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Fund our Courts

With more resources, police can take down more Tracy Howards

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By the time Tracy McDaniel Howard turned 16, it was clear he was out of control.

While the courts dismissed charge after charge against Howard or pleaded down charges that would have put him away for years, Howard was refining his skills as a pimp and a drug dealer, and teaching others how to prostitute young girls. By his early 20s, Howard was prostituting underage runaway girls and growing into one of the Central Avenue and North Tryon Street area's more formidable drug dealers. Charlotteans probably don't realize it, but all the while they were paying a growing tab for Howard's activities.

By 2004, he controlled most of the drug activity in a 60-unit apartment complex at 301 Eastway Drive, which had grown into one of the city's biggest crack hubs. He paid the rent on multiple apartments for his drug dealers there, and when others tried to encroach on his territory, they'd fight it out in gun battles on the street.

The territory was worth fighting for. On the weekends, the population would swell by 200 to 300 people, as crack users and prostitutes converged on the complex. Police piled extra resources on Little Mexico and taxpayers paid officers for thousands of hours of overtime to keep the chaos contained around the clock. City officials eventually spent hundreds more man hours and nearly $150,000 tearing Little Mexico down.

Meanwhile, mystified city politicians spent hours at meetings debating various high-dollar economic development schemes to clean up the increasingly crime-plagued Central Avenue corridor. Perhaps they could spend tens of millions of dollars to run a street car down it? Maybe millions more into Eastland Mall or a mixed use development in the Cricket Arena area?

Though Howard actually managed to serve two jail terms over the last decade -- which must be a record in our court system -- the list of charges against him that were dismissed is maddening. In 1999, police charged him with larceny of a motor vehicle and assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill. The charges were dismissed. So were multiple auto-theft related, drug, larceny and firearms charges along the way. That's not surprising. Mecklenburg prosecutors are forced to dismiss about half the felonies defendants are charged with because they lack the resources to follow through. And as most people probably know by now, our county courts receive less funding than the county dog pound.

At one point, when Howard was caught in a hotel room with drugs and the underage girls he was prostituting, police tried to get the attention of the district attorney's office. Overwhelmed DAs were not only uninterested -- they misplaced the paperwork.

Not that it would have mattered. To get Howard any kind of significant jail time would require using the state's conspiracy laws, laws that most district attorneys across the state stopped using years ago because they require too many man hours. And man hours require funding.

In the meantime, Howard and his family grew their drug and prostitution business into a $400,000 a year enterprise that served crack heads up and down the North Tryon and Central Avenue corridors -- as well as johns from Lake Norman to Little Mexico who liked their girls delivered to their doorstep by car. (The Howards planned to report $400,000 in earnings from their escort service to the IRS. Actual profits were likely much higher.)

They'd probably still be at it today if frustrated police investigators hadn't convinced federal prosecutors to take the case. The result was a 21-count conviction. Howard hasn't been sentenced yet, but he's facing so many years in prison that he'll likely go straight from there to the retirement home.

Problem is, federal prosecutors can only take on a tiny number of such cases. Meanwhile, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Captain Eddie Levins says he's seeing evidence that people from surrounding cities and states are increasingly driving to Charlotte for the kind of one-stop drug and prostitution services the Howards offered. The level of organization police saw in their enterprise was new to them. It was also a sign of the kind of organized crime some people believe is beginning to take hold here in Charlotte.

Yet despite all of this, and despite the fact that other similar-sized cities have a third more DAs than we do and three times the court support staff, only Mayor Pat McCrory has been out front at the state capitol demanding that Governor Mike Easley and North Carolina state House and Senate leaders Jim Black and Mark Basnight fund our courts.

He can't do it alone. He needs the help of other politicians and the leaders of the Charlotte Chamber, who have so far been AWOL on this issue. That's because beating the drum for more court funding might annoy the legislators the Chamberites are trying to get a rental car tax hike out of to pay for their precious arts package. Perhaps it's time they consider how much gun battles over drug territory in the uptown area would annoy arts patrons.

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