In an ideal world, most of us would be able to go most of our lives without ever setting foot into a courthouse. But whether you get a speeding ticket or need to handle a loved one’s estate or something else entirely, our court system reaches into almost everyone’s life at some point — and it desperately needs reform to ensure it works equally for all!
THE BIG 3
Raise the Age: North Carolina is one of only 5 states who automatically treat every 17-year-old as an adult for prosecution, and we are the only state in the entire country who does the same for 16-year-olds – without even allowing the option of using the juvenile system. Children under 18 should start in our juvenile courts, where prosecutors then have the flexibility to treat them as adults on a case-by-case basis when the circumstances justify it.
Decriminalize marijuana under 1oz: The government spends obscene amounts of your money every year prosecuting those who suffer from mental illness and addiction. Aside from traffic tickets, police issue citations for marijuana possession and paraphernalia more than nearly every other offense – and these crimes are so minor a number of prosecutors joke that the charges are for “baby weed.” We need to move our resources away from the War on Drugs and instead shift toward investigating and prosecuting violent offenders.
Body cameras for police, with presumptive access: The use of “dashcams” fundamentally changed how police conducted traffic stops, protecting taxpayers and police alike with a neutral record of what happened. Having body-worn cameras brings this same level of protection to non-traffic cases, and is already being done successfully with Durham’s H.E.A.T. squad. But the politicians in Raleigh – including my opponent – passed a bill in June to keep those videos secret, even blocking timely access by the people who are filmed (and now making dashcam video secret too). The General Assembly should provide funding for body cameras statewide, and must undo H972 to ensure prompt release of police video to the courts and the people involved.
Make court costs payable with community service: Court costs in North Carolina have risen dramatically over the years, as the politicians in Raleigh use them to raise money for other parts of the government. We should follow Georgia’s example and let people choose to pay those costs in cash, or dedicate a certain number of hours to community service work at a nonprofit.
Restore appeal rights for infractions: In 2013, my opponent joined others in the General Assembly to eliminate your ability to appeal an infraction – things like traffic tickets for going 5mph or less over the speed limit. It’s no coincidence that in March this year the State announced they would “crack down” on speeders by issuing more tickets for going just 1mph over, tickets that now can’t be appealed and ensures the state makes $178 in court costs apiece. We must undo this attack on your due process rights.
Add driving record kiosks to courthouses: Last year, the #1 citation in all 100 counties of North Carolina was some form of traffic ticket. And in most District Attorney Offices in the state, a driver has to get a copy of their driving record to have the charge handled. That extra step, often including a physical trip to your local DMV, is time-consuming and inefficient. Just like airline kiosks can print plane tickets, the courts should have their own kiosks on-site to print driving records.
Automatic expungements for Not Guilty verdicts and dismissals: If you ever find yourself charged with a crime, even if you are innocent and the case is later dismissed, that charge will still show up when someone runs a background check on you. You can fill out a complex form to have that arrest expunged – erased from the State’s records – but the process takes a year or longer and costs $175.00. “Innocent until proven guilty” should mean exactly that, and these expungements should happen automatically without you paying a dime or having to fill out special paperwork.
Allow expungements for “PJC’d” offenses: North Carolina has something called a “Prayer for Judgment Continued,” where a judge finds someone guilty of an offense but determines, based on the circumstances, that the person should not be punished beyond paying court costs. Because the judgment is “continued” our courts have held that PJC’d offenses cannot be expunged, making the permanent record of the offense a punishment in itself. That needs to end.
Expand Durham’s diversion program for non-violent first-time young offenders: Durham pioneered a program – recently implemented in Wake County as well – where teenagers whose first offense is a minor non-violent misdemeanor can go through the court system and be punished appropriately, but the record of their arrest and prosecution are destroyed upon successful completion. Durham’s program has been tremendously successful since it began, and it should be expanded statewide.
Incentivize community policing: Many law enforcement officers struggle with low pay for the hazardous work they perform. In many cities, this forces LEOs to live in cheaper areas outside of where they patrol – in turn creating a sense of “going to a job” rather than protecting and serving the communities where they live. The General Assembly should provide block grants to agencies as incentive pay for officers who live within the neighborhoods where they work, and provide property tax credits for officers who buy homes in those communities.
