News 13 Investigates: How to lose your license
North Carolina Department of Transportation records show speeding causes more fatalities in the state than distracted or drunk driving.
A News 13 investigation uncovered that, while the state has some of the toughest driving laws, the courts are giving repeat offenders a pass. An example, we found in one driver’s case, the woman racked up a dozen speeding violations in seven years, but barely got any points against her license.
In 2016, North Carolina had 7,750,408 licensed drivers and suspended just more than 1 percent of licenses.
“It was so unexpected,” said Karen Chirinos, the daughter of Jorge Flores, who was killed in a Feb. 19 wreck.
The Patton Avenue crash that killed Jorge Flores was a gut punch to the entire family, leaving a 10-year-old boy without a father, taking a man his daughter describes as kind and generous.
“In Honduras, there were so many people, they were, you know, that just reminded me of how friendly and loving he was,” said Chirinos.
According to police, the vehicle that collided with Flores' car was going 62 miles an hour as he turned out of the Goodwill parking lot. The posted speed limit is 35 miles per hour. Flores' daughter said Goodwill was a routine stop.
“He usually packed, you know, like boxes to take back, and he was just buying stuff, you know, to fill the boxes,” said Chirinos.
Items he'd take to family during a trip home to Honduras, originally planned for this week.
“They have video, and they know he took every precaution that he needed to take,” said Chirinos.
The other driver, Polina Sluder, was in court last week for felony involuntary manslaughter. Her case was continued. She's also facing reckless driving and speeding charges. Court records show she has faced similar violations a dozen times in seven years, yet six of them were dismissed with no points against her license. But she didn't want to comment on them.
Sluder's not alone in getting her tickets reduced or dismissed. Our News 13 investigation found it happens a lot.
“I think that if you don't follow the rules then you should be punished,” said Chirinos.
“We try to watch your DMV record for you,” Henderson County District Attorney Greg Newman said as he addressed a packed courtroom.
In Henderson County Administrative Court or traffic court, there's no judge. The district attorney and assistants make the call.
“We know that insurance costs are expensive on a good day, so, we try to resolve their tickets in a way that does not increase their costs,” said Newman.
“I can't dismiss everything, because that ticket has an open container on it as well,”one assistant district attorney explained.
“Because this speed is not that excessive, we'll reduce this down. It's a seat belt violation. It's a $50.00, no points and that's the main thing,” Newman said as the group worked through cases and paperwork.
“I can give you a reduction on the speed, it's going to be $218.00. If you need time to pay, then the clerk's office is going to add an additional $20.00,” explained another assistant district attorney.
“The hope is that, most people, you get their attention when you hit their wallets and pocketbooks,”Newman said as he showed News 13 how the system works.
But checking every driver's past record first just doesn't happen.
“To expect that everyone's record is going to be run is just impractical. You would never be able to process those cases,” said Newman.
Instead, staff relies on recognizing repeat offenders or notes law enforcement might make.
“What I'm looking for, primarily, is some indication about their record and then whether the person was cooperative with the officer,” said Newman
In fact, when News 13 checked Buncombe and Henderson counties' records for 2016, it found that in Henderson County, of the more than 26,000 serious traffic violations, onabout 14 percent or 400 were dismissed. In Buncombe County, the dismissal rate is even higher at 30 percent.
Newman said Henderson County officials consider more than a driver's past, they're also thinking about his or her future.
‘This is not an area where you have a lot of public transportation options, no trains, no subways. You have a bus system, but that's not going to meet everyone's transportation needs,” said Newman.
What News 13 saw in the courtroom is, of the thousands of cases, most traffic violations are just infractions. The administrator of courts in Raleigh doesn't make public how many of those cases are wiped clean or dismissed. It's also impossible to know how many dismissed cases are first time offenders or repeat offenders. When News 13 made an open records request, our team was told it couldn't afford the cost of running a special report. News 13 would have paid, and but officials in Raleigh declined to run the report.
So, News 13 wanted to know how DAs and assistants justify the risk that somebody whose case they dismiss doesn't go out and cause a fatal crash.
“The problem that we have is that you could maximize the penalties on people, you could have the state of North Carolina to revoke their license, they get the nasty letter that says send your license in, you can't drive for the next year. Alright, well, enforcing that is difficult, it's a challenge,” said Newman.
Only 1.3 percent of licenses get suspended each year in North Carolina.
To lose your license, you have to get 12 points within a three-year period. For example, if a driver gets three speeding violations over 55 miles per hour ( three points each) and a reckless driving charge (four points), he or she has racked up 13 points.
Newman pointed to two cases in the past five months involving men driving with suspended licenses. Both are accused of causing serious crashes -- one was fatal. Newman said there’s little to stop a suspended driver who wants to drive.
“They're going to drive whether they've been drinking somewhere or not or been smoking pot or not or taking pills, and they really don't care about the risks around them,” said Newman.
That's little consolation to the Flores family, which is trying to figure out what more can be done before someone else feels the pain of fulfilling a father's dream without him.
“I definitely want to continue his last wish, which was, you know, finish building that house,” said Chirinos.
Her father planned to retire in his native country and had been building his dream house. Now, the family hopes the home can be finished and stand as a tribute to a man who took pride in his good driving record and teaching other family members to be safe on the road.
“If anything good comes out of our pain, it should be that they take the time to look back at their driving record and see if it’s a repeat offender,” said Chirinos.
It's the court record that triggers a response from the DMV to drivers about the status of their license. Newman said, if he and other prosecutors could do something to prevent suspended drivers from driving they would. But he said impounding vehicles doesn't work, and North Carolina law makes it tough to do.
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More about North Carolina's point system can be found here, in the state's Driver's Handbook.
We also reached out to Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams. Here's what he told News 13.
"The revocation of driving privileges is entirely governed by the NC Department of Motor Vehicles and is outside the purview of the court. The DA’s Office’s job in court is to prosecute traffic infractions and exercise discretion as appropriate. Once a conviction or other disposition is obtained, the NC DMV applies the license revocation law as written and administratively makes a determination about the status of a given driver’s driving privilege. If an offender is placed on probation a Judge may order the offender to refrain from driving during the period of probation, but that is not the same as a DMV issued license revocation," said Williams.