Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Dismissal of DUI for failure to provide speedy trial in Riverside County

California DUI case dismissed

Court trial back-up forces dismissals

October 17, 2007

Caused largely by the refusal of Riverside County District Attorney to offer certain plea bargains made in other counties, a court dismissed a California DUI and eight felony cases because no judges were available.

The DA's office there has been under attack by California DUI criminal defense attorneys who maintain the DA's office is far harsher than other Counties, causing more cases to go to trial and backlogging the system.

In each case, the time limits guaranteeing defendants' rights to a speedy trial had expired. The presiding judge said prosecutors immediately refiled the felonies dismissed Monday and Tuesday, which included domestic violence, assault, gang, drug and fraud cases. The defendants were arraigned again. Prosecutors may refile expired felony cases only once, said Sue Steding, chief assistant district attorney.

The district attorney's office is considering whether to appeal Monday's dismissal of a misdemeanor DUI case and is awaiting a ruling on its appeal of two misdemeanor cases dismissed earlier this year because of time constraints.

Every week, they face dismissing cases. They have been lucky that the courts had avoided dismissing felonies until now.

Riverside's backlog of cases was the worst in the state. The felony dismissals, he said, are unusual, but not unprecedented in California and are always considered the last resort.

Other counties grappled with dismissals after the Legislature passed the three-strikes law, sending more and more complicated cases into the courts. As a result, the Judicial Council of California, which oversees the courts, sent a task force of judges around the state to help clear the cases.

They are worried that the dismissals would lead defendants to be less likely to plead guilty at early stages of their cases, hoping they would eventually be dismissed.

There are 1,265 criminal cases pending in the Riverside Hall of Justice, which includes some cases from Indio and Murrieta that are on the verge of dismissal.

As Riverside County's judicial system neared crisis earlier this year, they assembled a strike team of 27 judges who work part time, creating the equivalent of 12 full-time judges to help clear the oldest cases.

Some will leave in November, but as many as six may continue working in Riverside County. As of early October, the strike team had disposed of more than 60 cases.

A committee was set up headed by Justice Richard Huffman of the 4th District Court of Appeal to examine the court's procedures. One issue they are sorting through is whether more cases could be resolved through plea bargains.

Another major reason for the backup was the county's population explosion. Riverside County added just three new judges from 1989 through 2006, while the population grew 76%, according to the judicial council.

The county's judges had done everything they could to avoid the dismissals, including virtually shutting down civil trials. They have maximized their resources. Every available trial courtroom is filled. They have done everything but successfully convince the DA's office from being so unreasonable in California drunk driving cases.

Instead of becoming more like other countys' DA's offices, officials in the district attorney's office have urged the court to send expiring cases to judicial officers handling family law, probate and juvenile dependency matters.

The law was ambiguous on whether a criminal case should take precedence over family law matters, such as restraining orders.

Last year, Riverside County's judges handled 795 criminal trials, nearly twice the load they handled in 2002, Fields said.

That exceeded the number of trials heard in San Diego County, even though it has about 1 million more people and roughly twice as many judges, he said.

Riverside County's judges are on pace to handle about 950 criminal trials this year, not including those handled by the strike force.

Other than changing the DA's policies on making offers in California DUI and other cases, an expensive solution for the court's crush will be to add more judges. Riverside County has been one of the top beneficiaries of the 100 new judgeships the Legislature has created in the last two years.

Riverside allotted seven new judgeships to Riverside County last year, five of which have been filled, and an additional seven this year.

California DUI criminal defense attorneys simply suggest the DA's office look at how other DA's offices handle themselves in other counties in California.