COLUMBUS COUNTY, NC (WECT) - The Department of Motor Vehicles reports that 366 people died in alcohol-related crashes in North Carolina in 2013.
Nearly 60,000 people went to court to face charges of Driving While Impaired in the 2013-14 fiscal year in North Carolina. More than 60 percent were found guilty of a crime related to the DWI offense. About 21 percent of the cases were dismissed - not by judges, but by prosecutors.
A WECT investigation uncovered that prosecutors in Columbus County voluntarily dismissed a higher percentage of DWI cases than any other county in North Carolina.
The top 5 counties dropped by percentage included:
- Columbus County (45.5 percent)
- Lee County (45.4)
- Harnett County (43.3)
- Cherokee County (40.8)
- Pasquotank County (40.2)
To see a list of all North Carolina counties and the DWI arrest, conviction and dismissal rates, click here: http://bit.ly/1F5XFqO.
Records also show the North Carolina Highway Patrol filed 72 percent of the DWI charges in Columbus County in FY2013-14, the highest percentage of any law enforcement agency.
"We're one part of the formula," said Lt. Jeff Gordon, the Public Information Officer for the NC Highway patrol. "Our part is to look for the people who are impaired, build a case, and then try that case and hopefully we get a guilty verdict."
Jon David, the District Attorney for Brunswick, Bladen and Columbus counties, was first contacted in early October about the startling amount of voluntary dismissals. He said, at the time, he would get to the bottom of the spike in the percentage. The prior year, the voluntary dismissal rate in Columbus County was 26.7 percent, much closer to the state average.
"I think your news organization deserves a lot of credit for alerting me to some statistics that at that point I was unaware of," David said when he sat down for an interview to share the findings of his internal investigation.
Pouring over the court documents received in a public records request from the District Attorney's office, we noticed several reasons for the cases being dismissed.
Many listed the arresting officer, deputy or state trooper not being in court for the proceeding. Others mentioned not having received the defendant's blood tests results back from the State Bureau of Investigation Lab in Raleigh, which has reported a backlog in these and other cases.
We saw those same reasons listed in dismissals from other counties, but other cases in Columbus County stood out to us, and to the District Attorney.
Each prosecutor must sign a CR-339 form, which states the reason they dismissed the DWI case. The original form goes into the defendant's case file, one copy is sent to the District Attorney's office, and another copy is sent to the law enforcement agency initiating the charge.
A review of the CR-339 forms received from the District Attorney's office in Columbus County shows the names of several prosecutors, but the name seen the most on these forms is Kyle Melvin.
"One of the things revealed in my analysis in Columbus County was that we had a person in place who was not doing his level best," said David. "We had a prosecutor who was substituting his judgment for that of the court. He was concluding that someone was likely to be found not guilty, and as a consequence he was saving time and saying 'let me dismiss it now'. The far better approach is to put that case in the courtroom and let justice be done in the public square."
A 56-year-old man with four previous DWI convictions had his case dismissed last September, after it was continued seven times in court.
According to court documents, part of the reason given by the prosecutor reads: "the officer requested dismissal and I was on board, based on lack of evidence impairment."
Yet records show the defendant blew a .15 on a roadside test, and a magistrate reported him having "red glossy eyes, slurred speech" after being stopped for doing 76 in a 55 on Highway 74 near Whiteville.
Another 56-year-old driver, also with four prior DWI convictions, had his case dismissed last July.
Court records show a Columbus County Sheriff's Deputy found this man driving an ATV down the center of Highway 76 at 3:50 a.m., and "noticed a strong odor of alcohol" and said the man was "unsteady on his feet".
The reason given for dismissing this case reads: "Officer did no field sobriety test other than Portable Breath Test (PBT). Defendant refused breath analysis. No evidence of impairment."
Court documents show a 29-year-old female had a blood alcohol concentration 0.19, nearly two and a half times the state's legal limit, when she was involved in a crash on Old Dock Road on December 10, 2013.
On the CR-339 form, the prosecutor listed the reason for dismissing the case as: "Defendant is exemplary non-commissioned officer (E-6) in US Army for 8 years. Def has perfect driving record, and a high classification security clearance. She has transferred to Texas and has obtained a Texas license. She served in Kuwait. Defendant has completed 20 hours of substance abuse."
"With some of the dismissals I saw, I looked at them and I said, 'We can do better,'" David explained when asked about these cases and others. "I was disappointed, and I knew someone wasn't going their job as good as they could have."
The DA's Office confirmed not long after our original call to David that Assistant District Attorney Kyle Melvin was "allowed to resign in lieu of termination."
Since our investigation, David says he has met with all Chiefs of Police in Columbus County, leaders in the Sheriff's Office and area Highway Patrol station, along with the staff in his Columbus County office, about ways to do better.
"There's always frustration," Columbus County Sheriff Lewis Hatcher said about the dismissals issue. "The fact that you'd say, 'I went out and I've done it, and now it ends up this way.' But, I have to keep encouraging my guys to keep a positive attitude. Because once they go out, they gather this evidence, they take it to the courts. It's up to the judicial system to say whether someone is guilty or not guilty. You wonder how could it happen, or why did it happen, but the DA has reached out to me, and I feel like he's going to take care of it."
"As the leader I accepted responsibility," David said about meeting with law enforcement. "I wanted them to know I accept some measure of responsibility for what occurred here and that I am committed to looking back at some of these cases, re-filing some where appropriate, and putting the policies and personnel moving forward to fix this situation. What occurred here does not represent what this office stands for."
David says a state grant allowed his office to have DWI court, where selected prosecutors would handle all of the DWI cases. That grant, however, ran out in 2012, and the DWI cases went back into the District Court mix for other prosecutors to handle.
The grant also provided mandatory training for local law enforcement, to help officers be better at building DWI cases for prosecutors. David says he plans to re-institute that training as part of his improvement plan moving forward in Columbus County.
We did reach out to Kyle Melvin through a family member, asking for a comment or to share his side of what happened. We have not received a response from him.