A computer glitch in the North Carolina courts system erroneously classified thousands of dangerous driving violations in Mecklenburg County as dismissed, sending state personnel scrambling to fix the problem and leading District Attorney Spencer Merriweather to throw his cell phone across the room.
The error involves 300 active DWI cases that Merriweather’s office intends to prosecute.
Merriweather told The Charlotte Observer on Wednesday that the Administrative Office of the Courts, which runs the statewide judicial system, has told him that the DWI charges will be correctly reclassified by the end of the day.
That leaves the AOC sifting through thousands of additional files to identify other priority misdemeanor cases in Mecklenburg County, including traffic citations involving dangerously high speeds, that were wrongly classified as having been thrown out by Merriweather’s office. In all, some 16,000 cases were affected.
Merriweather said he does not know how long the process to properly reclassify them in the court system’s computers will take, adding: “It is our intention that all of these cases will be prosecuted.”
“This problem did not originate within the county limits of Mecklenburg,” he said. “At the end of the day, I only want cases dismissed that I approved to be dismissed. What’s particularly frustrating is that I’m the person who gets to approve what gets dismissed in this county, and I didn’t have that chance.”
In a statement to the Observer, AOC spokesman Graham Wilson said none of the charges from the impacted cases were actually dismissed even if the statewide court computer system says otherwise.
Rather, a court computer program “erroneously made dismissal entries ... for entire cases in which (Merriweather) had dismissed some but not all the charges.”
While the AOC has been working with prosecutors around the state to remove the backlog of inactive cases, the current problems are isolated to Mecklenburg County, Wilson said.
Dismissed cases in Mecklenburg
The errors occurred while Merriweather’s office was working with the AOC to cull just under 100,000 minor or inactive traffic citations and other low-level misdemeanors — such as expired vehicle registrations or tags — from a massive pandemic-related backlog currently jamming Mecklenburg courtrooms.
In the past, the court computers have been able to discern what cases to keep and what to dismiss, Merriweather said.
For example, say a Mecklenburg driver was cited on the same traffic stop for an expired license and DWI. Up to now, the court computers could sort the license citation into the cases to be dismissed while leaving the more serious DWI charge alone. In this latest round, however, the priority charges were frequently sucked into dismissal pool, Merriweather said.
In the past, the district attorney’s office has worked with the state courts to identify and dismiss tens of thousands of minor or longstanding traffic citations to allow prosecutors to devote more time to what Merriweather describes as “priority cases.” Those include domestic assaults, DWIs and dangerously high speeding violations.
At the moment — and because of pandemic — Mecklenburg has more than 10,000 cases dating back three years or more in which drivers have been charged with traveling more than 25 mph over the speed limit. It has a backlog of more than 1,000 cases with speeding violations involving 100 mph or more, according to a statement from the D.A.
Merriweather says his office learned of the current problem when defense attorneys began contacting prosecutors expressing surprise that traffic citations involving “three-digit speeds” were being dropped to make room for more important cases.
“We were surprised, too,” Merriweather said ironically, adding that he threw his cell phone across his office when he became aware of the situation.
The DA said he has talked with AOC Director Andrew Heath, and he complimented the court system’s efforts to correct the error. Merriweather says he never seen a problem like it.
“We’ve had clerical errors, but nothing close to 16,000 cases,” he said. “This time, for some reason, there were some serious consequences that certainly were not intended.”