State Supreme Court rejects financial payoff for speedy-trial violation

North Carolina Supreme Court Justices Anita Earls and Richard Dietz

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  • The North Carolina Supreme Court split, 4-2, in rejecting a Durham man's attempt to collect monetary damages for a violation of his constitutional right to a speedy trial.
  • The majority, made up of four Republican justices, agreed that the decision to vacate Frankie Delano Washington's felony convictions addressed his speedy-trial concerns.
  • Democratic justices dissented. They would have allowed Washington's estate to pursue monetary damages through what North Carolina's courts describe as a "Corum claim."

The North Carolina Supreme Court has split, 4-2, in rejecting monetary damages for a Durham man who waited nearly five years to face a trial on criminal charges. The court’s majority agreed that vacating Frankie Delano Washington’s felony convictions addressed his speedy-trial claims.

The decision split the high court along party lines. Republican justices rejected monetary damages. Democratic justices would have allowed Washington’s estate to seek a monetary award.

Washington died during the case’s appeal. His son represented his estate as the case proceeded.

Arrested in 2002, Washington waited nearly five years to go to trial in Durham County on charges of “multiple serious felonies including first-degree burglary, second-degree kidnapping, robbery with a dangerous weapon, and attempted first-degree sex offense,” according to the Supreme Court opinion.

Washington’s original appeal included speedy-trial concerns. “He prevailed on that issue, and the Court of Appeals set aside his convictions on the ground that he had been deprived of his right to a speedy trial guaranteed by both the state and federal constitutions,” the opinion added.

Several years later, Washington filed suit against state and local officials. He sought damages for multiple claims, including the speedy-trial issue. The Court of Appeals rejected Washington’s arguments.

“Where there is a right, there is a remedy,” wrote Justice Richard Dietz for the Supreme Court’s majority. “This is a foundational principle of every common law legal system, including ours. We have long called it a ‘time-honored maxim.’”

“To protect this principle — to ensure that every right does indeed have a remedy in our court system — this Court created what are known as ‘Corum claims,’” Dietz explained. Under a court precedent called Corum, plaintiffs could seek damages “directly against the state.”

“[W]e repeatedly recognized Corum claims where the plaintiff had no other forum in which to raise the constitutional violation and receive a remedy. But this Court has never recognized a Corum claim where the plaintiff had the opportunity to raise a constitutional violation in court, did so and received a remedy, and then sought even more remedies in a second proceeding. Indeed, we have expressly rejected this approach,” Dietz wrote.

“Yet this is what plaintiff asks this Court to do today,” he added. “A jury convicted plaintiff of serious felony offenses including burglary, kidnapping, robbery, and attempted sex offense. During that criminal proceeding, plaintiff argued that the State violated his constitutional right to a speedy trial. He lost that argument at trial but won on appeal. As a remedy for the State’s violation of his speedy trial rights, the Court of Appeals set aside plaintiff’s criminal convictions.”

“In this action, plaintiff asserts that vacating his convictions was not enough,” Dietz wrote. “He also wants money damages from the State as a second remedy for the constitutional violation. … [T]his request goes too far beyond the ‘critical limitations’ set in Corum.”

“Plaintiff already received a powerful remedy for the State’s violation of his rights — he had his criminal convictions permanently set aside,” Dietz added. “That remedy distinguishes this case from every successful Corum case in our jurisprudence, where the plaintiff had no opportunity to go to court and obtain a meaningful remedy at all.”

“In short, plaintiff had an adequate state law remedy, and a separate Corum claim is unavailable,” Dietz concluded.

Justice Anita Earls dissented.

“As he waited for trial —the shadow of the charges hanging over his head — Mr. Washington tried again and again (and again) to move his case along,” she wrote. “As the years passed, he lodged a flurry of motions, asking the trial court to reduce his bond, to compel evidentiary testing, and, finally, to dismiss his charges.

“But the State stalled,” Earls added. “For three years, it withheld key evidence from forensic testing. When the trial court ordered the evidence tested, the State never alerted the labs. And even when the case was finally scheduled for trial, the State thrice asked to continue it.”

“Small wonder, then, that the Court of Appeals vacated Mr. Washington’s conviction on speedy trial grounds, chiding that ‘if the State had exercised even the slightest care,’ the delay could have been avoided,” Earls wrote.

“Once outside the prison walls, Mr. Washington sought accountability from the State and District Attorney Tracy Cline (DA Cline), the lead prosecutor in his case. To that end, he brought a civil suit for damages and injunctive relief, seeking redress for the harms inflicted by the State and beyond the reach of his criminal appeal,” Earls explained.

“But today, the majority extinguishes his claim and bars him from redressing the panoply of constitutional harms inflicted by the State,” she wrote. “According to the majority, the dismissal of Mr. Washington’s charges was an adequate remedy for his speedy trial violation. In other words, dismissal cured his constitutional injury — he is not entitled to more.”

“I disagree. The protections afforded by the speedy-trial right ripple beyond the criminal courtroom,” Earls wrote. “And so too do the harms from the right’s violation. When the State drags out a criminal case, it impairs the integrity of those proceedings and the reliability of the result.”

“But the harms of that constitutional violation are far broader,” she added. “The State’s delay, among other things, jeopardizes the defendant’s ability to provide for himself and his family, exposes him to health and safety risks, severs him from his community, hobbles his liberty, and robs him and his loved ones of opportunities to flourish.”

“Because vacating Mr. Washington’s conviction was a half-measure, and because Mr. Washington lacks other avenues to fully redress his constitutional injuries, he may bring a Corum claim.”

The state Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case in November. Justice Trey Allen did not take part in the case.