An Unprepared Prosecutor does not Warrant Dismissal with Prejudice

State v. Correa (ICA August 27, 2010)

Background. Kyle Correa was charged with abuse of a family or household member. HRS § 709-906. After a few continuances, the family court set trial for April 13, 2009. This was the last continuance absent something "extraordinary." Shortly before trial, Correa filed a motion to continue. The motion was denied. Prior to trial, the family court asked the prosecutor if he was prepared. The prosecutor answered in the affirmative. However, the family court asked if the prosecutor spoke with the Complaintant. The prosecutor did not and asked for a continuance. The request was denied. The family court took a brief recess. After the recess, the family court asked again. The prosecutor said he just spoke with her and was ready to proceed for trial since the continuance was denied. The family court again said that the prosecutor was not prepared and dismissed the case with prejudice.

The Family Court Abused its Discretion in Dismissing the Case. The ICA held that the family court's abused its inherent power to dismiss cases. According to the ICA, the family court dismissed the case without prejudice because the prosecutor did not personally talk to the Complaintant "in detail" prior to trial. The trial court has the inherent power to dismiss a case in order to protect "the integrity of the judicial process and in ensuring fairness to defendants[.]" State v. Moriwake, 65 Haw. 47, 56, 647 P.2d 705, 712 (1982). In exercising this power, the trial court must balance "the interest of the state against fundamental fairness to a defendant with the added ingredient of the orderly functioning of the court system." Id.

Here, the family court dismissed the case because the prosecutor did not speak in detail with the Complaintant prior to trial. According to the ICA, Correa was not previously charged with this crime, there was no allegation that the prosecutor infringed upon Correa's right to a fair trial, and the State has a strong interest in prosecuting crimes involving domestic violence. See State v. Alvey, 67 Haw. 49, 58, 678 P.2d 5, 11 (1984); Coyle v. Compton, 85 Hawai'i 197, 208, 940 P.2d 404, 415 (App. 1997).

Prosecute Anyway you wish. The ICA found fault in the family court's reasoning. Prosecutors, according to the ICA, should be permitted to present their case. "The prosecuting attorney is to be according deference in how to discharge the duties of his or her office . . ., which we conclude includes deference in how the prosecuting attorney prepares a case for trial." There was nothing inherently wrong in not speaking to the Complaintant here. The ICA pointed out that others in the prosecutor's team could have spoken with the Complaintant or if the prosecutor prepared in other ways, like reviewing police reports or interview statements.

There are Other ways to Address an Unprepared Lawyer. The ICA also recognized that courts do not need to let unprepared lawyers go unpunished. Sanctions are available. HRPP Rule 53(b). A dismissal is too harsh when the defendant suffers no prejudice. State v. Dowsett, 10 Haw. App. 491, 495, 878 P.2d 739, 742 (1994).

A Moriwake Bookend? The ICA discussed Moriwake in great detail here. It also discussed Alvey, which expressly stated that the trial judge does not have the "inherent power to dismiss an otherwise valid indictment prior to the defendant's first trial." State v. Alvey, 67 Haw. at 57, 687 P.2d at 10. The ICA, however, did not mention State v. Hinton, 120 Hawai'i 265, 204 P.3d 484 (2009), in which the HSC rejected--if not scolded--the ICA's application of Moriwake. In Hinton, the HSC held that it was not an abuse of discretion for the trial court to dismiss a prosecution after a single mistrial. (Moriwake involved two mistrials). The ICA here expressly stated that Moriwake did not apply and that Alvey did. But Moriwake establishes a framework. Why can't it apply here? The ICA did not really explain. If it does not apply, then it would seem that if there are no mistrials, a dismissal is a per se abuse of discretion. But if there is at least one, then the Moriwake balancing test would apply.


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