Officials explain court dismissals

Posted: Monday, April 21, 2003

Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series looking at criminal charges that are dismissed by the court in Kenai and why charges are dismissed.

In 2002, the court in Kenai handled 2,341 criminal cases in which people were charged with 4,131 counts. Of those charges, 1,288 were dismissed.

Why are criminal charges dismissed? Does it mean the person was found not guilty of the crime? If a person is charged with an offense, why are there no consequences? Do police fill out paperwork on all these cases just to have them dropped?

These questions were raised recently by a reader who often is surprised by the number of charges reported in the newspaper as being dismissed by the court in Kenai.

For answers, District Attorney Dwayne McConnell, Judge Harold M. Brown and Kenai and Soldotna police chiefs Chuck Kopp and Shirley Gifford, respectively, were queried.

The consensus is that no single answer exists. Charges are dismissed for a number of different reasons, but all four public officials agreed the primary focus is assuring justice is done and the community is made safer by their actions.

To understand the reasons for dismissal, a basic understanding of the process from arrest to trial is necessary.

First, an alleged lawbreaker is arrested by police, who then prepare the case and forward appropriate charges against the offender to the district attorney.

The district attorney reviews the case and decides whether it can be prosecuted successfully and whether any additional charges are warranted.

The district attorney also may decide that a charge or charges should be dismissed.

The district attorney files the dismissal with the court and the court dismisses the charge.

"The vast majority of the dismissals are misdemeanors," said Brown.

An example would be a charge for failure to have a driver's license. If the person complies with the requirement before coming to court, the charge likely will be dismissed, Kopp said.

At times, a charge may be reduced. In printed court reports, the original charge will show up as having been dismissed and action on the lesser charge will be published under court actions.

An example is a charge of driving under the influence being reduced to reckless driving.

"It could be that the officer made the arrest with probable cause, but the Data Master was under .08," said McConnell. For a person to be convicted of driving under the influence in Alaska, the person's blood-alcohol level must be .08 or more.

"They still have alcohol in their system," McConnell said.

"We will reduce the charge to get some conviction."

Other reasons for dismissing the charge may have to do with how the defendant performed on field-sobriety tests, or it may be the arresting officer moved away or a witness moved out of state, McConnell said.

That brings up economic considerations that must be taken into account at all levels.

"We are keenly aware of the prosecutorial limits of resources," Kopp said.

Judge Brown agreed that there just are not enough resources.

He said that shortfall means some cases are dismissed without going before a jury.

Staffing shortages also contribute to the problem.

"Kenai has the highest number of cases per judge, per attorney," noted McConnell.

The peninsula has six judges -- four in Kenai, one in Seward and one in Homer. The district attorney's office has four attorneys, including McConnell, and two paralegal assistants.

The caseload is probably double or triple what it is in another state per attorney, McConnell said.

When deciding to dismiss a case, police and the courts also keep in mind the intent of the law.

"In recent years, new laws have been passed -- for instance driving without insurance," Kopp said. "We see the cases being dismissed because the person has gone out and gotten insurance and now is an insured driver on the road."

McConnell also said his office will at times dismiss a charge or charges knowing an offender will spend the same amount of time in jail if convicted of only one of the charges against him or her, because the court would order the sentences to be served concurrently rather than consecutively.

That means if a person commits two, three or four crimes in the same instant, the court might rule that one offense occurred.

As an example of this, McConnell hypothesized that if a person entered a room brandishing a gun and threatened two people in the room, the court might view it as one threatening act, even though two people were threatened.

The person would be sentenced to serve a certain amount of time in jail for threatening one victim at the same time he or she was serving the same amount of time for threatening the other.

Knowing the person would be sentenced to the same amount of time for one conviction as for two, the district attorney would prosecute on one charge and dismiss the other.

McConnell said his office also might bargain with the defendant's attorney to have an offender plead guilty or no contest to one charge if another charge is dismissed.

Asked what would help his office be able to prosecute more cases, McConnell said, "It'd be nice if I had another lawyer and another paralegal.

"I don't think that because of the number of cases here we dismiss more (than anywhere else)," he added.

To increase the staff in the Kenai district attorney's office, the state Legislature would need to approve the increase at the recommendation of the district attorney central office in Juneau.

"In these budgetary times, I'm realistic nothing's going to change," he said. "(But) I am hopeful."



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