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State v. Hazelton

Supreme Court of Delaware

January 11, 2018

STATE OF DELAWARE, Plaintiff Below, Appellant,
v.
DAVID M. HAZELTON, Defendant Below, Appellee.

          Submitted: November 1, 2017

         Court Below: Superior Court of the State of Delaware ID. No. 1606000313 (S)

         Upon appeal from the Superior Court. REVERSED AND REMANDED.

          Danielle J. Brennan, Esquire (Argued), and Amanda R. Nyman, Esquire, Department of Justice, Wilmington, Delaware.

          Michael W. Andrew, Esquire, Mooney & Andrew, P.A., Georgetown, Delaware.

          Before STRINE, Chief Justice; VALIHURA, VAUGHN, SEITZ, and TRAYNOR, Justices, constituting the Court en Banc.

          VAUGHN, JUSTICE, FOR THE MAJORITY.

         The State appeals the Superior Court's dismissal of an indictment under Superior Court Criminal Rule 48(b) for unnecessary delay in bringing the defendant to trial. The Superior Court relied upon our case of State v. Pruitt[1] in deciding to dismiss the indictment. For the reasons which follow, we find that State v. Pruitt is distinguishable and that dismissal of this case was error.

         I.

         On May 13, 2016, the Appellee, David M. Hazelton, was arrested and charged with Vehicular Assault in the Third Degree, Leaving the Scene of a Collision Resulting in Injury, Driving a Vehicle Under the Influence of Alcohol, Failure to Have Insurance Identification in Possession, Failure to Report a Collision Involving Alcohol or Drugs and Failure to Stop at a Red Light.

         It is alleged that at 9:17 p.m. he was operating his vehicle on John J. Williams Highway in Millsboro, Delaware when he pulled out in front of one vehicle, ran a red light at John J. Williams Highway and Mt. Joy Road, and crashed into the front passenger side of a vehicle operated by Gena Dagostino, after which his vehicle jumped a curb. It is further alleged that he then drove from the scene and was found by a Millsboro Police Officer in a back parking lot at Oak Orchard Diner, where he was taken into custody. Finally, it is alleged that a blood test showed that his blood alcohol content was .36, more than four times the legal limit.

         A warrant for the charges was approved by the Justice of the Peace Court. Hazelton was held overnight and had his initial appearance in the Justice of the Peace Court on May 14. His bail was set at $3, 800 secured. The Justice of the Peace Court then transferred the case to the Court of Common Pleas as a matter of administrative routine. An entry in the Justice of the Peace Court's disposition page indicates that the transfer was made at the request of Hazelton. At oral argument the State attributed the transfer to the Justice of the Peace Court not having jurisdiction over the offense of Leaving the Scene of a Collision Resulting in Injury.[2] But it is undisputed that the transfer was not caused by any act on the part of the State.

         On May 17 the Court of Common Pleas accepted the case and added it to an arraignment calendar for the next day. That same day Hazelton posted $3, 800 secured bail and was released.[3] On May 18 Hazelton was arraigned in the Court of Common Pleas despite the fact that no information had been filed in that court. Hazelton pled not guilty, and a jury trial was scheduled for September 14, 2016. On May 27 Hazelton's attorney filed an entry of appearance, two motions to suppress evidence, a discovery request, a request for supplemental discovery and a waiver of trial by jury. On May 31 Hazelton's attorney filed a letter with a copy of Hazelton's insurance card attached, showing that his vehicle was insured at the time of the alleged offenses. On that same date the Court of Common Pleas informed Hazelton's attorney and the State by written notice that the case would remain on the court's calendar for non-jury trial on September 14.

