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State v. Stuart

February 28, 1996

STATE OF NORTH DAKOTA, PLAINTIFF AND APPELLANT,
v.
RONALD E. STUART, DEFENDANT AND APPELLEE



Appeal from the District Court for Stutsman County, Southeast Judicial District, Randall L. Hoffman, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Meschke, Justice.

The State appeals from an order dismissing two criminal charges against Ronald E. Stuart for failing to appear or post bond on traffic citations. We reverse and remand for trial.

On October 8, 1994, Stuart was stopped and cited for speeding near Carrington, North Dakota. Stuart was also cited for violating NDCC 39-06-16 by failing to produce a valid driver's license.*fn1 Stuart signed both citations, thereby promising to appear in court on November 2, 1994.

Stuart moved to dismiss the traffic citations on October 12, 1994, alleging insufficient process, insufficient service of process, and lack of jurisdiction. On October 17, 1994, apparently in response to a letter from Stuart, the trial court deputy clerk wrote Stuart a letter informing him that "the only way that this matter can be resolved is after a hearing," that a hearing could not be held until Stuart posted bond, and that he had to post bond by November 9, 1994. By letter dated October 20, Stuart denied that he had requested a hearing, accused the clerk of practicing law without a license, and reiterated the deficiencies alleged in his October 12 motion to dismiss. The then trial judge replied to Stuart's letter on October 25, 1994:

I am writing in response to your letter addressed to my [clerk].

Let me assure you that [the clerk] sent the letter you received at my direction.

The procedure[s] in civil traffic cases are set out in section 39-06.1-03 of the North Dakota Century Code. Penalties for not complying with these procedures are in 39-06.1-04. Copies are enclosed for your information.

We will follow these procedures in processing your ticket. Therefore, if bond is not posted by November 9, 1994, your license will be suspended.

Stuart did not post bond by November 9. After giving Stuart notice and the opportunity for a hearing, the North Dakota Department of Transportation suspended Stuart's driver's license on December 5, 1994, for his reported failure to appear or post bond on the traffic citations. See NDCC 39-06-32(6). On February 15, 1995, the trial court clerk signed two complaints against Stuart, under NDCC 39-06.1-04, for failing to appear or post bond for the two traffic citations, and the trial judge had Stuart arrested.

On February 27, 1995, Stuart posted bond for the two failure-to-appear charges, received copies of the February 15 complaints, and was notified by letter that trial on the charges would begin on April 24, 1995. On both March 13 and 15, 1995, Stuart filed handwritten demands for either a formal complaint or the dismissal of the "purported Complaint." The State resisted the demands and attached copies of the two February 15 complaints. On April 24, 1995, Stuart failed to appear for trial and was arrested again.

On May 4, 1995, the State responded to Stuart's October 1994 motion to dismiss the traffic citations, asserting sufficient process and valid jurisdiction. On May 8, 1995, Stuart renewed the motion to dismiss the traffic citations, and the trial court notified him that a hearing would take place on June 12, 1995.

During the hearing, the trial court orally dismissed the two failure-to-appear charges. Citing Powell v. Hjelle, 408 N.W.2d 737 (N.D.1987), the trial court found that Stuart's driver's license was a "protectable property interest," that the license suspension was a "pretty big hammer over Mr. Stuart's head," and that the State's interest in prosecuting Stuart was not "all that great in this case." In dismissing the charges, the trial court also found that Stuart was "prejudiced" by "misinformation" in the former trial judge's October 1994 letter, and by the trial court's "failure to require sworn testimony or affidavit" in support of the February 15 complaints.

After a written order confirmed the oral dismissal of the failure-to-appear charges, the State appealed. See State v. DuPaul, 509 N.W.2d 266, 269 (N.D.1993) (order dismissing criminal charge is appealable, under NDCC 29-28-07(1), where it has same effect as "order quashing an information"). The State argues the trial court erred in finding that Stuart was prejudiced by the lack of sworn testimony or an affidavit to support the complaints, and that the court incorrectly applied Powell in a criminal context. Furthermore, the State argues that the "trial court went beyond the scope of [Stuart's] motions and demands to find two issues upon which to rest its decision for dismissing the two complaints." We agree that the trial court improperly dismissed the failure-to-appear charges.

The State argues the trial court incorrectly found that Stuart was prejudiced by the trial court's failure to require the complainant to give an ...


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