's bill would affect almost 20 percent of the drivers charged with speeding in excess of 30 mph over the limit. Over the five-year period ending last June, about 15 percent of those speeders got PJCs and almost 5 percent were allowed to plead to improper equipment -- speedometer.

* Allow drivers to have only two speeding charges reduced to improper equipment -- speedometer in a five-year period. Under current law, they can get an unlimited number; one driver had been given 21 in five years.

This provision would affect thousands of speeders. 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.

About 90 percent of those improper equipment pleas were linked to speedometers. Most of the rest were pleas to improper mufflers or steering mechanisms. Rand said he wasn't aware of that when he prepared the bill.

"We'll try to close that loophole in the House," he said.

Rand was in a hurry to get Senate approval of the speeding law changes to beat this week's "crossover" deadline. Bills that don't involve spending or taxes that are not approved by either the Senate or House by this evening are considered dead.

(Database editor David Raynor contributed to this report.)

Staff writer Pat Stith can be reached at 829-4537 or pat.stith@newsobserver.com.

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