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DWI Right to Speedy Trial and Crime Lab Backlog in North Carolina

There have been various news reports over the past year about the backlog that exists in the North Carolina state crime lab. Unlike the results of a breath test, which are available relatively quickly for a person charged with DWI, the results of a blood test can take several months, if not years, to obtain from the state crime lab. This becomes important because both the United States Constitution and the North Carolina Constitution guarantee a defendant a right to a speedy trial. How does the delay caused by the crime lab backlog affect a DWI defendant’s right to a speedy trial?

The United States Supreme Court created a balancing test in the 1972 case, Barker v. Wingo when a defendant alleges that his right to a speedy trial has been violated. In Barker, the Court identified four factors that must be balanced: “Length of delay, the reason for the delay, the defendant's assertion of his right, and prejudice to the defendant.”

The first factor, the length of delay, must be met to proceed with the rest of the Barker analysis. Regarding the first factor, the US Supreme Court noted in the 1992 case Doggett v. US that "lower courts have generally found postaccusation delay `presumptively prejudicial' at least as it approaches one year." The Court also stated in Barker that “the delay that can be tolerated for an ordinary street crime is considerably less than for a serious, complex conspiracy charge.” Because dwi is a misdemeanor and test results can take over one year to get back from the state crime lab, this factor has been met.

The second factor - the reason for the delay - is the one which must be examined closely in the case of a delay in obtaining test results because of a crime lab backlog. In Barker, the Court explained that different weights should be given to different reasons that the State gives to justify a delay.

A deliberate attempt to delay the trial in order to hamper the defense should be weighted heavily against the government. A more neutral reason such as negligence or overcrowded courts should be weighted less heavily but nevertheless should be considered since the ultimate responsibility for such circumstances must rest with the government rather than with the defendant. Finally, a valid reason, such as a missing witness, should serve to justify appropriate delay.

The North Carolina Supreme Court weighed in on the speedy trial analysis in the 2003 case, State v. Spivey. In Spivey, the Court stated that to meet the second Barker factor, the “defendant has the burden of showing that the delay was caused by the neglect or willfulness of the prosecution.” Only after the defendant has offered prima facie evidence of this neglect or willfulness must “the State offer evidence fully explaining the reasons for the delay and sufficient to rebut the prima facie evidence.” The Court explained that the constitutional guarantee of a speedy trial does not prohibit “good-faith delays which are reasonably necessary for the State to prepare and present its case.” Instead, the delays prohibited are “purposeful or oppressive delays and those which the prosecution could have avoided by reasonable effort.” The Court went on to reason that the delay in Spivey did not result from the “willful misconduct” of the State, but instead from others reasons including the docket backlog. Therefore, the defendant’s right to a speedy trial was not violated.

Shortly after Spivey, in 2005, the North Carolina Court of Appeals looked at whether a delay of trial due to the backlog in the state crime lab was attributable to the State in State v. Dorton. In that case, “the trial court found additional delay was "due to a backlog in testing at the SBI" not "attributable to the District Attorney's office."” The defendant argued that a delay caused by the SBI should be attributable to the State, but the court cited Spivey as holding that “this expanded attribution to the State is improper by noting that the defendant's burden was to show prosecutorial neglect or willfulness.” Therefore, the defendant did not establish the second factor required by Barker.

More recently, in 2013, the court of appeals examined a delay of a trial in a DWI case. In State v. Sheppard, the defendant's case had been delayed fourteen months, which met the first factor. However, the prosecution did not receive the toxicology report for five months after the defendant’s arrest. In the trial court’s analysis of the second factor, it weighed the first seven-month period of the delay ““more neutrally” because the State “should be given a reasonable amount of time to prepare its case.”” The second seven-month period, on the other hand,

was more than simply the delay occasioned by crowded dockets and prosecutorial caseloads. During that period, the trial was significantly delayed by prosecutorial neglect, the lack of a tracking system within the prosecutor's office, and the State's disregard of the defendant's repeated requests to be tried.

In balancing the two reasons for delay, the trial court found that the reasons for delay weighed “more heavily in the balance against the State.”

In our review of the case law on this issue, it does not seem that a lengthy delay caused solely by a wait to receive results from the backlogged state crime lab would meet the requirements for a violation of a right to a speedy trial. However, it is possible that if a defendant suffers great prejudice, under the fourth Barker factor, the balance would be tipped in the defendant’s favor. In Barker, the Court identified three “interests of defendants which the speedy trial right was designed to protect...: (i) to prevent oppressive pretrial incarceration; (ii) to minimize anxiety and concern of the accused; and (iii) to limit the possibility that the defense will be impaired.” If these interests are severely compromised, it is possible that a lengthy delay in trial caused by the state crime lab backlog might violated a defendant’s right to a speedy trial.

If you have been arrested for DWI, call Rosensteel Fleishman Car Accident & Injury Lawyers (704) 714-1450, to speak with a lawyer to discuss your options.

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