The Pitt County District Attorney’s Office recently highlighted accomplishments and reported staff is ready to proceed with cases efficiently once normal courthouse operations resume.
District Attorney Faris Dixon last week issued a two-year progress report that highlighted the new Behavioral Health Treatment Court, efforts to fighting domestic violence and human trafficking and partnering with court officials for the drivers license restoration program.
Dixon also said his office has been working throughout COVID-19 court closures. Assistant prosecutors have used the time review additional cases and prepare plea offers, indictments and trials.
The cases of defendants in custody at the Pitt County Detention Center were prioritized, with special attention to those who were high risk for COVID-19, Dixon said in the report.
The office has worked with local attorneys and members of the public to remotely handle traffic matters. Officials also increased use of electronic case management and automated discovery systems to track cases and provide necessary documents to attorneys, the report said.
The DA’s office conducted meetings with law enforcement over WebEx when reviewing homicide and other serious felony cases.
“2020 has been a difficult year for everyone,” Dixon said in the report. “Despite the obstacles, progress is still being made in my office, in our local community, and in our state to improve our criminal justice system. My staff and I look forward to continuing this progress and our service to Pitt County in 2021.”
The Reflector inquired with Dixon about the number of criminal cases that are currently awaiting trial. The newspaper also sought information about the number of new cases filed with the office versus the number of cases it has resolved.
The data was not easily accessible, Dixon said. All cases from 2019 and before have been scheduled for trial or have plea offers on the table if they have not been resolved, Dixon said.
“We will start having trials again shortly so those numbers will go down,” He said. “I think it’s going to particularly help that we have a new district court judge which allows to have more court time,” Dixon said.
The state Administrative Office of the Court this year added a sixth District Court judge position to help handle the heavy caseload in Pitt County. Mario Perez was elected to the post in November.
Dixon said he wanted jurors to know when trials start back they will do the best they can to make sure jurors feel safe and that everything is sanitized. The new jury summons will include an assessment of health issues, he said.
Behavioral Health Treatment Court
Prior to taking office, Dixon said he had been communicating with local stakeholders about implementing the court in Pitt County. It held its first session in July.
BHTC is a court program for those with mental or behavioral health issues who have committed certain criminal offenses. The program brings together court officials and mental health professionals to ensure that those who qualify to obtain appropriate treatment and services and maintain the resources when transitioning back into community life.
The Pitt County Board of Commissioners voted in 2020 to approve funding for the program.
Domestic violence, human trafficking
In January 2020, the office applied for grant funds for additional staff on its special victims team. The grant was approved over the summer. The money will be used for a special victims legal assistant and investigator.
Assistant District Attorney Andrew Tamer also has been added to the special victims team. Tamer has previously worked for the Legal Aid of NC in Winston-Salem and prosecuted domestic violence cases as an ADA in Johnston County. Tamer served as Special Assistant United States Attorney at Fort Bragg and was a military prosecutor in the U.S. Army.
The DA’s office is also partnering with Caitlyn’s Courage, a local nonprofit that developed a domestic violence electronic monitoring pilot program. The program aims to reduce interaction between domestic violence victims and offenders by equipping offenders with a tracking device. The device will alert both parties, as well as a third-party, when the victim and offender are in close proximity.
In 2020, Dixon joined the board of N.C. Stop Human Trafficking. The organization provides education and training to community members, professionals, and service providers about recognizing and reporting human trafficking and improving services to victims, the report said.
License restoration, expunction
Dixon partnered with other Pitt County court officials and the North Carolina Pro Bono Resource Center in 2020 to complete the drivers license restoration program. The program is a restorative justice project to remit debt for certain unpaid traffic matters that resulted in driver’s license suspensions, the report said.
The program provides relief from unpaid court frees and fines for traffic tickets that meet eligibility requirements set by the DA’s office. Previously ticketed drivers can see if their case is eligible for relief by visiting ncfairchance.org. Those with more serious offenses such as Driving While Impaired are excluded from this consideration, the report said.
The General Assembly expanded expunction relief over the summer with the Second Chance Act. The act expands expunction eligibility for individuals who were convicted of certain offenses while under the age of 18 prior to the Raise the Age Act.
The act also expands expunction eligibility for charges that resulted in dismissal or acquittal and shortened the lookback periods for expunctions for nonviolent felonies and misdemeanors.
Citizens who believe they are eligible for an expunction must submit or have an attorney submit on their behalf a petition for expunction. Further legislation regarding automatic expunctions for charges that resulted in dismissal or acquittal is expected later in 2021 but not in effect at this time, the report said.