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Attorneys call for state investigation into Cabarrus County 'ticket-fixing arrangement'

A recent WCNC Charlotte investigation identified unusual plea deals given to some excessive speeding defendants.

CABARRUS COUNTY, N.C. — An estimated 20 defense attorneys are expected to file a "notice of concern" with the North Carolina State Bar and state investigative agencies this week after WCNC Charlotte uncovered unequal justice at the Cabarrus County Courthouse.

WCNC Charlotte's Nate Morabito obtained a preliminary draft lawyers expect to submit later this week. The notice raises ethical issues over the way prosecutors resolved some excessive speeding cases and reveals state bar investigators have already reached out to multiple attorneys about "the ticket-fixing arrangement."

The draft letter identifies the "television and print stories by WCNC, informing the public of these dispositions and calling into questions the trust that the citizenry can place in the Cabarrus County justice system," as among the reasons for concern.

Credit: WCNC
An estimated 20 defense attorneys are expected to file a "notice of concern" with the North Carolina State Bar and state investigative agencies this week.

Defense attorney Laura Baker is among those who believe there needs to be an investigation.

"I believe a lot of the local attorneys believe that there should be an investigation," she said. "We need to have it investigated, so that the air is cleared and we can start fresh and we can all make sure that that we're acting appropriately for our clients and we can restore our faith in the system."

Credit: WCNC
Defense attorney Laura Baker is among those who believe there needs to be an investigation.

A recent WCNC Charlotte investigation identified lenient and unusual plea deals given to some excessive speeding defendants. Law enforcement originally charged the defendants with driving up to 40 miles per hour over the limit and in most cases, reckless driving too. Not only did those drivers get to keep their licenses, some left court with nothing more than a $10 fine and they all had something else in common: who they hired for attorneys.

RELATED: Cabarrus County prosecutors gave some accused high-speed drivers sweet deals, formal complaint filed

"Locally, it's been difficult for us, because part of the responsibility as defense attorneys is to uphold the reputation of the system," Baker said. "To have certain attorneys get benefits that's not related necessarily to their skill or legal prowess...it's simply because of who they are or who they know or who they pay, that's not ok."

A review of court documents and campaign finance records identified one lawyer in particular who secured more than 90% of the plea deals WCNC Charlotte identified. Todd Williford is also the leading donor to date for Assistant District Attorney Beth Street, who is running for judge, and was the prosecutor of record in several of his cases.

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Amid WCNC Charlotte's questions, District Attorney Roxann Vaneekhoven retired months before the end of her term, but not before dismissing what WCNC Charlotte uncovered as a small percentage of cases. She said her office gave non-traditional pleas "to a multitude of defense attorneys AND unrepresented citizens" due to pandemic-related court limitations, but never explained why prosecutors gave only certain attorneys failure to notify DMV of an address change or the even less severe rear seat belt plea deals.

Ashlie Shanley took over as the new district attorney this month. She previously referred all comment to Vaneekhoven.

"What bothers you the most about this situation?" WCNC Charlotte asked Baker.

"Probably the inequity across the board," she replied. "That's what doesn't feel right about it."

Baker is now the third attorney, following Howard Long and Vernon Russell, to speak publicly with concerns.

"A lot of us are getting calls daily from clients wondering, 'Why aren't we getting these deals?'" she told WCNC Charlotte. "I personally hear it almost daily from clients who call in and say that they saw the news story."

She said defense attorneys are ethically obligated to sound the alarm to the State Bar. In fact, in the days after WCNC Charlotte aired its investigation, a group of attorneys who regularly practice in Cabarrus County met and agreed to submit a "notice of concern." Unlike the anonymous bar complaint that preceded this one, at least 20 lawyers are expected to sign their names.

Contact Nate Morabito at nmorabito@wcnc.com and follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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