         The State never did file an information in the Court of Common Pleas. It did not file a response to Hazelton's discovery requests or take any step after Hazelton's arraignment to prosecute the case in that court. Instead, on June 20, 2016, the State caused Hazelton to be indicted in the Superior Court. He was charged with all the same offenses except that the vehicular assault charge was increased to Vehicular Assault in the Second Degree, a misdemeanor. The original third degree vehicular assault charge alleged that criminally negligent driving or operation of a vehicle caused injury to another person. The second degree vehicular assault charge alleged that negligent driving or operation of a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol caused physical injury to another person. Superior Court and the Court of Common Pleas have concurrent jurisdiction over the offenses which were indicted in the Superior Court.

         The same day the indictment was filed, June 20, the Superior Court issued a warrant for Hazelton's arrest under Superior Court Criminal Rule 9. The Superior Court also sent a notice intended for Hazelton informing him that he had been indicted in Superior Court. The notice itself is addressed "David M. Hazelton, Homeless, Millsboro, DE 19966."[4] The envelope within which the notice was sent, however, is also part of the record. The envelope is addressed "David M. Hazelton, 24776 Rivers Edge Rd., Millsboro, DE 19966."[5] It shows a post mark of June 22, 2016 and that it was returned to sender because "moved left no address, unable to forward."[6]

         On September 2, 2016, the State filed a nolle prosequi as to all the charges in the Court of Common Pleas with a disposition code indicating the charges would be disposed of in another court.

         On September 14, Hazelton and his attorney, being unaware of the indictment in Superior Court or the Rule 9 warrant, appeared for what they believed was Hazelton's scheduled non-jury trial in the Court of Common Pleas. While in the Sussex County Courthouse Hazelton was detained on the Superior Court Rule 9 warrant and arraigned in Superior Court. The docket indicates he was released that same day on an unsecured bond of $1, 350. The bond which Hazelton had posted in the Court of Common Pleas was released on September 16.

         In Superior Court, Hazelton's case was given an October 3 case review date. On September 20 the State provided the defense with discovery materials. At Hazelton's request, the case review was continued to November 7. Hazelton again requested a continuance of the case review, and it was rescheduled for December 5. On November 15 Hazelton filed a motion to dismiss the indictment under Superior Court Criminal Rule 48(b). Relying upon our decision in State v. Pruitt, Hazelton argued that by abandoning the prosecution in the Court of Common Pleas and commencing a new prosecution in the Superior Court, the State had engaged in unfair manipulation of the criminal process, and that the State was bound by its choice to prosecute in the Court of Common Pleas.

         The motion was heard November 18. The defense attorney reviewed the chronology of the case, about which there was no disagreement. When asked by the Superior Court judge why the State had moved the case from the Court of Common Pleas to the Superior Court, one of the prosecutors responded that the Department of Justice tries "to prosecute vehicular assault cases in Superior Court."[7] The Superior Court judge observed that "I haven't heard any compelling reason why we're now in the Superior Court" and the "Court of Common Pleas is certainly a competent court to handle injuries."[8] The court then granted the motion to dismiss.

         The State filed a motion for reargument. In the motion the State stated that Hazelton was indicted in Superior Court "pursuant to a Department of Justice policy to prosecute all vehicular assaults in Superior Court."[9] It argued that State v. Pruitt was distinguishable, that it had not engaged in any unfair manipulation of the criminal process, that it never prosecuted the case in the Court of Common Pleas because it never filed an information there, and that the indictment in Superior Court divested the Court of Common Pleas of jurisdiction, so there were not actually two cases pending at the same time. At a hearing on the motion, the court observed that "I'm satisfied that this defendant was being prosecuted in two courts at the same time, which Pruitt is not fond of unless you have some good reason. I haven't heard [sic] good reason yet."[10] The court then denied the motion for reargument.

         II.

         "We review a trial judge's action under Superior Court Criminal Rule 48(b) according to an abuse of discretion standard."[11] A court abuses its discretion when it "exceed[s] the bounds of reason in view of the circumstances, [or] . . . so ignored recognized rules of law or practice. . . ."[12]

         III.