Incentivize college educations by police: In most professions, having higher education merits higher pay. That should be especially true with our police forces. The General Assembly should provide block grants to law enforcement agencies to significantly improve the pay of those officers who take the extra time to obtain a college degree before joining the force.
Expand data collection for police activity: Our state has the most-comprehensive data in the nation on traffic stops, detailing things like the nature of the stop and the demographics of the drivers. This data allowed the creation of the OpenDataPolicingNC.com website, providing a detailed view of policing practices by county and department that uncovered the widespread – and unconstitutional – racial profiling of drivers by police. This same effort at data collection should be expanded to include more than just traffic stops, including officer-involved shootings and non-traffic consent searches.
Implement malpractice insurance for police: People who work in heavily regulated industries, like doctors, are often required to have malpractice insurance in case they get sued for misconduct. A growing number of cities now require each officer to have his or her own insurance policy for the same reason – to ensure taxpayers aren’t left paying the bill if an officer knowingly violates someone’s constitutional rights. North Carolina should join these cities and begin implementing a similar policy statewide.
Automatic special prosecutors to investigate officer-involved shootings: Local District Attorneys rely on close working relationships with police to effectively do their jobs. That relationship is put at risk when an officer finds himself in a situation where he/she has killed a suspect: a District Attorney who indicts due to public pressure erodes the trust of the police, and a DA who doesn’t indict due to police pressure erodes the trust of the public. An outside prosecutor from the Attorney General’s Office should be automatically assigned to investigate all officer-involved shootings and decide independently when criminal charges are warranted.
Require written and signed forms for all consent searches: When a criminal suspect gives up his Miranda rights to have an attorney, police provide a short form for him to sign confirming he wants to waive those rights. Durham already requires similar waiver forms for drivers when they consent to a search during a traffic stop; this policy should be expanded statewide.
End “tail light policing”: Police theoretically stop folks for burned out or broken tail lights because of the threat to motorist safety, that drivers behind you can’t tell you’re braking. But the safety threat isn’t that great, because of course you’re still allowed to drive after receiving the ticket. And a decade of stop data compiled at OpenDataPolicingNC.com shows the poor and people of color are disproportionately targeted at a high rate for these types of infractions – often not because of an actual issue, but as a pretext to have their vehicle searched for narcotics. These stops need to stop. Instead, police should note the license plate of a car with mechanical defects, enter the plate into a system that automatically notifies DMV (like CJLEADS), and DMV should mail the motorist a letter providing a grace period to have the defects fixed before revoking the license plate. This process keeps the driving public protected, but also stops poor drivers from becoming entangled in our court system – while also protecting the safety of the officers who could be injured in unnecessary face-to-face stops.
Reform the use of secured bonds for minor non-violent offenses: Our jails are literally stuffed to capacity with “low level” offenders who cannot afford the bond to leave jail before trial. Taxpayers pay for those costs of incarceration as a result: in a May 2015 report by the Vera Institute of Justice, that cost in North Carolina was $166 per inmate per night. If someone is charged with a minor non-violent offense – most of which don’t include jail time upon conviction – magistrates should be banned from requiring a secured bond to leave lockup before trial.
Expand pre-trial release and monitoring: Alongside reforming secured bonds, we should expand pre-trial release and monitoring to ensure potential offenders return for their court dates. Taxpayers would save the costs of paying for jail housing, while defendants could continue to work and take care of their families before trial.
End civil asset forfeiture: Conservatives and liberals alike have thoroughly documented the abuse of “asset forfeiture” at both the state and federal level, where the Government seizes and keeps your property unless you can prove it wasn’t used in a crime (totally inverting the concept of “innocent until proven guilty”). For example, a number of innocent homeowners have lost their houses because a child or grandchild was alleged to have committed a minor drug offense inside. This process underlies the concept of “policing for profit” and we will work to bring it to an end.
Decentralize the State Bureau of Investigation labs: Forensic evidence for a number of crimes – things like DNA tests or blood alcohol content analysis – gets routed through the SBI Lab in Raleigh. Forcing everyone in the state to go through this bottleneck dramatically slows down the justice system, with some DUI cases taking two years or more before ever going to trial. Many counties like Durham and Mecklenburg already have local labs for certain types of evidence; the SBI should embrace this approach and operate multiple regional labs, where cases in each region of the state have their own lab dedicated to handling their own cases.
