1/12/2010New Jersey Appellate Court Upholds Speedy Trials for DUI
New Jersey appellate court overturns drunk driving conviction because prosecution dragged out case for nearly a year.
In a decision released last month, the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court ruled that the guarantee of a speedy trial in the Bill of Rights applies even in cases that involve driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI). Over time, courts have generally set aside most constitutional protections when applied to DUI cases. The US Supreme Court, for example, swept aside the Fourth Amendment right of innocent drivers to be free from warrantless searches so that DUI checkpoints could be conducted.
The case of Christos E. Tsetsekas was so extreme, however, that the court had little choice but to overturn the conviction stemming from his May 8, 2007 arrest for being just over the legal limit for intoxication. Seven days later, Tsetsekas appeared in court to plead not guilty. Tsetsekas appeared in July for his trial, but the prosecutor asked the judge to postpone until August. State police officials then delayed, saying it would take time to produce Tsetsekas with a copy of the dashcam video that documented his arrest. The judge set September and then October trial dates. After police found the tape in November, the prosecutor asked for another delay because he had not seen the footage. The attorney for Tsetsekas grew increasingly impatient.
"The fact of the matter is this is the fourth time that we've been here," defense attorney Thomas S. Doerr told the trial judge. "We also have an expert who's coming up from South Jersey. I want to make certain that when we come the next time, that we are scheduled. That we do, in fact, try the case."
Trial did begin in December, but the only witness for the prosecution available was a state trooper who did not show up until 11pm. Because the remainder of the prosecution's witnesses were not ready, the trial was scheduled to resume in March 2008. On that date, none of the troopers appeared. Finally, the trial wrapped up on April 16 and Tsetsekas was convicted. The trial judge concluded that because the prosecutor had not maliciously delayed as a means of harming the defendant's case, the defendant's right to due process was not infringed. The appellate court's three-judge panel disagreed.
"Defendant and his counsel appeared and waited in court for hours only to learn the matter would not proceed," Judge Marie E. Lihotz wrote for the court. "Such circumstances are more than a 'frustrating' inconvenience. In representing the state, the prosecutor and the police must accept responsibility for ensuring a defendant's right to a speedy disposition of the charges is respected. This requires expediting all necessary discovery and maintaining communication with police witnesses to assure their availability. Significant prejudice may also arise when the delay causes the loss of employment or other opportunities, humiliation, the anxiety in awaiting disposition of the pending charges, the drain in finances incurred for payment of counsel or expert witness fees and the other costs and inconveniences far in excess of what would have been reasonable under more acceptable circumstances."
The court put the blame for the dismissal squarely on the shoulders of the prosecutor.
"Under the facts presented, we conclude the state has fallen short in its responsibility, and the governmental interest in prosecution has been outweighed by defendant's individual right to a speedy trial," Lihotz concluded. "Accordingly, defendant's conviction is reversed, and the matter remanded for entry of an order of dismissal."
A copy of the decision is available in a 125k PDF file at the source link below.