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COVID-19 paused Mecklenburg's courts. Now, a 3,200-plus DWI backlog awaits.
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COVID-19 paused Mecklenburg's courts. Now, a 3,200-plus DWI backlog awaits.

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CHARLOTTE — It’s midmorning in Courtroom 4170 at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse. On a prepandemic weekday, this would be a crowded scene: dozens of attorneys and defendants packing the wooden benches, all waiting for their chance to see the judge.

But today, this courtroom is almost entirely empty, stripped down to the handful of personnel necessary for a trial: the defense, prosecution, some staff and Judge Matt Osman.

In this muted version of a courtroom, Osman has been tasked with subduing a backlog of more than 3,200 DWI cases — of which 1,252 are due to the pandemic-related shutdown of the courts. This is the court’s first large-scale effort to handle cases of driving while impaired since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

Through an experimental program, Osman has 10 weeks to reduce the logjam into a more manageable amount. At least one attorney has doubts about whether this is feasible.

“I think it’s impossible,” defense attorney George Laughrun said.

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When the pandemic hit Mecklenburg County in March 2020, almost the entire criminal justice system ground to a halt. All misdemeanor trials were put on hold — and for the most part, they have stayed that way.

Domestic violence trials were among the first to return, several months into the pandemic.

Then everything stopped again in December.

In March, the courts cautiously began trying some DWI cases.

Until last week, however, domestic violence cases and DWI cases were competing for room — literally. All misdemeanor trials were being held in the same courtroom, with three weeks devoted to domestic violence, followed by a week devoted to DWIs.

The courts couldn’t keep pace with the number of new DWI arrests, let alone make progress on the backlog. Between Dec. 31 and May 31, the number of pending DWI cases in Mecklenburg County swelled from 2,797 to 3,221, according to data from the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts.

It’s typical for courts to have a hefty list of pending DWI cases, but not like this.

The shutdown and the mounting backlog forced court officials to come up with a new approach to proceedings, while keeping public safety in mind.

The courts’ 10-week experiment to tackle the DWI backlog — launched on June 7 — is novel in several ways.

For one thing, the Mecklenburg courthouse has never devoted an entire courtroom to DWIs. In the past, these cases have been processed alongside a variety of other misdemeanors, including shoplifting, larcenies and minor drug cases.

More than that, the DWI courtroom’s basic organization is drastically different.

Ordinarily, defendants are expected to arrive at the start of their court session, not knowing exactly when — or if — their case will be called.

Under the new system, each defendant is assigned a specific time to arrive in court. For trials, no more than one defendant is in the courtroom at any given time. And even in pleas, which get processed quickly, no more than a small handful of defendants are assigned to the same time slot.

The setup cuts down on crowds and unnecessary waiting. And although the new system is still in its trial period for the next 10 weeks, Osman thinks there’s a chance it could wind up as a permanent solution.

“We think there are now some opportunities to change and improve our processes to make them more efficient,” he said.

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On a recent June morning, Osman’s court runs fairly smoothly.

The first trial of the day, a case from August 2019, ends in a guilty verdict. So does the second trial — this one from April 2018. Both defendants lose their licenses for 30 days and are told to perform 24 hours of community service.

But in the early afternoon, there’s a hitch. A defendant has asked for a trial, so the court assigns them a full 90-minute timeslot. Then, the defendant changes to a guilty plea, shortening their hearing dramatically.

The courtroom is left with a huge block of empty time.

According to Laughrun, the defense attorney, weaknesses like this make the new system a mixed bag.

“Sometimes it’s really good, sometimes it’s really bad,” he said.

But Laughrun is quick to point out how fickle defendants can be. It’s fairly common for defendants to change their minds at the last minute, filing a guilty plea rather than going through with a trial, he says. Additionally, it’s always possible a defendant won’t show up to court on their scheduled court date, leaving the court with a hole in its schedule.

Trial length can also be unpredictable, despite the court’s efforts to predict the time needed for each case.

Asked about Osman’s hope that this new system could be more efficient than the old one, Laughrun says, “I totally disagree with that.”

Maybe — for right now. But Osman pointed out that the current system is a work in progress. This is uncharted territory, and the courts are moving slowly.

“We’re gonna try to see the silver lining,” he said.

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