As Mecklenburg alcohol-related crash deaths rise, DWI convictions plummet by 80%
The number of people killed in alcohol-related vehicle crashes in Mecklenburg County has been going up over the last decade, while the number of people convicted for DWI has plummeted, falling 80%.
There were 53 of those alcohol-related crash deaths in 2020, including five on July 3.
Lynn Sherrill lost four family members that day, killed ina high-speed crash on Interstate 485 caused by an intoxicated driver: her son, Matthew Obester, his wife Andrea, and their two daughters, Elizabeth, 12, and Violet, 9.
Sherrill is in the kitchen of her home near Lake Wylie,showing photographs of her two granddaughters.
“This is the little one, Violet, she was nine,” Sherrill said, swiping through photos on her phone. “That was Elizabeth. That was when they were little. For Halloween, their mother always dressed them up to the nines."
They were on their way home to Gaston County when an impaired driver, Dakeia Charles, caused a series of wrecks on I-485 in north Charlotte, sending a truck into oncoming traffic.
“And they were totally crushed,” Sherill said. “There was nothing they could do in their big Tahoe. There was just nothing. The only good thing is they died instantly.”
Mark Barlaan, of Indian Trail, who was in another car, was also killed. A highway patrol officer was injured the next day while investigating the crash.
Four hours after the crash, Charles’ blood alcohol level was .07 — and he already had a previous DWI prohibiting him from driving above a .04. He was sentenced to at least 20 years in prison.
The bigger picture, however, is that the number of people convicted for DWI in Mecklenburg County has plummeted in the last decade.
And when you look at convictions for driving while impaired based on population, Mecklenburg has — by far — the fewest in North Carolina, according to a WFAE analysis of data from the state Administrative Office of the Courts.
No other county is close.
Over the last four years, Mecklenburg has averaged 38 convictions per 100,000 people.
Wake County has nearly four times as many convictions. The state overall? Nearly six times as many.
Attorney Bill Powers, who reviewed the data showing the drop in convictions, said the decline is “unfathomable to me. It shocks the conscience.”
He has represented drivers charged with DWI and their victims for 30 years.
He noted that in fiscal year 2021, Mecklenburg County had only 154 DWI convictions. That was not only the lowest per-capita rate, but the lowest in actual numbers of all 41 state judicial districts.
“Even with COVID, even with our courts being closed, even with the number of DWI enforcements being down — to be lower than anywhere else in the state of North Carolina. I couldn’t believe it,” Powers said.
While other North Carolina judicial districts were able to begin handling cases in that first year of COVID-19, the district court in Mecklenburg was mostly closed for roughly a year, creating a chokepoint for prosecutors.
Chief District Court Judge Elizabeth Trosch said she was following the guidance of former county health director Gibbie Harris to stop the spread of COVID-19, and that outbreaks in 2021 hampered plans to reopen sooner.
She said the district court is now handling more cases than it did before the pandemic.
But the court closures — while disruptive — did not cause the collapse in convictions.
The drop is due to several factors, including a decline in DWI arrests and the Mecklenburg District Attorney’s Office not assigning prosecutors to work solely on drunk driving cases, as Wake County does.
Mecklenburg’s per-capita DWI convictions were already the lowest in the state before the pandemic.
In 2019, the state overall had five times as many DWI convictions as Mecklenburg, based on population.
Alcohol-related traffic deaths up
The city of Charlotte participates in an international program called Vision Zero. The goal is to have no traffic fatalities by 2030.
But the number of traffic fatalities countywide is increasing.
In 2012, the three-year average of traffic fatalities in Mecklenburg was 63 annually. At the end of 2021, that three-year average had increased to 119, according to the N.C. Department of Transportation.
And the number of traffic deaths related to alcohol is also going up, from 26 deaths annually over a three-year period in 2012 to an average of 43 deaths a year at the end of 2021.
The total number of alcohol-related crashes in Mecklenburg has declined slightly over the last decade.
Those increases are far greater than the county’s increase in population, or in the number of miles people drive.
Across North Carolina, however, there has been a steady decline in the number of people charged with DWI in the last decade.
A decade ago, there were more than 53,000 DWI charges statewide. Last year, that fell to just under 35,000. That’s a 35% drop.
A number of theories have been floated as to why.
Some say people are riding the light rail and that ride-share companies like Uber have made it easier for people to drink —- and not drive.
Others say people may just be drinking less overall.
