Walker v State – Georgia Supreme Court
WALKER v. THE STATE (S20G1471) – Georgia Supreme Court
Ms. Walker appealed a Georgia Court of Appeals ruling that reversed a Cherokee County court’s dismissal of drunk driving charges against her. At issue in this appeal is whether the trial court was authorized to dismiss the charges after the statute of limitations had run out.
FACTS: On Dec. 20, 2016, Sara E. Walker was involved in a two-vehicle crash where she struck another vehicle in the rear. The responding officer initiated a DUI investigation after noticing Walker’s bloodshot, red, watery eyes and a strong odor of alcohol on her breath. Walker admitted she’d been drinking and field sobriety evaluations indicated she was impaired. The officer arrested her and read the proper Georgia Implied Consent Notice, following which she agreed to having a blood test done. The test showed her blood had an alcohol concentration of 0.194. In Georgia, a driver is considered legally drunk if her blood alcohol level is 0.08 or more.
The case remained in the Holly Springs Municipal Court for nine months before the trial attorney filed a motion to bind the case over to Cherokee County State Court on Aug. 22, 2017. A month later, on Sept. 22, 2017, the State filed an accusation charging Walker with the misdemeanors, Driving Under the Influence Per Se, Driving under the Influence Less Safe, Reckless Driving, and Following Too Closely. On Nov. 8, 2017, Walker filed a Motion to Suppress her blood test results. Due to the issues she raised in her motion, on March 13, 2018, the State filed a Motion to Dead Docket the case to await the Georgia Supreme Court’s decision in Elliott v. State, which dealt with similar issues. The high court decided Elliott in 2019, and Walker’s case was removed from the dead docket in early 2019. Within a month, Walker’s Motion to Suppress her blood test results came before the trial court, which denied her motion on March 19, 2019. On April 16, 2019, Walker waived her right to a jury trial and a bench trial – before a judge with no jury – was scheduled for May 28, 2019. The day of the trial, the State announced that it was not ready to proceed because the arresting officer was unavailable and “on leave.” Walker’s attorney then filed a motion asking the court to dismiss the charges “for want of prosecution” because the State failed to pursue the case diligently toward conclusion. The trial court granted Walker’s motion over the State’s objection and dismissed the case on May 31, 2019.
The State then appealed to the Court of Appeals, the state’s intermediate appellate court. The appellate court vacated the trial court’s judgment and sent the case back to the Cherokee County court, holding that because the dismissal occurred outside the two-year statute of limitation for misdemeanors, the trial court’s dismissal functioned as an impermissible “dismissal with prejudice.” A case that is dismissed with prejudice cannot be reopened by the prosecutor. A “dismissal without prejudice” allows the State to re-file the charges against the defendant at a later time. Walker now appeals to the state Supreme Court, which has agreed to review the case to determine whether a trial court can dismiss charges for want of prosecution that is outside the applicable statute of limitation.
ARGUMENTS: Walker’s attorney argues the Court of Appeals erred in reversing the trial court’s order that dismissed the accusation (a formal charging document like an indictment) against Walker. “When the State is unprepared to prosecute a case on a scheduled trial date, the trial court retains its power to dismiss a case for want of prosecution even if the statute of limitations may bar further prosecution of the case,” the attorney argues in briefs. The trial court based its decision on the state Supreme Court’s 2020 decision in State v. Remy in which it stated that a court “may dismiss criminal charges without prejudice for want of prosecution. But a trial court cannot dismiss criminal charges without a proper legal basis.” Here, there is “no intention that the trial court’s order dismissing the case against the Appellant [i.e. Walker] was intended to be ‘with prejudice,’” the attorney argues. “Given that the trial court did not state that it was dismissing the case against the Appellant with prejudice, it must be presumed that the trial judge correctly knew the law governing dismissals for want of prosecution.” “This Court has recognized that a trial court’s dismissal of a case without a legal basis impermissibly interferes with the State’s right to prosecute a criminal defendant,” the attorney points out. “However, when the State is not prepared to move forward on a scheduled trial date, a trial court may have a valid legal basis to dismiss a case for want of prosecution.” Here, 29 months elapsed between Walker’s arrest and the date of her trial, yet the State did not make a motion to continue the case, it did not offer any reasons to explain the absence of the arresting officer, and “the trial court exercised its sound discretion by granting the Appellant’s motion to dismiss for want of prosecution,” the attorney argues. “The only question is whether the trial court is divested of its authority to dismiss this case for want of prosecution because the statute of limitations had expired.”
