Resolving DUI cases faster is project's goal

Attorneys group fears speed could lead to injustice
2006-05-27T00:00:00Z Resolving DUI cases faster is project's goalBy Kim Smith Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 27, 2006 12:00 am  • 

The wheels of justice turn slowly. At least that's what they say.

Well, when it comes to driving under the influence, the Arizona Supreme Court is trying to speed up those wheels.

On July 1, nearly a dozen justice and municipal courts — including Pima County Consolidated Justice Courts — will embark on a pilot project aimed at resolving 90 percent of all DUI cases within four months and 98 percent within six months.

Last fiscal year, only 67 percent of the state's DUI cases were resolved within four months, with roughly 82 percent decided within six months.

Not pleased with the numbers, Chief Justice Ruth McGregor of the Arizona Supreme Court appointed a committee to review how Arizona's courts handle DUI cases and suggest improvements.

The chief justice issued an administrative order on April 26 establishing the DUI Case Processing Pilot Program in Pima, Maricopa, Navajo and Yavapai counties, based on the committee's recommendations.

The pilot program is ruffling some feathers within the 400-plus members of Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, who fear the push to resolve cases more quickly could lead to injustice.

"Justice delayed may be justice denied, but expediency without regard to fairness will produce injustice," Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice wrote in response to the committee's recommendations. "We must continually guard against assembly-line justice, in which the court's concern for case management is placed ahead of fundamental fairness."

It takes time to defend people properly, said Joseph St. Louis, president of the group.

"The perception is that these are real simple cases that can be plowed through the meat grinder to get done, but that's not the case," St. Louis said .

McGregor ordered all the presiding judges to develop a plan by Wednesday to ensure that DUI cases are resolved within the six-month time frame. They must also submit monthly reports on their DUI caseloads, starting July 1.

McGregor also changed some procedural rules. For example, pretrial conferences have to be held within 30 days of a defendant's arraignment, and the defendant has to attend the hearing. McGregor's committee found that defendants frequently don't attend pretrial hearings, making plea agreements harder to negotiate.

In addition, McGregor said any attorney unavailable for a hearing must make sure another attorney stands in.

If a prosecutor asks for a case to be dismissed on the day of the trial, judges have the option of dismissing the case "with prejudice," meaning it can't be re-filed.

If the case is dismissed "without prejudice," the judge can limit how much evidence the prosecutor may present and who the prosecutor can call as a witness during any future trial.

Judge James Angiulo, presiding judge of Pima County Justice Court, said local justices of the peace took steps to expedite their caseloads before McGregor stepped in.

They used to have "floating calendars," with hearings and trials presided over by whomever was available.

Since no one judge was monitoring cases, lawyers found postponements "easy to come by," said Lisa Royal, Justice Court administrator.

Now, however, each justice is assigned specific cases. Since they are in charge of scheduling and presiding over every hearing, delays have been reduced drastically, Angiulo said.

"If there's a higher level of accountability, presumably we'll have a higher level of efficiency," he said.

Since last spring, the number of pending criminal traffic cases has been reduced by 50 percent, Angiulo said.

St. Louis recently had a disagreement with Angiulo that could be a portent of things to come.

St. Louis said one of his trials took longer than he anticipated and he wasn't available to pick a jury for a DUI trial. When he asked for a postponement, Angiulo asked his partner to select a jury for him. His partner hadn't even read the police reports, he said.

"Picking a jury is an art," St. Louis said. "You've got to question prospective jurors about the issues in your case, and no one knows a case like the attorney who has prepared it. The Sixth Amendment doesn't just say defendants have a right to an attorney, it says they have the right to an attorney of their choice."

Eventually, Angiulo agreed to postpone the case, but who knows what will happen in the future, St. Louis said.

"I'm expecting all hell to break loose at some point," St. Louis said. "The first time a judge tries to force a lawyer to find someone else to handle a trial and the client doesn't want that, there will be a team of lawyers down there fighting it, and it won't be pleasant."

Pima County's chief criminal deputy county attorney, David Berkman, said prosecutors have had to fill in for each other on occasion and it's not been a problem.

"You don't need to know the facts of a case to pick a jury in a DUI case," Berkman said.

Delays are often completely out of the attorneys' hands, St. Louis said.

It takes 45 to 60 days to get blood tests back from the state crime lab, because it is often overwhelmed by requests, St. Louis said. Until those tests come back, defense attorneys can't interview chemists, investigate the lab and its equipment, or file pretrial motions.

And if you think blood tests translate into a slam-dunk conviction, St. Louis said, think again.

Because of evidence of problems with the lab, he said, he recently persuaded three juries to acquit clients police said had blood alcohol levels of between 0.16 and 0.273. The legal limit in Arizona is 0.08.

Also, according to St. Louis, there is only one competent DUI defense expert in the state, and with so many defense attorneys trying to hire him, scheduling trials is difficult.

Berkman said defense attorneys need to find more experts. As for blood tests, he said, DPS officials have promised to try to get their reports out sooner.

Berkman dismissed the idea that defendants will suffer from an expedited process.

"This whole thing was set up to benefit the defendant. It's so these cases won't be dragging on so long," Berkman said.

● Contact reporter Kim Smith at 573-4241 or kimsmith@azstarnet.com.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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