In Mecklenburg County, however, the number of people arrested for DWI has dropped much more than the state, from just under 3,600 a year to 1,600. That’s a 55%decline.
“The numbers are down and we are aware of it,” said CMPD Sgt. Bernie Reibold, who leads the department’s seven-person DWI task force.
The task force made about 250 DWI arrests last year. The Highway Patrol in Mecklenburg County made 354 DWI arrests. The rest come from the Mecklenburg towns, the sheriff’s office, as well as CMPD officers not specifically tasked with finding drunk drivers.
Reibold said the entire department is stretched thin.
“(The drop in arrests) is not on the officer who is working third shift who doesn’t want to make a difference,” he said. “If you look at the last 10 years we have had an increased call volume, drastically compared with 2013.”
In recent years there has also been a shift away from what’s known as “proactive policing” — such as pulling people over for expired registration or making an improper lane change.
CMPD data shows the number of CMPD arrests and citations has dropped by more than half since 2009. This came as the city’s population grew by nearly 20%.
And with fewer traffic stops, there are fewer opportunities to find drunk drivers.
CMPD Officer Daniel Redford, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said there’s another problem: DWI cases have become too time-consuming.
“It would not surprise me that there are officers who are discouraged from doing it,” he said. “They may still investigate and say, ‘Hey this guy is drunk,’ but instead of arresting them say ‘Hey I’m either going to take you home’ or have you take a cab or have someone pick you up.”
He said officers believe the judicial system in Mecklenburg favors defendants, and many officers expect to go to court multiple times for a single DWI.
“They are probably just second-guessing whether they want to go through the hassle of prosecution,” Redford said.
Wake places greater emphasis on DWIs
Mecklenburg Deputy District Attorney Bruce Lillie said there are a number of reasons why DWI convictions are down.
He notes arrests have fallen statewide by 35%, and he points to the courthouse’s extended closure during COVID-19.
“It’s going to take years to get the court system back to a complete reset,” Lillie said.
The Mecklenburg District Attorney's Office last fall dismissed roughly 25,000 cases because of a court backlog. It’s looking to dismiss another 100,000 low-level cases.
The first group of mass dismissals did not include DWIs, though more than 400 cases were dropped in which people were charged with driving with a suspended license after receiving a DWI.
Lillie also said DWI cases have become harder to prosecute, because the average case now has more evidence that has to be entered, like police body cameras. That can help prosecutors — but also give the defense something else to challenge.
“We also saw that it began to take even longer to adjudicate a DWI,” he said. “And for the state, for prosecutors, nothing good happens when it takes longer to adjudicate your case, to get it to trial.”
But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
The steep drop in convictions started before the pandemic, in Spencer Merriweather’s first full year of being district attorney in 2018.
From 2011 to 2017, the number of DWI convictions in Mecklenburg fell by a little more than 50%.
From 2017 to 2019, they fell by 55%, from 1,202 to 559.
Wake County has essentially the same population as Mecklenburg and deals with many of the same problems as a large urban county.
Mecklenburg has 76 assistant district attorneys and Wake only has 45.
But Wake has four prosecutors assigned specifically to DWIs. Mecklenburg doesn’t have any.
District Court in Wake County has three courtrooms assigned solely for impaired driving, compared with none in Mecklenburg.
(Mecklenburg did run a special 16-week DWI-only court in the summer and fall of 2021 in an attempt to clear a backlog of cases. And since May 2022, the courthouse has dedicated three courtrooms to handle only DWIs for at least two months a month.)
“We put a tremendous amount of resources into our DWI prosecution,” said Wake District Attorney Lorrin Freeman.
She said she and other prosecutors have all spent time with families who have lost someone to a drunk driver.
“I think that’s enough to keep you motivated,” she said.
'Everyone else can go about their lives'
Sherry McCall lost her 5-year-old daughter Noel to a DWI crash in Cabarrus County in 2019. She is sitting in the living room of her Midland home, holding her 5-month-old son, Bennett.
“She was — it’s a term that I hate — internally decapitated. Her neck was severed from her body internally. There was nothing that could have been done to save her.”
When told that fewer people are being convicted in neighboring Mecklenburg — and across North Carolina — she said that’s unacceptable. Cabarrus County convicted more than seven times as many people for DWI as Mecklenburg, based on population.
“Everyone else can go about their lives,” she said. “But people who are affected by this have to go and rebuild their lives. Where there's added paperwork for officers and courts, that’s not all it is for these families.”
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