News Roundup

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Catharine Arrowood, the president of the North Carolina Bar Association, recently wrote this piece about court funding in North Carolina. It’s received considerable attention. The thrust of the argument is this: “[W]hile our population has been increasing by double digits and the technology and tools available to better serve a large and widespread population have been improving, we cut spending on our courts from 3% of our state budget to 2.2%. No wonder too many of our court personnel work extra jobs to make ends meet. No wonder we have been unable to implement a statewide electronic filing and case management system. No wonder we have insufficient money to conduct jury trials and pay court reporters.” The article indicates that the General Assembly may address the funding problem, but contends that structural reforms should also be considered, including moving to a regional, rather than county-based, system. It’s worth a read.

FBI director on race and policing. James Comey spoke at Georgetown University last week. The New York Times has video of the speech here together with a written summary. The topic was the relationship between police and minority communities. Comey addressed some of the factors that may lead officers of all races to react differently to minority citizens and suspects than to whites, and some of the historical reasons for minority communities’ mistrust of law enforcement. This is a big and complicated issue, and to my mind, it is nice to see someone with a big pulpit taking it on in a way that is candid, thoughtful, and focused on positive steps that can be taken on both sides.

Students work to improve police-citizen interactions. Speaking of positive steps, NPR just ran this story about students in Akron, Ohio, who have prepared “glossy, two-sided card[s] giving [young people] suggestions for dealing with police.” The idea is to prevent routine interactions from escalating to tragedy. The cards include suggestions like “[a]nswer all questions pertaining to your identity,” and “[d]o not ‘bad mouth’ or walk away from [police].” But they also recommend documenting and reporting officer misconduct and provide information about how to do so. A sample card is here. I’m interested in reactions to the content of the cards and in thoughts about whether communities in North Carolina could benefit from something similar.

Minority Report? Not exactly. Remember Minority Report, the science fiction thriller in which Tom Cruise’s character worked for the Department of PreCrime? Well, Forbes reports here that many major cities are now using PredPol, a “predictive policing software program that shovels historical crime data through a proprietary algorithm and spits out the . . . spots most likely to see crime” over the next few hours. The article characterizes the technology as “sexy but not quite proven,” noting that some departments have seen impressive results but that the sample size is still small. Unlike the Department of PreCrime, the software doesn’t identify individual suspects, and of course, no one can be arrested based on a prediction that he or she will commit a crime in the future.

A couple of quick tidbits. Two additional items caught my eye this week. One was this article about a Florida arrestee, charged with a bevy of drug and other offenses, who “listed his occupation on an arrest report as ‘drug dealer’.” I suppose it’s good to take pride in one’s work. Then I stumbled on this Slate article about how the South Carolina prison system responds to inmates’ use of Facebook – including indirect use by having a friend or family member update one’s status. The report asserts that “[o]ne inmate received a sentence of 37 years in isolation for repeated Facebook usage.” I don’t know the details so I’m not rushing to judgment. But there’s considerable research showing that long-term solitary confinement can have traumatic impacts, so if true, that sounds like a shockingly disproportionate response to a relatively minor disciplinary problem.

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7 comments on “News Roundup

  1. What’s the solution. Increase taxes in this already high tax state. Go to Tennessee, South Caroina or Virgina and notice the gas price of about $0.30/gallon less. NC has in income tax and every other kind of tax you would expect in New York or Massachusetts. Traffic court is a RICO organization where everyone is guilty of everything.

    • I for one do not understand the lines for traffic court either. Law enforcement officers enforce the laws as written and people continue to violate the law, which usually results in a court date when caught. So, let us blame the officers and the court for the backlog of cases, and not the poeple that decide to just violate the law with the hope of not getting caught. If people do not want their taxes to go up to help cover the cost of the courts, how about they raise the court cost and fines associated with the conviction of a violation of law? Then, the people that misuse the funds collected, ie wasteful spending and such, be held accountable. And there is the lawyers…. How about a limit be placed on the length of time a case can be continued before an automatic conviction or dismissal? I have seen DWI cases in court that are five years old. Who is to blame?

      • “Who is to blame?” Full disclosure: I’m a criminal defense attorney. I have a pretty large number of DWIs that are more than a year old, and several that are older than two years. The problems are lack of funding and prosecutor control (rather than judicial control) of the dockets. The state won’t fund the crime labs to pay for the analysts to appear in court, so the analysts never appear for the trial. The prosecutors continue the cases, hoping to wear out the defendants who run the risk of losing their jobs by coming to court over and over. The judges can’t do a huge amount, since the DAs control the dockets. And of course there’s a lot of political pressure from groups like MADD and SADD for cases not to be dismissed on “technicalities” like the U.S. and state Constitutions: due process, the right to confront the witnesses against you, and the right to a speedy trial.