In reversing the trial court’s order, the majority in the Court of Appeals relied on its 2019 decision in State v. Banks for the proposition that a dismissal without prejudice for want of prosecution occurring outside the statute of limitations is not permissible because “the trial court’s unspecified dismissal necessarily functioned as a dismissal with prejudice given that the statute of limitations barred the State from re-accusing,” the attorney argues. “The majority in the Court of Appeals treated the trial court’s order as a dismissal with prejudice based upon its consideration of the dismissal in combination with the applicable two-year statute of limitations.” However, the Banks decision “has a questionable foundation,” the attorney says, and should be overruled. “It is the statute of limitations in [Georgia Code] § 17-3-1, not the trial court’s dismissal order, that potentially impedes the State’s ability to further prosecute the Appellant.” The State was well aware of this when it did not appear ready to proceed at Walker’s bench trial. “First, recognizing that the statute of limitations had expired, the State should have exercised a heightened level of diligence to ensure that the case was ready to proceed,” Walker’s attorney argues. “Second, the State could have moved the trial court for a continuance of the case. The State never alerted the trial court to any potential witness problems until the Appellant’s case was called for trial.” If the decision of the Court of Appeals is left to stand, “prosecuting attorneys, not trial judges, will control trial dockets for those cases in which the statute of limitations has expired,” the attorney argues, requesting that this Court reverse the Court of Appeals ruling.
The State, represented by the Cherokee County Solicitor-General’s office, argues that “Georgia law allows trial courts to dismiss criminal cases for want of prosecution, but only without prejudice.” Here, the Court of Appeals held that because the State could not re-file charges against the defendant due to the statute of limitations, “the trial court’s unspecified dismissal of Appellant’s case functioned as a dismissal with prejudice. As such, the trial judge lacked the authority to grant Appellant’s motion for Dismissal for Want of Prosecution. Thus, while Appellee [i.e. the State] concedes that trial courts may dismiss criminal charges for want of prosecution, such dismissals must be without prejudice, which is not what occurred in this case,” the State contends.
Permitting a trial court to dismiss a criminal case with prejudice impinges upon both the State’s duty to bring charges and the trial court’s responsibility to be a neutral arbitrator. The prosecutor alone holds the authority to bring charges on behalf of the State. “Allowing trial courts to encroach upon the role of the prosecutor creates conflict within the criminal justice system,” the State contends. “As trial courts attempt to clear their dockets, the ability to dismiss cases with prejudice is rife with the potential for abuse.” And the realities of the current pandemic heighten the potential for abuse. “Expanding the trial courts’ authority to dismiss cases with prejudice would be subject to manipulation by defendants,” the State argues. “Courts use dismissals for want of prosecution as a way to clear dockets, regardless of prejudice, and interfere with the State’s sole right and responsibility to decide whom to charge and with what crimes.” The State urges the Supreme Court to hold that a “trial court is not authorized to dismiss an accusation for want of prosecution outside the applicable statute of limitations period.”
Attorney for Appellant (Walker): D. Benjamin Sessions
Attorneys for Appellee (State): Todd Hayes, Solicitor-General, David McElyea, Chief Asst.
Solicitor-General, Michelle Dissman, Sr. Asst. Solicitor-General, Sara Grainger, Asst. Solicitor General