District Attorney – Benjamin Zellinger

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What is the central role of the district attorney?
The District Attorney is obviously the chief prosecutor in the county, so the elected DA determines what is appropriate and just in all of the cases that come through our criminal courts. I think the DA has a role as an administrator in running an office with a pretty big budget and a lot of folks working under it making sure the office continues to hum and is able to address the thousands and thousands of cases that come through court everyday.

Some judicial districts around the state make use of special courtroom procedures or pleas for minor offenses like traffic violations. How would you handle cases like these in Wake County?
The public’s interaction with the criminal justice system is most likely to be somebody’s child gets charged with a speeding ticket or a drinking ticket, or driving with a revoked license, something like that. Those courtrooms are important for us to prioritize what cases we want to address. A lot of times driving with revoked cases are ones where people, because of a financial situation, aren’t able to pay off a speeding ticket or a stop sign ticket, and from that the license gets revoked and from that they get further in trouble. I don’t think anyone should get a criminal record based on their financial situation. I want to prioritize and make sure the district court is addressing DWI cases so people can be confident when they’re driving home at night they’re not going to be hit by a drunk driver who’s done it several times before.

District Attorneys around the state have taken different steps to manage the flow of cases. What will you do to improve the speed and efficiency of the criminal court docket in Wake County?
In terms of felonies, in superior court the same thing needs to happen, almost every felony is serious and we need to address it, but at the same time I’m cognizant after being a drug prosecutor for several years that there’s not a lot of people out there who are dealing drugs because they want to; it’s because that’s sort of the only opportunity available to them. So I recognize things don’t happen in a vacuum, our office needs to be agile enough to address changing issues that come through our court system in 5, 10, 20 years to come.

How do you view minor drug offenses?
I think I have a unique perspective, I was a drug prosecutor, I know what it’s like to take a marijuana case in front of a Wake County jury. One of the chief roles of prosecutors is to be conscientious and thoughtful about how we address cases. What has been such a blessing under Colon is that prosecutors have discretion to think about what they’re doing and realize that not every drug offense needs to be hammered home to a jury, but rather there may be better alternatives to make sure a person gets out of the clutches of substance abuse and becomes a productive member of society.

Would you have taken the same approach to prosecuting the Moral Monday protestors and why or why not?
If I would be elected District Attorney, I think I would be on a quest to make sure that those second-degree trespassing trials don’t eat up a majority of our court’s time, because we’re in a game where resources are so important. If we decided to put resources into prosecuting second-degree trespassing it means we can’t prosecute DWI cases. I would have offered the same sort of overall effort to make sure people could accept responsibility for what they did.

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