        • T.J., I agree with you. You are correct about the prosecutors continuing cases hoping to wear out the defendants. However, the judges can do more than they do to improve the situation. The prosecutors create the calendars but the judges are responsible for the courtrooms, including the dockets once the prosecutors set the cases on the dockets. The judge in the courtroom can call the cases in any order he or she chooses. The courtroom judge does not have to delegate that responsibility to the prosecutor. A judge is derelict in his or her duty if he or she sits on the bench at length doing nothing while everyone in the courtroom waits on the prosecutor. I’ve often seen judges sit on the bench without a case being called for over an hour. If judges started calling cases on their own whenever prosecutors created 10 minutes of dead time I expect prosecutors would move things along considerably more efficiently.

      • The blame lies across a large number of people and state actors. Full disclosure: I am a defense attorney who is formerly a prosecutor, therefore I can truthfully say that I have seen the system from both sides. I prosecuted during the height of the recession and cutting of funding for the court system from 2009-2013. What I saw was a massive increase in the burden borne by the court system. Very often AOC or the general assembly would demand we add something else to the already overloaded job that ADA’s in district court are required to do, and they would do so without providing additional funding or resources to actually accomplish what they required. Also, the problems with the SBI lab became extremely pronounced during my time as an ADA.

        One major problem is that it is easy to say we have a problem (e.g. drunk/drugged driving, texting while driving, etc.), and legislatively demand that SOMETHING be done about it. And the general assembly passes a law without considering the implications of it (or consulting with the individuals who actually practice in district court).

        So this political pressure gets put on ADAs and law enforcement to prosecute certain types of cases, such as DWI’s where there was a blood draw. And through no fault of the ADA, the charging officer, the defendant, his attorney, or the judge the SBI lab gets so backed up, they take 2+ years to process the defendant’s blood. So what is the solution? How about funding the SBI lab so there are enough analysts to handle blood DWI cases in a timely manner, and then paying the analysts enough to keep them from running to the private sector? How about paying ADAs enough that they don’t run off to the private sector, like I did? How about putting enough money into the courts to hire enough clerks, ADAs, and bailiffs to run enough courts to manage all the cases? How about not criminalizing every petty violation of a traffic regulation and sending the violator off to CRIMINAL court and further choking the crowded dockets?

        So, in a nutshell, the problems lie with the general assembly, who ask the courts to make bricks without straw. (And then if you dare to complain, you are told to be grateful you have mud with which to make the bricks)

        And remember, ADAs get in trouble for dismissing DWI cases, so it is up to the judges to deny continuances to the state when it has been an extended period of time and the state still does not have its evidence together to prosecute. That is what will ultimately get the attention of organization like MADD, which have the political clout to demand change in Raleigh.

        I am afraid I have to disagree with everyone who says prosecutors try to wear down defendants to get them to plead guilty. When I was prosecuting, the only cases that I continued for long periods of time were blood DWI cases that I couldn’t try without a lab report from the SBI, and I would make accommodations with defense attorneys so that their clients would not have to come to court until the lab work was completed. Generally, I would (with the consent of the defendant or his attorney) continue cases like that six months at the time so that the defendants did not have to miss work for court dates where nothing was going to happen.

        I had a great DWI conviction rate as an ADA. I enjoyed trying DWI cases. But in my experience, the only people continuing the ordinary (non-blood) DWI cases were defense attorneys. Often there were legitimate reasons for the continuances, but I can count on my fingers the number of ordinary DWI and traffic cases for which I as the ADA requested continuances in the five years I represented the state.

  2. I am continually amazed that the Judicial Branch, which represents 1/3 of our government, receives less than 3% of the budget.

  3. Where do you think the money comes from to support all the various welfare handout programs? And before you knee-jerk respond please be ready to give me three welfare handout programs that have been really cut and not just combined into another or shifted to another name and appropriations increased. It’s nothing more than robbing Peter to pay Paul because there is no more money to be had from “We the People”. What it has come down to is whether you believe that it is right to have to work two jobs just so a crack head or one who simply has made a career out of welfare handouts can get a share of your hard earned money because we “should feel sorry for them” or if you have wakened and now understand that to receive they should also contribute (WORK) for anything they get. The choice is yours…at the voting booth.

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