Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Investigation into Mecklenburg PJC arrangement begins

Paul Tharp, Staff Writer//August 27, 2010

Investigation into Mecklenburg PJC arrangement begins

Paul Tharp, Staff Writer//August 27, 2010

By PAUL THARP, Staff Writer

[email protected]


Officials in Mecklenburg County are exploring the legality and appropriateness of the relationship among the district attorney’s office, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, the local courts and the Safety and Health Council of North Carolina, a nonprofit organization that offers defensive-driving courses to ticketed motorists.

District Court Judge Timothy Smith wrote Aug. 17 to the attorney general and counsel for the State Bar that ticketed drivers who complete driving courses in Mecklenburg County have prayers for judgment continued “entered administratively by the Clerk of Court and in most instances are never reviewed by a District Court Judge.”

Judge Smith wrote that it was rumored that a chief district court judge signed an order authorizing the arrangement in 1989. Judge Smith said the order, if it ever existed, could not be located.

Mecklenburg County Chief District Court Judge Lisa Bell said she began an inquiry into the matter in July after former Mecklenburg County Assistant District Attorney Sean P. Smith first raised the issue publically in an interview with Charlotte’s FOX News affiliate.

Sean Smith said he raised the issue in the context of his campaign for the district court judge seat held by Gov. Beverly Perdue appointee Tyyawdi Hands. He was terminated by Mecklenburg County District Attorney Peter Gilchrist after giving the interview.

Judge Bell said she has requested documents from Gilchrist and Mecklenburg County Clerk of Superior Court Martha Curran. Neither Curran nor Gilchrist could be reached for comment by Lawyers Weekly for this article.

Judge Bell said she had received a number of documents dating back to the early 1990s, including a June 14, 1991, letter from then Chief District Court Judge James E. Lanning to the other 12 Mecklenburg County district court judges.

In the letter, Judge Lanning noted, “For the last few years motorists charged with infractions in this district have been encouraged to attend the safe driving school rather than attending court. Completion of the school resulted in dismissal of the charge … For a variety of factors, including a reduction in court costs collections, the legislature has, at the urging of the Administrative Office of the Courts, forbid this procedure.”

Judge Lanning suggested an alternative procedure that could be adopted as a bench policy and implemented in district court.

“The gist of the proposed bench policy is to have the motorist execute a written waiver of appearance and acceptance of responsibility and pay court costs. Those who complete the safe driving school will as a matter of policy receive a PJC,” Lanning wrote.

Judge Lanning did not go “through a variety of administrative details” associated with implementing the policy, but urged district court judges to return their copy of the letter indicating their vote.

Apparently the votes were tallied in favor of the policy, as evidenced by an April 3, 1992, letter in which Lanning described the policy as “a real winning situation. We produce safer drivers, collect court costs, and reduce the number of cases in courtrooms.”

Judge Lanning also referenced an effort by the Safety and Health Council of North Carolina “to obtain enabling legislation for a statewide program.”

A year later, on May 3, 1993, District Attorney Gilchrist wrote to then-chairman of the Judiciary II Committee of the N.C. House of Representatives, Robert C. Hunter, in support of House Bill 1015, which would have added subsection (h) to G.S. § 15A-1114, essentially codifying what Gilchrist called “The ‘PJC’ program.”

The legislation died in committee.


A question of authority

In his Aug. 17 letter, Judge Smith asked the attorney general and State Bar for guidance “over the legality and appropriateness of handling traffic tickets in this manner.”

He specifically asked whether any of the practices outlined in the letter could be considered the unauthorized practice of law and whether clerks could legally enter PJCs administratively with little or no judicial oversight.

   Jon P. Carroll, an attorney with James, McElroy & Diehl in Charlotte, said he is curious as to how the delegation of authority to clerks was put in place. However, Carroll added, he is not aware of anything that would prohibit a judge from delegating broad authority to clerks to enter PJCs in certain circumstances. “It would not have to be on a case-by-case basis,” Carroll said.

Judge Smith wrote that he believed until recently that the Safety and Health Council “was a government or quasi-governmental agency” because it “has an office in the courthouse … and has free access to restricted areas of the Clerk’s office and back hallways of the various courts.”

Chief Judge Bell explained that the courthouse is a county-owned building, so issues about tenants in the building are issues for county government, not the state courts.

Bell added that she had spoken to an attorney for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department to ensure that officers know what is appropriate to say and not to say during the context of a traffic stop.

A spokesman for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department did not return Lawyers Weekly’s calls for comment.

Carroll reviewed the driving school flyer provided to drivers by police officers during traffic stops.

“I don’t see any problem with officers handing out this piece of paper to ticketed drivers,” Carroll said. “It doesn’t advise drivers one way or the other on what they should or shouldn’t do.”


Program’s benefits touted

Chief Judge Bell said “Our goal is to provide the best service at the least expense with the least amount of inconvenience to the citizens of this county, some of whom may want to utilize the driving school because it is a benefit to them and they don’t have to come to court.”

Carroll added that the arrangement provides a needed alternative to ticketed drivers who don’t want to plead guilty.

“It promotes safe driving,” Carroll said. “Ultimately that is the policy behind the program, and I think that is a good policy.”

Carroll encouraged detractors of the program to imagine the result if the program were not in place.

“People would come to court. They would be offered the option of taking the driving course, if they qualified. Then they would go take the driving course, get the certificate and then come back to court. Now you have two court dates instead of none. That is going to have a significant effect on the court system.”

The program is effective on balance, from a policy perspective, Carroll added, because it promotes efficient use of valuable time and resources.

“It is no secret that Mecklenburg County has a large caseload,” Carroll said. “From an efficiency standpoint, I think this program helps significantly.”

Top Legal News

See All Top Legal News


See All Commentary