Recently, Gwinnett County Solicitor Brian Whiteside announced that the Gwinnett County Solicitor’s Office will no longer hear DUI cases set for motions or trial in the Gwinnett County Recorder’s Court, but will instead bind over those cases to Gwinnett State Court. Subsequently, Solicitor Whiteside filed suit against two Recorder’s Court judges, alleging that they were taking action to prevent these cases from being moved to State Court. His position is that this is in violation of their duties.
What does all of this mean? What effect, if any, is this likely to have on DUI cases in Gwinnett County? Keep reading to find out.
First, it is helpful to have an understanding of some of the terminology used here.
Mr. Whiteside cited the fact that Recorder’s Court is not a court of record as his main reason for ordering that all DUI motions be heard in State Court, which is a court of record. What does this mean, and why is it important?
A court of record is a court where a court reporter is typically present and keeping track of what is said during motions and trials.
On appeal, courts generally do not re-hear an entire case. They don’t listen to testimony from live witnesses, they don’t examine physical evidence, etc. They typically rely on the record of what happened in the lower court, and rule on legal issues based on that record. An important part of that record is the transcript, which is created by the court reporter. He or she transcribes, word for word, everything that is spoken in the court. This allows appellate court judges to know exactly what was said in the lower court, and they make their decisions based on applying their understanding of the law to the facts as shown in that lower court. If a court reporter is not present, the proceeding may not be recorded, which could make an appeal challenging.
Why does this matter for motions proceedings? It matters because motions are extremely important in DUI practice. You can read more about motions and how they fit into a criminal case here ( https://kevinfisherlegal.com/georgia-criminal-court-procedures/ ), but essentially, there are many types of motions that can happen in a criminal case. The most common is the motion to suppress. In a motion to suppress, a criminal defense attorney makes an argument that a certain piece (or multiple pieces) of evidence is inadmissible because it was illegally obtained by the police. At a motions hearing, witnesses (usually the police) are brought to court and asked to testify about how they obtained the evidence. The criminal defense attorney is given the opportunity to cross examine the officer(s). Then both the State and the defense lawyer make an argument to the judge about the admissibility of the evidence, and the judge issues a ruling.
These motions are incredibly important because they can essentially determine the outcome of the case. Take, for example, a drug possession case that occurred after a person was stopped for an alleged traffic violation. The police must have a valid reason, supported by evidence, for the initial traffic stop. If they did not, then all evidence obtained as a result of that stop, including the drugs themselves and any statements made by a defendant, may be excluded from evidence. It is easy to see how the State’s case may fall apart if certain important pieces of evidence are suppressed.
All of this makes it seem like there are no downsides to Mr. Whiteside’s plan to move all DUI motions cases to State Court. But there is one major pitfall: State Court is extremely backlogged due to COVID-19 shutdowns, meaning that defendants may have to wait a considerable amount of time to resolve their cases there. Recorder’s Court is designed to move cases rapidly, and many defendants are happy with that. Most people do not want criminal charges hanging over their head for years. Defense attorneys have expressed concern that only moving motions cases to State Court penalizes defendants who want to contest their charges by making them wait months (or even years) for a resolution.
Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether Mr. Whiteside’s lawsuit will succeed, in which case Gwinnett County DUI cases may change fairly drastically from the way they were handled in the past. In the meantime, if you have a question about a DUI matter, whether in Gwinnett County or somewhere else in Georgia, give me a call.