Kelvin Wilson’s DWI case made the front page of Lawyer’s Weekly last January. Wilson was arrested for impaired driving in Winston-Salem and taken to the hospital. When he physically resisted having his blood drawn, a police officer sat on him to facilitate the extraction. The blood evidence was suppressed (with the State’s agreement) at Wilson’s trial in superior court. Nevertheless, the trial court dismissed the charges on the basis that the blood draw violated Wilson’s constitutional rights. The State appealed, and the court of appeals issued an opinion yesterday reversing the trial court.
Folks who were hoping that the court’s opinion might clarify how much force officers can use to compel a blood draw will be disappointed as the court did not reach that issue. Instead, the court resolved the case on procedural grounds, holding that the trial court had no authority to dismiss the DWI charges as a remedy for the alleged constitutional violations. Even though the case doesn’t flesh out the constitutional framework for use of force, its holding regarding the permissible remedies for constitutional violations is significant because it clarifies an area in which confusion frequently arises.
The trial court in Wilson dismissed the DWI charges pursuant to G.S. 15A-954(a)(1), which requires dismissal if “[t]he statute alleged to have been violated is unconstitutional on its face or as applied to the defendant.” The court of appeals explained that this provision “plainly concerns the statute under which a defendant is charged.” For dismissal of DWI charges to be warranted under G.S. 15A-954(a)(1), a court must conclude that the DWI statute itself—G.S. 20-138.1—is unconstitutional. The trial court in Wilson’s case made no such findings with respect to G.S. 20-138.1, and its conclusion that G.S. 20-139.1 was unconstitutional as applied was no proxy. Thus, the court of appeals held that the trial court erred in dismissing the charges under G.S. 15A-954(a)(1).
The defendant’s motion to dismiss had asserted another basis for dismissal, namely that his constitutional rights had been flagrantly violated, resulting in such irreparable prejudice to the preparation of his case that there was no remedy but to dismiss the prosecution, grounds that require dismissal under G.S. 15A-954(a)(4). Yet, the appellate court noted that the defendant’s motion failed to describe the irreparable prejudice that resulted from the violation, the trial court made no finding of irreparable prejudice, and the defendant did not argue on appeal that he was irreparably prejudiced. Because the appellate court identified no irreparable prejudice, it concluded that G.S. 15A-954(a)(4) did not apply to Wilson’s case.
Accordingly, the court of appeals concluded that there were no statutory grounds for dismissing the DWI charges; thus, the trial court erred in granting the defendant’s motion to dismiss. The appellate court characterized the appropriate argument based on the constitutional violations alleged in Wilson as one for suppression of the evidence and declared that suppression was the only available remedy if a constitutional violation was found. The court noted that in Wilson’s case, suppression was required in light of the State’s stipulation that it would not introduce the challenged evidence at trial. See G.S. 15A-977(b)(2).
What are the broader take-aways from Wilson? The remedies of suppression and dismissal aren’t interchangeable. While suppression of evidence may be a proper remedy when evidence is obtained in violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights, a constitutional violation by itself does not provide a basis for dismissal of charges. Wilson also provides a helpful backdrop for considering the remedies for alleged statutory violations, particularly in DWI cases. Though our courts have sanctioned the suppression of chemical analysis results obtained in violation of statutory procedures, dismissal of charges for such statutory violations is not authorized. Indeed, the only context in which dismissal of DWI charges for statutory violations is authorized is when a defendant demonstrates prejudice resulting from a violation of statutory rights related to pretrial release.