Your Constitutional Right to Counsel

Fifty years ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all criminal defendants had a constitutional right to counsel. Despite the outcome of Gideon v. Wainwright, upholding this legal right continues to be a struggle in North Carolina and beyond. Some of these struggles are a result of a severely overburdened public defender system. The executive director of North Carolina’s Office of Indigent Defense Services (and NCAJ member) Tom Maher led a successful symposium at Campbell School of Law on March 8 – focused on how the state can work to fulfill the promise of Gideon (program agenda). [Event video will be available on this website shortly.] As we mark the 50 year anniversary of this landmark case, it is important to examine both how far we have come and where we need to go to ensure high quality indigent defense in North Carolina, in both criminal and civil matters. For more, watch the documentary Gideon’s Army at the Full Frame Festival in Durham, NC, which will play on opening night on April 4. Also, experts have reflected on this important anniversary in the media, including the New York Times and NPR.

Commission on Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System

At this time last year, public-interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson received one of the longest standing ovations in the history of the TED conference. Founder of the Equality Justice Initiative, Mr. Stevenson spoke of his work fighting racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. The North Carolina Advocates for Justice is proud of its partnership with many local leaders across the state of North Carolina in forming the North Carolina Commission on Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System. For a full list of the Commission members, click here. The Commission was formed through the work of the NCAJ Racial and Ethnic Bias in the Criminal Justice System Task Force, which was created in October 2010 and has drawn on expertise from leadership at the ACLU, NC Prisoner Legal Services, North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, and Public Defender’s offices, among others.

The Commission, established in September 2012, is an independent entity that aims to better understand and then remedy the underlying, systemic causes of the disproportionate representation of African-Americans and Hispanic/Latinos in the criminal and juvenile justice systems. The Commission intends to research the points at which disproportionate representation occurs and their underlying causes, then will undertake to design remedies supported by all criminal justice stakeholders. For more, visit

Pry Before You Buy (a Used Vehicle)

Before….BEFORE you decide to purchase a used vehicle you MUST do your homework. Before buying a home people routinely have a home inspection done so why do more people not do the same before deciding to buy a used vehicle? Courts in North Carolina impose a duty on a buyer to perform due diligence and investigation before making a consumer purchase. “Buyer beware” is alive and well… how do you do your homework? Here are a few tips………

Hire an independent, experienced mechanic to inspect your vehicle. Sure you may have to spend $100 to $200 for a vehicle inspection but isn’t it better you do that and find out the vehicle’s problems before you make the purchase? If the seller refuses to allow you to have a mechanic inspect the vehicle and refuses to provide a warranty on the vehicle this should raise a red flag in your mind about purchasing the vehicle.

In addition to having the used vehicle inspected by a mechanic you should run an online check (or two..or three) on your vehicle. Obtain the vehicle’s VIN from the vehicle (not from paperwork provided by the seller) and check at least one of the following:

CarFax (provides vehicle histories and reports)
Autocheck (provides vehicle histories and reports)
National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (national electronic database with vehicle history information)

Be sure to test drive the vehicle and examine it closely for signs of prior damage. Drive the vehicle on city streets, open highway, and some different settings to get a more accurate idea of how it handles. Check all buttons, knobs, options, and features during your test drive(s).

Once you have determined the vehicle is worthy of some of your money be sure to get a realistic idea as to a fair price for the vehicle. It is totally free for you to review the following sources of vehicle pricing information:

Kelley Blue Book
National Automobile Dealers Association Guide (a/k/a “The Blue Book”)

For further tips on checking out that used vehicle visit the Federal Trade Commission’s webpage on the topic.

Now you are ready to negotiate on that used vehicle. Be smart in your search and good luck!

John T. O’Neal is a practicing attorney in Greensboro, NC who focuses his practice in Personal Injury/Wrongful Death, Consumer Law (includes Auto Dealer Fraud/Vehicle Issues and Debt Defense Lemon Law), and various types of Civil Litigation. A long-time NCAJ member, he is a former Chair of the NCAJ Consumer Areas of Practice Section and a two-time Ebby Award winner. [first posted to on Dec. 13, 2012]

Five Things to Do When the Highway Patrol Stops You

You see the blue light. You feel your stomach churn.

You are being pulled over by the Highway Patrol.

What should you do? Five tips:
• 1. Keep your hands on the wheel. The trooper is trained to watch your hands. This is *not* the time to go rummaging through your center console or your glove box. Produce your driver’s license and registration when requested, but otherwise keep your hands in plain sight of the trooper. You don’t want him thinking you’re going for a gun.
• 2. Keep your mouth shut. You have the right to remain silent. Use it. “Do you know how fast you were going?” Answer: “No.” “Have many beers have you had to drink tonight?” Answer: if you’ve been drinking, there’s no good answer. Don’t respond. If you are arrested and put in the patrol car, be aware that anything you say is probably being recorded. Say nothing.
• 3. Do not consent to a search of your car. Troopers are trained to write you a speeding ticket, hand you back your license, and then ask, “Hey, before you go, would it be OK if I search your car?” Tell the trooper that it would *not* be OK, and then get back in your car and drive away.
• 4. If a search is done anyway, be clear that you object – but otherwise get out of the way. The trooper may have a legal right to search your car even if you don’t consent. As you stand there on the side of the road, be clear that you object to the search, but do not try to get between the trooper and your vehicle. It can get ugly fast, and it won’t help you or the trooper to turn it into a fight.
• 5. Call a lawyer as soon as possible. Self-serving advice from a lawyer? No. I have people call me all the time who tried to handle a case on their own, only to make things much worse. Whether the trooper gave you a speeding ticket, a drug charge, or something in between, you need to talk to a lawyer (and no one else) at your first opportunity.
Keith Williams is a Board Certified Specialist in Federal and State Criminal Law who practices in Greenville, NC. For more information, visit [first posted on July 14 2011]


Hello and welcome to the inaugural edition of the North Carolina Advocates for Justice (NCAJ) Blog. The North Carolina Advocates For Justice is a nonprofit, nonpartisan association dedicated to protecting people’s rights through professional and community legal education, championing individual rights, and protecting the safety of North Carolina’s families — in the workplace, in the home, and in the environment.

Each week we will be offering articles and commentary related to legal matters of concern to all North Carolinians. The areas of law will range among numerous categories, both civil and criminal, including consumer protection, eminent domain, civil rights, criminal law, auto torts, workers compensation, family law, employment law, disability law, medical malpractice, nursing home law, products and safety, professional negligence, other forms of negligent injury, and others. Our purpose in providing this blog is to provide current information on policy decisions, laws, and other legal matters that affect us all.

In addition to this blog we have a link to a forum to allow discussion of these topics among the NCAJ, its members and North Carolinians like you. We hope this blog and the discussion will be informative and useful in understanding the important legal policies, decisions and other related matters that affect us all in our daily lives. Thank you.