State lawyers urge US Supreme Court to reject DWI dispute

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  • Lawyers from the N.C. Justice Department have urged the U.S. Supreme Court to reject a case challenging the state's drunk driving prosecution procedures.
  • Petitioners to the high court challenge a procedure called "dismissal with leave." They say prosecutors have abused the procedure to coerce defendants into pleading guilty.
  • State lawyers respond that the challengers misread state law. The state rejects the argument that "dismissal with leave" cases violate a 1967 U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

Lawyers for N.C. state government are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reject a case involving the prosecution of impaired driving cases in the Tar Heel State. Two DWI defendants claim prosecutors left them in legal limbo when they refused to enter guilty pleas.

The case Diaz-Tomas v. State of North Carolina focuses on a procedure called “dismissal with leave.” If a DWI defendant misses a court date, a district attorney can have the case removed from the court calendar. The criminal charge remains, and only the D.A. can restore the case to the calendar.

Challengers say prosecutors have used “dismissal with leave” to coerce plaintiffs into pleading guilty. Otherwise, the charges remain unresolved. Diaz-Tomas’ lawyers argue that the process violates a 1967 U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

Lawyers with N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein’s state Department of Justice responded to the U.S. Supreme Court petition Monday.

“Petitioners claim that North Carolina has ‘revived’ an ‘identical’ practice to the one that this
Court struck down under the Sixth Amendment’s Speedy Trial Clause in Klopfer v. North Carolina,” according to the state’s brief. “Specifically, Petitioners claim that, as in Klopfer, the criminal charges against them may remain pending ‘forever’ under North Carolina law. Petitioners claim that they have no way to resolve the charges other than to plead guilty.”

“Petitioners’ arguments are based on an incorrect understanding of state law,” state lawyers argued. “In Klopfer, the defendant had ‘no means by which he [could] obtain a dismissal
or have the case restored to the calendar for trial.’ By contrast, Petitioners here have a readily accessible way to vindicate their speedy-trial rights. A state statute expressly gives them the right to move to dismiss charges at any time on the ground that they have ‘been denied a speedy trial as required by the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of North Carolina.’”

“Petitioners have never sought this relief. Instead, they sought an order requiring the State to reinstate their charges,” the brief continued. “Because state law provides a clear procedural mechanism for Petitioners to vindicate their speedy-trial rights, Klopfer does not apply, and these cases do not warrant this Court’s review.”

Justice Department lawyers listed other reasons why the U.S. Supreme Court’s review is “unwarranted.” “Petitioners ask for summary reversal, claiming that the North Carolina Supreme Court ‘defied’ Klopfer. … [T]hat argument is based on a misunderstanding of state law. It also misreads Klopfer itself.”

“Klopfer addressed a practice where charges could be dismissed with leave for any reason,” state lawyers explained. “At the same time, this Court expressly declined to address the constitutionality of a North Carolina statute that, as here, allowed the State to dismiss charges against a nonappearing defendant with leave to reinstate charges when a defendant was found.”

“Thus, Petitioners are asking this Court to extend Klopfer to the new context of nonappearing defendants. But Petitioners have not even attempted to show a split on that question or otherwise show that it merits review,” state lawyers argued.

Petitioners to the U.S. Supreme Court often argue that a review at the nation’s highest court will help resolve a split in lower courts’ interpretation of federal law or U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

The state Justice Department submitted its response to the Diaz-Tomas petition after an April 13 request from the nation’s highest court. State officials initially submitted paperwork on April 4 waiving the right to respond in the case.

The dispute has attracted attention from the libertarian Cato Institute. “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 a friend-of-the-court brief Cato filed on May 4. “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 U.S. Supreme Court is likely to decide in the weeks ahead whether to take the Diaz-Tomas case. If so, the court would consider the case in its 2023-24 term, which starts in October.