         On appeal, the parties repeat the contentions they made in the Superior Court.[13] Our analysis begins with a discussion of State v. Pruitt.[14] In that case the defendant was charged by Patrolman Leccia of the Wilmington Police Department with Driving Under the Influence, Driving While License Suspended or Revoked, Disregarding a Red Light and Possession of Marijuana. The officer gave Pruitt two summonses. One directed him to appear in the Justice of the Peace Court on November 7, 2000 on the traffic charges. The other directed him to appear in the Justice of the Peace Court on November 20 for arraignment on the marijuana charge. Pruitt appeared in the Justice of the Peace Court on November 7 as directed. A Justice of the Peace was unable to locate any paperwork documenting the traffic charges and ordered Pruitt to return the following day. On November 8, the Justice of the Peace Court personnel still could not locate the paperwork, and the Justice of the Peace dismissed the traffic complaints. When Officer Leccia learned that the traffic charges had been dismissed because the court was unable to find the supporting paperwork, he informed the clerk of the court that he had properly provided the court with the summonses and complaints. The clerk then discovered that the traffic charge paperwork had been filed in the marijuana charge file. After learning that the clerk's office had found the paperwork, a Justice of the Peace reinstated the traffic charges and reset their hearing for November 20, the same day previously scheduled for arraignment only on the marijuana charge. An entry was made in the Justice of the Peace Court record that the traffic charges had been "reopened per officer Leccia's Motion."[15] The Justice of the Peace Court did not give Pruitt any notice that a request had been made to reinstate the traffic charges or that the charges had, in fact, been reinstated. Pruitt did not appear on November 20. On January 19, 2001, the Department of Justice entered a nolle prosequi on the traffic charges and the marijuana charge. It then brought the identical charges by indictment in the Superior Court. On April 2, 2001, a Superior Court judge dismissed the charges, ruling that the arresting officer's ex parte motion to reinstate the charges in the Justice of the Peace Court and the Justice of the Peace's action in reinstating the charges violated Pruitt's right to due process.

         Pruitt had filed his motion to dismiss in the Superior Court under Superior Court Criminal Rule 12(b). On appeal, this Court agreed with a contention made by the State that "the Superior Court judge's comments supporting his decision to grant Pruitt's Motion to Dismiss imply an equal reliance on Rule 48(b)."[16] This Court then stated that "we shall examine this appeal in the context of Rule 48."[17]

         This Court then found that "the State's entry of a nolle prosequi on the reinstated charges and later prosecution of those identical charges in the Superior Court unfairly manipulated the judicial process, delayed the swift resolution of the charges against Pruitt, and created undue prejudice that could only be remedied by the prompt dismissal of the charges by that court."[18] It also found that the State's dismissal of the charges in the Justice of the Peace Court and its reinstating of them in Superior Court "in this case was prejudicial and inconsistent with the fair and orderly administration of justice."[19] As it continued with its analysis, the Court found that the fact that the Justice of the Peace Court both failed to provide notice to Pruitt and based its decision on the officer's ex parte application were "prejudicial to Pruitt and standing alone constitute[d] a due process violation."[20]

         The Court next discussed the prejudice to Pruitt. Citing State v. Fischer[21] the Court stated that prejudice included "the anxiety suffered by a defendant as the result of the delay and uncertainty of a duplicative prosecution; the notoriety suffered by both a defendant and his family as the result of the recommencement of a prosecution for the same offense; and the expenses, 'legal and otherwise, ' that accompany any renewal of a dismissed action."[22]

         After attributing all of the delay after nolle prosequi of the charges in the Justice of the Peace Court to the State, the Court stated:

We have often noted our distaste for the State's practice of voluntarily dismissing charges in a lower court and commencing a new prosecution on those same charges in a higher court with concurrent jurisdiction. . . . We hold that, absent compelling circumstances not present here, once the State engages in a prosecution in a court of competent jurisdiction, it should be prohibited from pursuing ...

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