Ex parte Littlefield

Citation343 S.C. 212,540 S.E.2d 81
Decision Date06 November 2000
Docket NumberNo. 25210.,25210.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of South Carolina
PartiesEx Parte Horace LITTLEFIELD and Jimmy Jeter, Petitioners. In Re The State of South Carolina, Respondent, v. Jack Williams, Respondent.

David L. Thomas, of Wilson, Moore, Taylor & Thomas, P.A., of Greenville, for petitioners.

Solicitor Robert M. Ariail and Assistant Solicitor Mindy L. Hervey, of Greenville County Solicitor's Office, for respondent The State of South Carolina.

Cheryl Aaron, of Greenville, for respondent Jack Williams.

WALLER, Justice:

Horace Littlefield and Jimmy Jeter ("Petitioners") petition this Court for a writ of mandamus pursuant to the Victims' Bill of Rights, S.C. Const. art. I, § 24(B) (Supp.1999).

FACTS/PROCEDURAL HISTORY

During 1996 until his arrest in 1998, Jack Preston Williams, Jr. ("Williams") committed a variety of white-collar crimes against multiple victims in Greenville and Pickens County, which resulted in over $300,000.00 in economic losses for the alleged victims. Petitioner Horace Littlefield ("Littlefield") and Petitioner Jimmy Jeter ("Jeter") lost over $80,000.00 and $70,000.00, respectively, in financial dealings with Williams. The Thirteenth Circuit Solicitor's Office ("Solicitor's Office") reviewed all charges against Williams for prosecutorial merit, sufficiency of the evidence, availability of civil defenses, and potential complications or problems with prosecution in order to determine how to proceed.

Based on this prosecutorial review, the Solicitor's Office determined there was not probable cause to charge Williams with any crime against Littlefield. On numerous occasions, the Solicitor's Office contacted Littlefield and explained why his case was not being prosecuted and advised him of any civil remedies that might be available to him pursuant to S.C.Code Ann. § 16-3-1545 (Supp.1999). The Solicitor's Office also decided not to prosecute Williams for the alleged crimes involving Jeter, and dismissed all charges against Williams where Jeter was a victim.

After convicting Williams at a trial in his absence in August 1998, the Solicitor's Office and Williams' attorney engaged in a plea bargaining process in an effort to resolve the remaining forty charges pending against Williams. On August 30, 1999, Williams pled guilty, pursuant to a plea offer from the Solicitor's Office, to seven counts of forgery, eight counts of breach of trust, three counts of obtaining money or property by false pretenses, two counts of grand larceny, and two counts of altering a certificate of title.1 Prior to the plea, the Solicitor's Office notified each of the victims identified in the arrest warrants of: (1) the plea offer; (2) the charges that would be dismissed; and (3) the proposed restitution schedule.

On October 7, 1999, Petitioners moved before the circuit court to set aside the guilty plea, arguing they were not notified of the plea prior to the hearing and were denied the right to attend the hearing despite the fact they filled out victim impact statements. Petitioners maintain they did not receive a letter from the Solicitor's Office informing them of the Motion hearing and plea bargain until August 30, 1999, the day of the hearing. In response, the Solicitor's Office, in amicus curiae, submitted that the exclusive remedy afforded the Petitioners was to file a motion pursuant to S.C.Code Ann. § 17-25-326 (Supp.1999). Petitioners amended their Motion arguing the circuit court was without subject matter jurisdiction to accept the guilty plea because the Solicitor's Office did not afford them adequate notice of the plea hearing. In the alternative, Petitioners asked the trial judge to amend the restitution order in which certain victims were placed in a superior position to other victims in violation of S.C.Code Ann. § 17-25-326 (Supp.1999). On October 18, 1999, Petitioners were afforded a full hearing on the merits of their motion. The trial judge found the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to entertain the motions based on the Court of Appeals' holding in Reed v. Becka, 333 S.C. 676, 511 S.E.2d 396 (Ct.App.1999). The trial judge specifically held that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because: (1) the term of general sessions court during which the plea was entered ended; (2) no arrest warrant or indictment was issued listing Littlefield as a victim; and (3) the indictments listing Jeter as a victim were dismissed. The trial judge further stated that there were other remedies Petitioners could pursue, including obtaining an arrest warrant from law enforcement and pursuing a writ of mandamus.

