Thursday, December 7, 2023

Judge throws out case of Wilmington teacher charged with speeding drunk through downtown with illicit painkillers

North Carolina's 5th District Court covers district and felony court cases in New Hanover and Pender counties. (Port City Daily photo | BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)
A Judge in 5th District Court threw out a DWI and drug possession case against a Wilmington teacher; now the DA’s office is appealing the case. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman

WILMINGTON — The District Attorney’s office is appealing the case of a middle school teacher arrested for speeding, driving drunk, and drug possession after a District Court judge threw it out, citing lack of probable cause.

The case stems from an arrest on April 24, 2019, where Arlene Johnson, an 8th-grade language arts teacher at Myrtle Grove Middle School, was stopped at around 10:15 p.m. after allegedly driving 49 mph in the 35 mph zone on S. 3rd St. near Orange Street, according to the Wilmington Police Department (WPD).

Johnson, 29, initially refused to take a breathalyzer but later agreed, blowing a BAC of .15%, nearly double the legal limit, according to WPD. Willmington police officers also found 11 hydrocodone pills (325mg), for which Johnson allegedly had no prescription, according to the New Hanover County District Attorney’s Office.

Johnson was charged with DWI, speeding, and Schedule II possession; she was released after being given an $800 unsecured bond (Johnson was apparently not processed into the New Hanover County Detention Facility, as the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office has no record of the incident).

Johnson received a probable cause hearing on February 12. During the hearing, Johnson’s attorney made a motion to suppress the stop due to lack of probable cause — the motion was granted by District Court Judge Sandra Ray.

The District Attorney’s office filed an appeal to prosecute the case the following day.

The District Attorney’s office said it was unable to comment on the details of an active case, including the rationale for claiming a lack of probable cause. However, in general, the DA’s office does not prosecute cases unless prosecutors believe there is not only probable cause but also compelling evidence to remove ‘reasonable doubt.’

Judge Sandra Ray and DWIs

Judge Ray has a contentious history when it comes to prosecuting intoxicated driving cases.

In 1996, Ray — then Criner — was fired by then-District Attorney John Carriker for her handling of DWI cases. Apparently, Ray had operated without Carriker’s knowledge to get DWI cases dismissed or ruled ‘not guilty,’ leading in part to a review of several cases by the states’ Judicial Standards Commission. This, in turn, led to a state Supreme Court ruling had harsh words for those involved in the cases, namely Ray, Judge Elton G. Tucker, and a defense attorney.

According to the July 9, 1998 state Supreme Court decision, Carricker’s policy was not to dismiss any case where the defendant blew over the state limit (.08%) or declined to take a breathalyzer.

According to the decision, “According to former assistant district attorney Sandra [Ray] Criner, ‘not guilty, not guilty’ was a practice which had developed in dealing with DWI cases for which the Breathalyzer test results were sufficient but for which some other essential element was lacking. The policy of the elected district attorney was ‘not to dismiss driving while impaired charges’ for a defendant who blew .08 on the Breathalyzer or refused to take the Breathalyzer test. Rather than violate this policy by dismissing a DWI case, the assistant district attorney would call the case but not present any evidence. Of necessity, if the State presented no evidence, the judge would enter a not guilty verdict.”

The State Supreme Court moved to “strongly condemn” Ray, Tucker, and the defense attorney but stopped short of official censure.

The issue became part of the 2002 race for District Attorney, where Ray (having changed parties from Democratic to Republican) challenged Carriker, a Democrat; the two ‘traded barbs,’ according to Star News, with Ray accusing Carriker of failing to prosecute habitual felons (among other issues), and Carriker pointing to Ray’s questionable treatment of DWI cases and inexperience.

DWI criticisms resurface, elections complaint

Ray is currently running for re-election and was recently the subject of an election complaint, filed on Friday, February 21, by a volunteer for the South East Republican Men’s Association, an organization supporting Richard Kern, who is challenging Ray in the Republican primary.

As first reported by WECT, volunteer Mike Korn was handing out a pamphlet that detailed several allegations against Ray; these included Ray’s 1996 termination and allegations of ‘political maneuvering’ and other issues, including that Ray allegedly pleaded guilty to a DWI of her own (note: Port City Daily has not yet found evidence of a conviction, although court records do indicate a 1984 intoxicated and disruptive traffic offense that was dismissed by the Wake County District Attorney’s office).

According to Korn’s complaint, he handed the pamphlet to a woman who was heading to the early voting station at the Northeast Branch of the New Hanover County Library. According to the complaint, Ray was present and approached the woman. Korn said Ray took the pamphlet from the woman and provided her own materials instead; Ray then allegedly handed Korn’s pamphlet back to him, saying she would see him ‘in the deposition,’ which he interpreted as a threat.

The New Hanover County Board of Elections has passed the complaint to the North Carolina State Board of Elections; Ray has not yet responded publicly to Korn’s complaint, but this article will be updated with any future comment from her.

Below: A copy of Korn’s complaint.

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001

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