The Johnston County DWI Court is back in session.
The special court reopened May 5 at the request of District Attorney Susan Doyle, who wanted to address the growing backlog of driving-while-impaired cases in the county.
The court is targeting the oldest cases first, and it has already shown significant results, according to Doyle’s office.
As of January, Johnston had 1,402 DWI cases pending, and 54 of those were more than five years old. In the court’s first month, the number of pending cases fell to 1,073, and the total older than five years plummeted to only eight. Those are drops of 23 percent and 85 percent, respectively.
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In addition to the backlog, Johnston County law enforcement officers charged another 315 drivers with DWI from January to June.
In a statement, Doyle thanked Chief District Court Judge Jackie Lee, who secured a state grant to reopen the DWI Court.
“Being able to resolve driving-while-impaired cases in a more expeditious manner increases public safety and makes our highways safer in Johnston County,” Doyle said. “Ideally, we should be able to resolve a (DWI) case within the first year after charge.”
The state created the Johnston DWI Court in 2008 in response to a DWI ticket-fixing scandal that sent several attorneys to jail. The scandal involved attorneys and an assistant prosecutor who colluded to get dozens of DWI cases dropped illegally. The court operated until 2012 with funding from the Governor’s Highway Safety Program.
The DWI Court holds sessions roughly once a week, and it has convened seven times since May 5.
It’s still early, Smithfield attorney Walter Schmidlin said, but the new DWI Court seems to be an improvement over the old one.
For one thing, the old court relied on judges from neighboring counties, which caused some controversy in the legal community. In 2010, Lillington lawyer Jesse Jones filed a motion contending the court violated the state constitution, which mandates that the people elect the District Court judges who serve them.
This time around, Andy Corbett Jr., a retired District Court judge who worked in Johnston, is presiding over all of the cases.
Having a judge who was elected locally several times over the years makes a big difference, Schmidlin said. “The people of Johnston County trust him, and we (lawyers) trust him,” he said.
Schmidlin has had one case heard in the new DWI Court since it opened, and he was pleased with the way it operated. In general, Schmidlin said, having a court dedicated just to DWI charges makes the legal process much more efficient.
“In a regular court, there’s 400 cases on the calendar and you don’t know whether your case will be heard,” he said. “In DWI Court, you have a much better idea that your case is going to go, so everyone is prepared.”
Reporter Colin Campbell contributed.