Libertarian Cato Institute supports Supreme Court review of NC DWI case

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  • The libertarian Cato Institute is supporting two N.C. drunk driving defendants' plea to have their case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • The defendants argue authorities have denied their right to a "speedy trial."
  • The complaint involves a practice known as "dismissal with leave." Under that practice, only a prosecutor can restore a case to a court docket if it has been removed after a defendant misses a court date.

The libertarian Cato Institute is supporting the bid of two N.C. drunk driving defendants to have their case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. The defendants claim authorities have denied their right to a “speedy” trial.

Cato filed a friend-of-the-court brief Thursday in the case titled Diaz-Tomas v. North Carolina. The high court will decide in the coming weeks whether to take the case.

“Cato’s concern in this case is defending the jury trial as the presumptive means of adjudicating criminal charges and ensuring that the serious problem of coercive plea bargaining is not exacerbated by procedural mechanisms designed to achieve quick
and easy convictions,” according to the brief from Cato’s Jay Schweikert and Laura Bondank. “Permitting such a practice would further erode the participation of citizen juries in the criminal justice system and deprive defendants of the right to subject prosecutions to meaningful adversarial testing.”

The brief recounts the case’s basic facts. “Rogelio Diaz-Tomas and Edgardo Nunez were charged with driving while impaired and driving with a suspended license. Both men failed to appear at their initial court dates, and the district attorney filed a dismissal with leave in each case. As a result, their cases were removed from the court’s docket, and they were left with only one way to dispose of the charges: plead guilty,” Cato lawyers wrote.

The libertarian group takes issue with North Carolina’s “dismissal with leave” provisions. “A dismissal with leave does not truly dismiss the case; rather, it removes the case from the court’s docket, but the criminal charges otherwise remain pending,” according to Cato’s brief. “Only the prosecutor has the ability to reinstate a case after a dismissal with leave has been filed. So when Mr. Diaz-Tomas and Mr. Nunez sought reinstatement of their cases, the prosecutor agreed, but only if they pled guilty and waived their right to an appeal.”

A unanimous N.C. Supreme Court rejected the two defendants’ arguments last year. The defendants’ March 14 petition to the U.S. Supreme Court accused North Carolina’s top court of “blatantly flouting” court precedent by reinstating a practice declared unconstitutional in 1967.

Cato focused on a separate concern. “[D]ecisions like the one below prioritize efficiency over the fair administration of justice,” according to its brief. “Our Constitution prescribes certain procedures necessary for the protection of liberty and which are ‘fundamental to the American scheme of justice.’”

“While these protections may make prosecutions more burdensome, ‘we may not
disregard [them] at our convenience.’ Giving prosecutors exclusive authority to determine how and when a case is disposed after a defendant misses one court appearance is a clear example of how states are chipping away at constitutional protections to achieve quick and easy convictions,” Cato’s lawyers added.

The brief laments “the practical elimination of modern jury trials.” Cato lawyers say that change in the justice system is “driven in large part by exactly the sort of coercive plea-
bargaining tactics employed by the North Carolina district attorney.”

“The state acknowledged that it is standard practice to only reinstate DWI cases if the
defendant agrees to plead guilty,” Cato lawyers wrote. “It is no surprise a defendant would choose to plead guilty rather than remain under the scourge of unresolved
criminal charges indefinitely.”

Cato urges the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case and “summarily reverse” the N.C. Supreme Court’s opinion. Such a decision would “ensure criminal defendants have access to the rights afforded to them by the Constitution and that the unchecked use of coercive plea-bargaining tactics does not result in the wholesale erosion of the criminal jury trial.”

State lawyers filed a document on April 4 waiving the right to respond to the U.S. Supreme Court petition. Nine days later, the court requested a response. That response is due May 15.

The high court will decide at some later point whether to take the case. If justices decide to hear the case, oral arguments would take place no earlier than next fall.