Petitioners seek a writ of mandamus from this Court. On February 16, 2000, we issued an order requesting that the attorneys brief the following issues:

I. Does an alleged victim have any rights under the Victims' Bill of Rights and S.C.Code Ann. § 16-3-1545 (Supp.1999) when the alleged perpetrator is arrested but not indicted for the crime involving the alleged victim?
II. What relief, if any, are victims entitled to under the Victims' Bill of Rights and S.C.Code Ann. § 16-3-1545 (Supp.1999)?
LAW/ANALYSIS

In the early 1970s, a victims' rights movement emerged in this country. This movement focused on integrating the crime victims' concerns into the criminal justice process.2 In response to the victims' rights movement, most states enacted statutes that required prosecutors to inform crime victims of all criminal proceedings against their alleged perpetrator. Furthermore, these statutes gave the victim a voice at the critical stages of the criminal justice proceedings. See Tobolowsky, supra.

In response to the victims' rights movement, the South Carolina General Assembly enacted several laws to protect victims' rights, including S.C.Code Ann. § 16-3-1505 (Supp. 1999) and S.C. Const. art. I, § 24(B) (Supp.1999). The General Assembly declared the intent behind section 16-3-1505 was to "ensure that all victims of and witnesses to a crime are treated with dignity, respect, courtesy, and sensitivity." On November 5, 1996, South Carolina citizens overwhelmingly ratified the Victims' Bill of Rights, which ensures victims are informed of their rights and any alternative means that might be available to them if the criminal prosecution is unable to meet their needs.

Under current South Carolina law, prosecutors have more duties toward victims than they have had in the past.3 Prosecutors must respect the rights granted to the victims by the Victims' Bill of Rights, which includes the right to be informed of and attend any criminal proceeding which is dispositive of the charges where the defendant has the right to be present. The Victims' Bill of Rights also establishes a system through which victims can request services and notification of proceedings held during the criminal prosecution.

However, the Victims' Bill of Rights is not a drastic transformation of the criminal justice system whereby the victim is given control over the solicitor's broad discretion. The criminal justice system gives prosecutors, as opposed to victims, broad discretion in deciding which cases to try because prosecutors are less likely to be prejudiced by personal and emotional motives. The South Carolina Constitution and case law place the unfettered discretion to prosecute solely in the prosecutor's hands. "Prosecutors may pursue a case to trial, or they may plea bargain it down to a lesser offense or they may simply decide not to prosecute the offense in its entirety." State v. Thrift, 312 S.C. 282, 291-92, 440 S.E.2d 341, 346 (1994). Furthermore, the Court of Appeals held that while prosecutors have some duties to crime victims, "their prosecutorial discretion is not contracted or limited by victims' rights laws." Reed, 333 S.C. at 676,511 S.E.2d at 400.4

Although prosecutorial discretion is broad, it is not unlimited. The judiciary is empowered to infringe on the exercise of prosecutorial discretion when it is necessary to review and interpret the results of the prosecutor's actions when those actions violate certain constitutional mandates. Id. (citing Thrift, supra).

For example, the judiciary may infringe on prosecutorial discretion where the prosecutor bases the decision to prosecute on unjustifiable standards such as race, religion, or other arbitrary factors. State v. Needs, 333 S.C. 134, 508 S.E.2d 857 (1998). The judiciary can also check prosecutorial discretion by dismissing flawed indictments, directing a mistrial of a case wrongfully brought or prosecuted, or granting a directed verdict for lack of credible evidence. Thus, a prosecutor's discretion is constrained by many sources other than the Victims' Bill of Rights.

Petitioners argue that their rights under the Victims' Bill of Rights were violated because they were not informed of the plea bargain, did not know the contents of the plea, and were not informed of the plea hearing. Petitioners maintain that "they are entitled to be informed of a Solicitor's proposal and have a right to be present and to express their views of such a proposed plea." The Petitioners, therefore, seek a writ of mandamus, which: (1) orders the trial court to void the prior plea; and (2) orders the Solicitor to include Petitioners in the new plea bargaining process.

I. Rights of Victim When the Perpetrator is Arrested But Not Indicted for the Crime Against the Victim

Petitioners argue a person's status as a "victim," for purposes of the Victims' Bill of Rights, is not contingent on an indictment for the crime involving the alleged victim. We agree. However, a victim's rights under the Victims' Bill of Rights terminate when the criminal proceedings and the postconviction actions against the alleged perpetrator are resolved. To have rights under the Victims' Bill of Rights, Petitioners must be a "victim" for purposes of the statute. The Victims' Bill of Rights defines a "victim" as:

[A] person who suffers direct or
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