Some raise questions about how judge handles DWI cases

by: Mark Becker Updated:

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. - When police and state troopers came to Channel 9 with questions about how a local judge handles DWI cases, Eyewitness News decided to look at her record.

We sat in several of her sessions in court, and Eyewitness News reporter Mark Becker spent several weeks going over court records where he found numbers that may support what they're saying.

Take the case that happened on Catawba Avenue in Cornelius, in which an officer pulled a car over after it went through a red light. The officer wrote that he noticed the strong odor of alcohol and a breath test showed the driver's blood-alcohol level was .27, more than three times the legal limit.

It was his second DWI arrest in a little more than a year.

But when the case came to court, the judge, Kim Best Staton, ruled that because he'd been held too long in the jail that the driver had been deprived of the right to get independent proof in his defense.

So she dismissed the charge, and it wasn't the only one.

Eyewitness News went through court records of all of the DWI cases Judge Best-Staton heard between January and May of this year and discovered that she found two out of three DWI defendants who went to trial not guilty.

Compare that with other district court judges here, who, according to the most recent statistics, found 67 percent guilty, and judges across the state, who found 76 percent guilty.

Those numbers come as no surprise to police or state troopers who have had cases in Judge Best-Staton's courtroom. Eyewitness News has spoken with several who said they're frustrated but don't feel they can publicly question a judge's rulings.

But one local group is doing that.

“She's been on our radar since the end of last year,” said Marcus Philemon with Mecklenburg County Court Watch.

Philemon's Court Watch organization has questioned Judge Best-Staton's decisions in other cases, and he was not at all surprised by the numbers Eyewitness News showed him.

“I would say her judgment is not where it needs to be,” Philemon said.

Eyewitness News reporter Mark Becker spoke with Judge Best-Staton twice on the phone, and she declined to comment on what we found or on criticism from officers and Court Watch.

She suggested Eyewitness News speak with defense attorneys to get their perspective, so we did.

“I think she's a very good judge,” Bill Powers said. “I think she cares about Mecklenburg County.  I think she cares about both sides.”

Powers handles a lot of DWI cases, so Eyewitness News showed him what we found.

Powers said he's skeptical of statistics that may not fully explain why a judge ruled one way or the other.

He did say that Judge Best-Staton makes sure troopers and police don't take short cuts in DWI arrests, even if it means dismissing a case.

“Do defense attorneys shop around and look for a judge like this?” Eyewitness News asked.

“You know, everybody talks about that -- no more so than district attorneys do, no,” Powers said.

But privately, defense attorneys told Eyewitness News they know which judges are tougher than others and which judge is most likely to find in their favor.

What is clear is that DWI cases leave plenty of room for judgment, which leaves even more room for questions and criticism from both sides.