DOVER, Del. (AP) — Delaware court officials have abruptly changed the rules for handling drunken driving cases, bowing to pressure from the attorney general's office.
Delaware's Supreme Court issued a directive last week giving prosecutors up to 150 days to dispose of DUI cases in the Court of Common Pleas. The previous rule called for case disposition within 90 days, which remains the standard for non-DUI cases. The justices also mandated case reviews for all DUI prosecutions in Common Pleas court.
The move comes after Delaware's Department of Justice complained about the handling of DUI cases by Court of Common Pleas judges in southern Delaware, a rapidly growing area with popular beach destinations that has seen a disproportionately high number of DUI arrests. The Sussex County court, unlike CCP courts in New Castle and Kent counties, has not required DUI case reviews in the past.
At a case review, attorneys appear before a judge to discuss outstanding evidentiary disputes or other issues that might affect case resolution. Attorneys also have the opportunity to discuss plea offers or other alternatives to trial.
Despite receiving assurances from CCP officials last month that DUI case reviews would begin in Sussex County, prosecutors are now indicting all Sussex DUI cases in Superior Court, where case reviews have long been required.
State Prosecutor A.J. Roop said that until prosecutors are satisfied with the new case review rules in CCP, they will continue indicting DUI cases in Superior Court.
"It's not that we don't trust the (CCP) court," he said. "We wanted a little more concrete answers before we move forward."
In the past two weeks, prosecutor have dismissed almost 100 DUI cases in lower court, then obtained grand jury indictments against those same defendants.
Roop said case reviews will result in more treatment opportunities for DUI defendants and help reduce the number of DUI arrests in Sussex.
"I don't think we put a significant amount of pressure on anyone," he said. "We ultimately are bearing the workload of having to change around and indict these cases. It's not meant to put pressure on people. It's meant to make sure that people are safe on the road, and that other people are afforded the opportunity to get treatment."
Meanwhile, an attorney representing several Sussex DUI defendants has filed dismissal motions accusing the attorney general's office of manipulating the judicial system and violating his clients' constitutional rights.
"It's just insane that they're dictating to the courts how they do their business, and they're using these people as pawns in the process," said attorney Eric Mooney.
In court filings, Mooney wrote that the attorney general's office is engaging in selective prosecution and illegally discriminating against defendants in Sussex County.
"It is also clear that the AG's Office is intentionally and purposefully singling out Sussex County DUI defendants in its effort to gain Sussex County Court of Common Pleas' surrender to its demands ... not for any appropriate public interest purpose," he wrote.
Delaware's public defender's office, while not opposed to the CCP rule changes, is expected to file similar motions on behalf of its clients.
"We are not on board with DUIs being indicted in Superior Court," said Rob Robinson, head of the Sussex County public defender's office.
Mooney suggested that prosecutors are demanding case reviews to get defense attorneys to divulge any shortcomings in prosecutors' evidence and pretrial preparations. He noted that a large number of DUI cases have been dismissed because prosecutors weren't ready for trial.
"They want to flip the burden of discovery on to the defense attorney to force them to tell the prosecutor what's needed in the case to go forward," he said.
Roop said the lack of DUI case reviews in Sussex has been a chronic concern, but the issue came to a head after Sussex County chief prosecutor David Hume told CCP officials in an August email that case reviews were "a necessity."
CCP Judges Rosemary Beauregard and Kenneth Clark wrote in reply that there is no indication, based on internal court data, that a case review calendar would alleviate prosecutors' heavy caseloads.
"The court appreciates the complex discovery issues unique to DUI cases," the judges added. "However, the implication that judicial interference is the only means of avoiding 'gotcha' trial tactics is completely unfounded."
Rather than having the court serve as "the on-field referee" in discovery disputes, the DOJ should develop internal procedures to address such issues, the judges said.
At a meeting three weeks later, however, CCP officials conceded to DOJ's demands.
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