When a judge renders a judgment in District Court, a Defendant has a number of options. The Defendant can appeal the judgment within 10 days for a trial de novo in Superior Court. If the Defendant misses that 10-day window, the Defendant may also seek to re-open the case through a Motion for Appropriate Relief (MAR).
What about the State? What happens when a prosecutor doesn’t like a result in District Court? What can a prosecutor do to “get justice”?
What happens when a judge sentences a defendant in District Court, but the State doesn’t think the sentence is harsh enough?
A prosecutor also has an opportunity to appeal, although for more limited reasons. And a prosecutor may also file a Motion for Appropriate relief. But a prosecutor can’t ask for a harsher punishment if he doesn’t like the judgment imposed in District Court. That’s because when judgment was imposed, jeopardy attached. Once jeopardy attaches, the Defendant’s federal constitutional rights are implicated.
The State has no countervailing rights. This is a country of individual liberties, protected by a Constitution from state power. The state may have procedural obligations. And there may be interests of fairness to the State’s lawyers – called “prosecutors”. But the state is not the equivalent of the Defendant.
In a criminal trial, the Defendant’s rights hold special importance. Consequently, the phrase, “being fair and impartial to the State of North Carolina and the defendant” misses the point. Fairness and impartiality has to do with the procedural rules. But ties always go to the Defendant in our system, even if judges don’t always commit to that lofty ideal.
Let’s return to the above question. What recourses does a prosecutor have after a judgment has been issued in District Court?
N.C.G.S. 15A-1432 (pdf) permits the prosecutor to appeal to Superior Court when Double Jeopardy has not attached and when “there has been a decision or judgment dismissing criminal charges as to one or more counts” or “upon the granting of a motion for a new trial on the ground of newly discovered or newly available evidence but only on questions of law.”
When jeopardy has attached, either upon a guilty plea or upon a dismissal or not-guilty verdict at the close of State’s evidence, the prosecutor cannot re-open the case because doing so would put the defendant twice in jeopardy of life or limb.
What about a Motion for Appropriate Relief? Can the State use a MAR to try to re-open a judgment it doesn’t like?
N.C.G.S. 15A-1416 says yes, but only for the relief that it may assert upon appeal, which means only for reasons outlined in N.C.G.S. 15A-1432.
N.C.G.S. 15A-1416 also allows the State to pray judgment at any time when grounds for the imposition of the sentence in the PJC are asserted or for probation violations.
Recently the Johnston County court system had to contend with issues involving illegally dismissed cases. The new District Attorney attempted to open the old cases, but was rebuffed by a judge who held that the State’s chance to file the MAR had expired 10 days after the dismissal of each of the cases. (The State potentially could’ve refiled on those cases if the State had caught the corruption scandal within a year of the dismissal.)