After state officials earlier this month greeted with praise a new law that streamlines the process for prosecuting misdemeanor cases of driving under the influence, criminal defense attorneys were advocating for more sweeping changes that would consolidate the entire process in the Delaware Court of Common Pleas.
Introduced as HB 207, the law addressed a provision of Delaware code that allowed DUI defendants convicted of their first or second offense in Justice of the Peace Court to have their cases retried on the merits in Court of Common Pleas. Now, the Justice of the Peace will still accept guilty pleas, but only the Court of Common Pleas will conduct trials for those who decide to take their cases to court.
Officials in the Delaware Department of Justice and the judiciary had long sought the changes, arguing that the old system unnecessarily consumed court resources and created a special class of offenders that were entitled to two criminal trials. The new law, they said, would cut down on the inconvenience and waste of splitting DUI jurisdiction between two courts.
“Police, prosecutors and DOJ staff will be able to dedicate their attention to other cases at a time when government services are short-staffed and police officers will be able to get back on the road and prevent other crimes,” Attorney General Matt Denn said in a July 14 release announcing the General Assembly’s passage of HB 207, which was signed by Gov. John Carney on June 30.
Criminal defense attorneys were generally supportive of the measure. However, some within the defense bar said the law did not go far enough because it still vests in the Justice of the Peace Court the ability to arraign defendants and to take pleas.
Patrick J. Collins, managing partner of Collins & Associates in Wilmington, said that HB 207 was a positive for improving the administration of DUI trials, but said the law left in place inefficiencies that need to be addressed going forward.
“I don’t understand why the entire case was not moved, and why there remains an extra step in Justice of the Peace Court,” he said in an interview.
Michael R. Abram, a criminal defense attorney in Sussex County, agreed, saying that it exposes defendants to longer waits before they can have their cases tried in Common Pleas Court.
“The problem is that it should be in CCP, where the court has jurisdiction over that case at that time,” Abram said. “It just doesn’t make any sense to leave it back there.”
The “give and take” between the Justice of the Peace Court and the Court of Common Pleas showed the lower court’s preference to retain jurisdiction over what are considered the “most serious” cases on its docket. But it was also couched within an ongoing legislative effort to give Justice of the Peace Court oversight of a new program that would allow DUI defendants to keep driving while their cases are still pending.
Under a related bill, HB 206, the Division of Motor Vehicles could issue a provisional license at the Justice of the Peace Court’s request to offenders whose driver’s licenses were suspended upon arrest, on the condition that they submit to continuous sobriety monitoring.
“This act ensures that a person can enter a sobriety monitoring program, but not face the loss of full licensure that would negate the benefits of entering and participating in such a program,” according to the bill’s synopsis.
That measure, seen as largely noncontroversial, cleared the General Assembly July 1, but has not yet been signed into law. A spokesman for Carney said the legislation was undergoing the typical policy and legal review before heading to Carney’s desk.
Still, the Justice of the Peace Court’s ability to implement and oversee the program hinges on the passage of a third bill, HB 205, which gives the Justice of the Peace Court the authority to set bail conditions, even after cases have been transferred to the Court of Common Pleas for trial. The bill passed the House of Representatives in June but did not receive the 11 votes needed to clear the Senate.
According to the General Assembly’s website, the bill has been returned to the House, where it is expected to be taken up again when the lawmakers return to Dover for the second leg of the legislative session in January.
Abram said he supports a voluntary program for DUI defendants, but he returned to what he saw as a flawed interplay between the two state courts.
“We shouldn’t be setting up a situation where a lower court can set the conditions of bond and the higher court cannot change them,” he said. “If CCP can handle it, CCP should be able to handle everything.”
A spokeswoman for Denn said the attorney general will “continue to support passage of HB 205, but does not plan any changes to the process beyond that.”