In the 16 months since legislators tried to close loopholes that let the fastest speeders avoid harsh penalties, some judges and prosecutors have ignored the new laws or found ways around them.
Nearly 12 percent of those charged with driving more than 25 mph over the speed limit got breaks that legislators tried to outlaw, according to records from the Administrative Office of the Courts. Prosecutors since December 2007 have been forbidden from allowing those speeders to blame their indiscretion on broken speedometers; also, they forbid judges from granting "prayers for judgment continued," a forgiveness of sorts, in these cases.
Across the state, the rate at which these high-speed drivers were found guilty as charged hasn't improved. In most districts, there was a surge in another type of deal: reducing the charge to 10 mph or less over the limit. That break spares insurance rate increases and points on a driver's record.
Sen. Tony Rand, a Fayetteville Democrat who helped shepherd the legislation in 2007, was flabbergasted.
"What do they want me to do? Pass another bill this session saying I really meant the one we passed in 2007?" Rand said after being presented with the findings of a News & Observer analysis.
The legislature's action in 2007 followed an N&O series that found speeders are rarely punished in North Carolina. Overall, only about 17 percent of speeders are found guilty as charged; that rate didn't change after the law did. Conviction rates are even lower for the fastest drivers.
North Carolina courts have long been overwhelmed by the volume of speeding tickets. Since December 2007, law enforcement officers ticketed more than 779,562 speeders. In some district courts, hundreds of drivers report each morning seeking painless resolution to their ticket. Prosecutors and judges oblige, saying they don't have the resources to try even a handful of speeding cases a day.
All the while, North Carolinians continue to die in speed-related crashes. Across the state, an average of more than eight people died each week in speed-related crashes, according to the UNC Highway Safety School. That's a slight reduction from 2006.
A Highway Patrol spokesman said he is disappointed. "The Highway Patrol will continue to work hard to make a difference on our highways," said Capt. Everett Clendenin. "We hope the courts will join us in our effort."
In almost all districts, judges and lawyers granted concessions since 2007 that the legislature had banned. Some have done it more regularly than others. In Johnston County, which has seen a rash of speed-related crashes involving teenagers, 94 drivers caught speeding more than 25 mph over the limit were found guilty of having a broken speedometer -- a break legislators say they outlawed in 2007.
In Wake County, judges granted 362 prayers for judgment continued, a resolution that, in effect, wards off insurance and driving record penalties.
In the Triangle:
In Johnston County, a trooper clocked Alexander Michael Green, then 16, driving 80 mph in a 55 mph zone on a rural highway in January 2008. Three months later, a prosecutor granted a request from his attorney to plead guilty to having a broken speedometer. In August of 2008, the Smithfield teenager was ticketed for traveling 75 mph in a 55 mph zone. Again, he pleaded guilty to improper equipment.
In Wake County, a Raleigh police officer stopped Susan Lynn Deyton speeding through a school zone at 52 mph as school let out. In court, the prosecutor dismissed the speeding charge and changed it to reckless driving, enabling Wake District Court Judge Shelley Desvouges to grant a prayer for judgment.
A state trooper stopped Amanda Gray Ennis, then 16, in September, clocking her at 96 mph on Interstate 40 in Johnston County. Prosecutors agreed to let Ennis plead guilty to improper equipment -- the broken speedometer strategy.
The Division of Motor Vehicles, which logs speeding convictions, caught about 176 of the cases resolved in violation of the new law. But 160 of those speeders returned to court and negotiated other kinds of breaks, said DMV spokeswoman Marge Howell.
The new law specifies that drivers charged with going more than 25 mph over the limit are not eligible for certain concessions. But Robert Rader, Wake County chief District Court judge, said prosecutors can issue new charges in court, striking what the officer issued on the road.
Rader said he would send a memorandum to Wake County's District Court judges about the matter.
"It concerns me that some people have possibly gotten concessions beyond what they may deserve," Rader said Friday.
In 2008, Johnston District Attorney Susan Doyle began mandating that young drivers charged with speeding attend a driving school to receive a break on a ticket. She was trying to address the rash of teen fatalities.
She noted that the improper equipment pleas for high-rate speeders were a small share of all speeding tickets Johnston County courts handled.
"This was less than 1 percent of the total speeding cases filed in Johnston County in 2008," Doyle said. "It is important to treat repeat speeding offenders very seriously, since speed can kill. At the same time, it is also important to encourage drivers to take that extra step to complete beneficial driving schools in order to save lives."
Even legislators who helped tighten the laws were skeptical about the state's ability to press harder on speeders. Tickets can cost drivers big. Their insurance spikes; they could lose their licenses. As long as those pressures exist, court officials say, speeders and their attorneys will be shopping for bargains.
"Any charge is met with a corresponding attempt to avoid it," Rand said. "But the big question is, does anybody else care? I'm not sure they do."
Staff writer Sarah Nagem and news researcher Denise Jones contributed to this report.
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