Use digital DL-49s: District Attorneys are given confidential online access to a wide variety of records, including crash reports and criminal history information. But for whatever reason “DL-49s” – the DMV’s official record of a driver’s traffic convictions – are still hand-printed, hand-stamped, and hand-mailed every day to DA Offices across the state. The process costs taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in postage and labor every single year. Durham ADA Dale Morrill actually drafted a proposal to save that money by having DL-49 access added into the DAs’ preexisting set of online records, only to have his proposal ignored by the politicians in Raleigh. We will ensure it gets implemented, and quickly.
Expand Mental Health Courts statewide: Many judicial districts develop specialized courts when a large number of offenders or victims have special needs, including our Domestic Violence Court here in Durham, the Drug Court in Wake County, a Veterans Court in Cumberland County, and so on. Our most pressing need is for the use of Mental Health Courts, to bring together the justice system, social workers, and mental health professionals when addressing the tremendous volume of cases involving people who are mentally ill. We spend millions of your taxpayer dollars prosecuting people who need treatment or suffer from addiction, and Mental Health Courts can help ensure those people get the help they need so they don’t turn into repeat offenders.
Expand Family Courts statewide: Family Courts are one of the “specialty courts” used across the state, and have been proven to resolve divorces and custody disputes faster – and with less trauma to affected children – than going through the regular civil courts. Yet only a handful of counties in the state actually have Family Courts, with some of our largest cities (like Greensboro and Winston-Salem) operating without one. We will work to expand the use of Family Courts statewide.
Strengthen Structured Sentencing: Like most states, North Carolina uses “structured sentencing” in determining how to punish offenders: a table written into the General Statutes that indicates the minimum and maximum months of punishment, based on the seriousness of the crime and the criminal record of the offender. These tables need to be adjusted to reduce the time minor non-violent offenders spend in jail, and instead significantly increase the punishments for major felonies and career criminals.
Automatic open file discovery in District Court: The Constitution requires “due process” in criminal trials, including the disclosure of what is known as “Brady material” – evidence that the accused person is actually innocent, and required to be disclosed by the United States Supreme Court under its ruling in Brady v. Maryland. To satisfy Brady, most prosecutors use what is called “open file” discovery where the evidence the Government has is also made available to the Defendant. In North Carolina, an “open file” is only used in Superior Court felonies; District Attorneys often say there is “no right to discovery” in District and Traffic Courts. But Brady is universal, and open file discovery should be required in every courtroom, every time, for every case.
Require disclosure of “Brady material” after conviction: Just as prosecutors are required by the Constitution to share Brady material before trial, they should be required to share it after conviction if it turns out an innocent person is behind bars. Thirteen states already require post-conviction Brady disclosure, and North Carolina should be next.
Require timely calendaring and notification of trials: In criminal courts, it is often said that “the process is the punishment.” Innocent people who want to prove their innocence at trial are often forced to take off work and sit in court from 9:00am-1:00pm, only to learn their case is getting continued another month. This process often happens for 3-4 months at a time, until the person finally gives in and pleads guilty (90%+ of all charges end in guilty pleas). Our rules should be rewritten to force trials to be calendared in a timely fashion, and to require timely notification to a defendant if his/her case will not be reached that day.
Reform our “emergency” judge system: North Carolina abolished “special” Superior Court Judges years ago, theoretically to save money. They then implemented “emergency” judges instead – bringing back judges who have retired or were voted out of office by the people, who then get paid a full salary and benefits for minimal work. This replacement system should be reformed so “emergency” judges receive no benefits or salary, and are instead paid on an “a la carte” fee-per-case basis.
Restore funding for Indigent Defense Services: The General Assembly has repeatedly slashed the budget for IDS, the state agency responsible for defending those too poor to afford an attorney. The money saved from reforming the “emergency” judge system should be used to restore IDS to its prior funding levels.
Enact an anti-SLAPP statute: If you leave a negative review on Yelp, or protest outside a business that ripped you off, in North Carolina you could end up getting sued for defamation. These are frivolous lawsuits designed to stop you from exercising your First Amendment rights, and are called SLAPPs – Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. They are illegal in many other states, and should be made illegal here too.
Do you agree? Disagree? Think there is something we missed that should be part of our court reform agenda? If so, make sure to contact us!