Prosecutors Must Play By the Rules, But Sometimes They Don’t

Wyoming Supreme Court says the government cannot harass defendants

Sometimes when the government doesn’t think it can win, it likes to break the rules. The irony of a government bending rules when its job is to enforce the laws is not lost on me. Sometimes prosecutors try to deprive defendants of their right to a speedy trial when the prosecutors want to gain an advantage. This is not fair or constitutional. I’ve experienced this first hand.

 When I entered a holding cell one day, I was shocked at how young Matthew Carabajal looked. His messy, dark hair covered his eyes. He looked scared behind his persona of grit, which he no doubt accumulated to survive the inside of the county jail. He looked of the age where he should be worried about a new Xbox game, not what his prison sentence may look like. Nonetheless, there we sat, together on the cold metal in that holding cell behind the courtroom. He opened his mouth to speak, and the echo was as unforgiving as his encounters with the system had been.

I took this case over as part of my public defender contract with the state of Wyoming, in which I handled several felonies a year as part of my private practice.

In every criminal matter, a defendant has the right to a speedy trial, which courts have interpreted to mean six months. The state attempted to deny that right to Carabajal in various ways.

The state filed its first case March 1, 2019, charging Carabajal with four criminal counts, one of which was dismissed at the preliminary hearing due to a lack of evidence. The state then filed a second case 21 days later. This case included four more charges, including the one that had been dismissed due to a lack of evidence. Carabajal pleaded “not guilty” in both cases. That was when the clock started ticking on his right to a speedy trial.

To maintain constitutional integrity, courts require deadlines by which prosecutors must provide all “discovery,” or share evidence and witness statements, with the defense team. This includes the stuff that is critical to a defendant’s preparation for trial.  Carabajal’s original attorney filed a “Demand for Speedy Trialand for timely discovery, so he clearly asserted his rights.

His two cases were to be tried separately, but then the government made a late motion to combine the cases into one trial. The judge said no and found it to be too close to the Oct. 16 trial.

The state continued to bend and ignore the rules. Prosecutors were late to file their pretrial memorandum, which lays out their trial testimony and evidence. They also began producing a great amount of discovery, or evidence, late. When defendants receive discovery right before trial, it hinders their right to prepare their defense.

Thus, his defense attorney filed three motions, objecting to both late prosecutorial filings. This is where the story turned south.

The state did not respond to these motions at all. Instead, it filed a “Rule 48” motion to dismiss both cases without prejudice, meaning it could immediately refile the cases into one case and start the speedy trial clock all over again. The Wyoming Supreme Court has cautioned that courts can deny this request based on the motives of the prosecutors and if there is bad faith.

Here, I believe the government wanted to game the system and leave Carabajal in a position where he would sit in county jail, unable to afford bond, while his speedy trial clock started all over again and he would be forced to wait another six months for trial — all because the prosecutor didn’t disclose discovery on time or file everything in a single case from the beginning. Prosecutors are required by law to act in fairness without harassment, and their power is not without limit.

After the court granted the state’s motion, Carabajal’s attorney appealed his case to the state Supreme Court. Those justices ruled that “…Rule 48(a) is not intended to be a device that the prosecution may use to manipulate criminal proceedings and thereby gain a tactical advantage over a defendant.” The Supreme Court further stated that there was no good faith basis for the government’s motion to dismiss and the case was overturned, and ultimately dismissed with prejudice, meaning it could never be refiled. Carabajal walked out of jail a free man.

Although this may seem like an extreme result, to just dismiss criminal charges with no ability for refiling them, the court said, “Our broader concerns are with the disruptive effect the State’s actions had on these proceedings and the need to protect against the harassing effect of those actions.”

The Supreme Court ultimately gave Carabajal the justice he sought. But I still remember that look in his eyes when I got involved in his case toward the end. He was scared yet he had hope. Hope that the system would have some semblance of justice for him. Hope that the government would have to play by its own rules. Luckily, our Supreme Court agreed.

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