Pandemic Forces Mecklenburg DA To Refocus Priorities On Violent Crimes
Pandemic restrictions have slowed down the amount of cases being heard in courtrooms across the country. Because of that, Mecklenburg County’s district attorney says he refocused his office’s priorities when it comes to which cases to prosecute.
More resources have been directed to prosecuting homicide cases, and low-level drug offenses have become less of a priority. But according to a recent report, police are still arresting people for these drug charges even if they will not face prosecution.
The pandemic has hit the Mecklenburg County court system hard. District Attorney Spencer Merriweather says more than 110 homicide cases are pending trial.
"The best thing that the district attorney can do for criminal justice in this community and public safety in this community is swiftly get the most violent people in our community to trial," Merriweather said. "This allows me to that."
Merriweather is referring to a reallocation of resources he announced in November that puts more prosecutors on homicide cases and less emphasis on prosecuting low-level drug offenses — instead utilizing drug diversion programs.
"With regard to simple possession cases with some exceptions, we have decided we would not accept those for felony prosecution," he said.
Exceptions could include if weapons, violence,or repeat offenders were involved.
But a recent report from WCNC found that Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers are still making arrests on low-level drug offenses that will likely never be prosecuted.
During a press conference this week, a CMPD spokesman said “discretion still lies with the officer to make that arrest.”
On Thursday, the Fraternal Order of Police released a strongly worded statement that said the DA office's decision “sets a double standard for Police Officers and Deputies across the county.”
"Officers are here to uphold the law and they are going to continue to do that and that’s their job," said Yolian Ortiz, the spokesperson for the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 9, which covers Mecklenburg County. "And if they don’t do their job, what’s the point of having a police officer?"
Ortiz added there's concern over how the public will react to the DA's decision.
"These drug cases are not going to be charged and the public is going to have this in mind and know that when an officer pulls them over and they aren’t going to get charged for arrested for this," Ortiz said.
The Fraternal Order of Police and the DA’s office can agree on one thing — both say drug-related crimes are a public health issue. Both agree treatment centers and diversion programs should be utilized.
"That’s the same thing that we are saying," Merriweather said. "Those are values I’ve agreed with and I think we have long agreed with. We are just choosing to implement it in a different way."
The big difference, though, is the DA’s office is not the agency charged with making arrests.
"I’m never one to defend law enforcement heavily," criminal defense attorney Darlene Harris said. "But this is a tough situation because there is not going to be a situation where you are committing a crime in front of a police officer and they do nothing about it, right?"
Harris points out it’s important for people to remember that the DA's office and the police department are two different organizations with two different functions.
"The police can do whatever they want independent of the DA. The decisions of the police department are not the decision of the DA. And the decisions of the DA are not the decisions of the police department," she said. "They often are on the same page, but in a situation like this where they are differing in how they are effectuating the law, you want to continue to stay vigilant and continue to be aware that the law is the law regardless of whether the DA says they are going to prosecute it. And at any point, the DA could change their mind."
Just because low-level drug cases aren’t being prosecuted right now, Harris stressed, doesn’t mean they won’t be again.
To that end, Merriweather said there will always be new challenges, and sometimes that's a moving target.
"But I will tell you that a year’s stoppage to a court system is not a one-year problem. It’s a five-year problem, it’s a 10-year problem," Merriweather said. "We will be seeing the effects of this pandemic for a very long time."
Merriweather added if his office is not making at least some changes in the way they are prioritizing cases now, if they choose not to go this way, they'll have to choose another way.