State v. Parisi Answers DWI Procedural Riddle

Criminal procedure aficionados, close your red books and riddle me this:

A district court judge in a DWI case preliminarily grants a defendant’s motion to suppress. The State appeals to superior court. The superior court affirms the district court’s determination and remands the case for entry of an order suppressing the evidence and dismissing the charges. The district court enters the order. Does the State have the right to appeal?

That’s the essence of the question the court of appeals answered yesterday in State v. Parisi, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (2017). The answer? No, the State has no right to appeal from the district court’s final order. Why? There is no statutory right to appeal from a final order by a district court suppressing evidence. And, on these facts, neither the superior court nor the district court was authorized to dismiss the charges.

Here’s what happened. Parisi was stopped at a checkpoint and subsequently arrested for DWI. He moved before trial to suppress evidence on the basis that the State lacked probable cause to arrest him. The district court judge entered a written order preliminarily indicating his intent to grant the motion to suppress. Unfortunately, the order was captioned “Preliminary Order of Dismissal” even though it did not address the dismissal of the charges.

The State appealed the preliminary order to superior court. On appeal, the superior court granted “Defendant’s Motion to Suppress and Motion to Dismiss” and remanded the case for entry of such an order in district court. The district court subsequently entered a final order suppressing the evidence and dismissing the charges.

The State appealed this order to the superior court, which affirmed the district court’s order. The State then appealed from the superior court to the court of appeals.

Court’s analysis. The court of appeals began by noting that neither G.S. 15A-1445(b) nor G.S. 15A-979, which allow the State to appeal from a superior court order granting a motion to suppress prior to trial applied in Parisi. Those statutes afford the State the right to appeal from decisions that a superior court enters in its “normal capacity,” namely, when it is operating as a trial court and not as a court of review for the district court. Thus, the State’s right to appeal from the orders in Parisi was circumscribed by G.S. 20-38.7 and 15A-1432.

G.S. 20-38.7 permitted the State to appeal the district court’s preliminary determination to superior court. The State had no statutory right to appeal from the superior court’s interlocutory order remanding the case to district court for entry of a final order. And, while G.S. 15A-1432 allows the State to appeal to superior court a district court’s final order dismissing charges, it does not allow the State to appeal a district court’s final order suppressing charges.

But wait, the district court also dismissed the charges.  Couldn’t the State appeal from that?

No, according to the court of appeals. The defendant never moved to dismiss the charges, and the district court’s preliminary order did not order dismissal. Thus, the court reasoned, the superior court lacked jurisdiction to remand the case to district court with instructions to dismiss the charges. The subsequent orders dismissing the charges and the affirming that dismissal likewise were without jurisdiction and were erroneous.

Arguments make for strange bedfellows. In an attempt to preserve its appeal, the State argued that the district court was authorized to dismiss the case on its own motion after the superior court remanded it with instructions to grant the motion to suppress. The State relied upon a case it recently lost on appeal:  State v. Loftis, __ N.C. App. __, 792 S.E.2d 886 (2016) (holding that the district court was authorized to dismiss criminal charges based upon the State’s failure to prosecute pursuant to its inherent authority to manage the docket). Loftis had no application on Parisi’s facts, said the court, which cited as controlling the state supreme court’s ruling in State v. Joe, 365 N.C. 538 (2012) that a district court has no authority to dismiss a case pre-trial.

All this leads to another riddle:  How can the State obtain relief in an appeal the court has no jurisdiction to hear? 

That (sort of) happened in Parisi. The court of appeals vacated the trial courts’ orders of dismissal and remanded the case to superior court for further remand to district court for trial or further proceedings. In a DWI checkpoint case like Parisi, that may be a hollow victory for the State, which may require post-arrest evidence to prove the offense. Yet, depending on the facts, having an improperly entered order of dismissal vacated could be a significant win for the State. And on the other side of the aisle, few defendants would place the reinstatement of criminal charges in the victory column.