North Carolina judges acquit more than a third of drunken driving suspects who test over the legal alcohol limit but fight the charges in court, reports the Charlotte Observer. The drivers include people who crashed their cars, who had open bottles of beer next to their seats, and who couldn’t recite the alphabet to police. North Carolina’s law says a driver with an alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent or above is driving while impaired. Most people charged with DWI plead guilty. From 2002 through February 2004, judges acquitted more than 3,500 suspects despite test results showing they had more alcohol in their bodies than the law allows.
The odds of escaping conviction depend largely on where a driver is arrested and who the judge is, the Observer found in a study of cases during the 26-month period. In some counties, those who go to trial are almost sure to be let go. In others, the opposite is true. When DWI suspects go to trial after testing over the legal limit in the judicial district that includes the mountain counties of McDowell, Rutherford and Transylvania, about 98 out of 100 are convicted. The coastal counties of Carteret, Craven and Pamlico convict fewer than 10 percent of suspects tried after testing over the alcohol limit. “That’s troubling,” N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake Jr. told the Observer. “I’m astounded at the wide disparity in conviction rates between judges. I don’t understand.”