State v. Brillon

Decision Date14 March 2008
Docket NumberNo. 05-167.,05-167.
PartiesSTATE of Vermont v. Michael BRILLON.
CourtVermont Supreme Court

William H. Sorrell, Attorney General, and David Tartter and John R. Treadwell, Assistant Attorneys General, Montpelier, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

William A. Nelson, Middlebury, for Defendant-Appellant.



¶ 1. In this appeal, we take the extraordinary step of vacating the convictions and dismissing the charges against defendant because he was not prosecuted within a time frame that satisfied his constitutional right to a speedy trial. Defendant was charged with domestic assault after striking his girlfriend during an altercation in July 2001. Because his assaultive behavior was also a violation of a previous condition of release, the charge was enhanced to a felony domestic assault. The enhanced felony, in turn, allowed the State to prosecute defendant as a habitual offender, making him eligible for a life sentence. Defendant remained incarcerated during the nearly three years that passed before he was finally brought to trial. Following the trial, he was sentenced to serve twelve-to-twenty years in prison. During the pendency of this appeal, the State agreed to a reduced sentence if defendant dropped his appeal, but, on remand, the district court refused to accept the stipulated settlement. We now hold that the convictions must be vacated and the charges against defendant dismissed because he was not prosecuted in a timely manner.

¶ 2. In arriving at this decision, we acknowledge that much of the delay in prosecuting defendant resulted from the inaction of several of the assigned counsel who represented defendant during the three years he awaited trial. As we discuss in detail below, however, the inaction of assigned counsel does not relieve the state1 of its duty, through implementation of the criminal justice system, to provide defendant with a constitutionally guaranteed speedy trial. Indeed, the defender general's office is part of the criminal justice system and an arm of the state. When, as in this case, a defendant presses for, but is denied, a speedy trial because of the inaction of assigned counsel or a breakdown in the public defender system, the failure of the system to provide the defendant a constitutionally guaranteed speedy trial is attributable to the prosecution, and not defendant. See People v. Johnson, 26 Cal.3d 557, 162 Cal.Rptr. 431, 606 P.2d 738, 747 (1980) (en banc) (stating that the purpose of the right to a speedy trial is to protect defendants against delay caused by the willful oppression or neglect of the state or its officers, including "not only the prosecution, but the judiciary and those whom the judges assign to represent indigent defendants").

¶ 3. Because of the limited record before us in this case, we cannot be sure if this case represents an aberration or a growing crisis in the provision of defender general services in Vermont. If it is the result of inadequate resources given to the defender general's office, it would behoove the Legislature to address the problem before we are confronted anew with the dilemma of dismissing charges and prematurely releasing potentially dangerous individuals into the community.

¶ 4. Contrary to the assertion of the dissent, we do not take this decision lightly or in disregard of the role of the trial courts. In the dissent's view, this Court is releasing into society a "woman beater" and "habitual offender" who is guilty of intentionally "sabotag[ing]" his criminal proceedings by "ensnaring" his attorneys in a "ploy" to create conflicts of interest, avoid trial, and ultimately commit a "fraud upon the court" in seeking dismissal based on lack of a speedy trial. Post, ¶¶ 52, 54, 59. Apparently, the dissent views the trial court, the state's attorney's office, and the defender general's office as passive players helpless to prevent defendant's "monkey-wrenching" "maneuvers." Post, ¶¶ 52, 58. Under such a scenario, the trial court would not appear to have ultimate control over, or responsibility for, its own proceedings. Because of defendant's presumed "tactics," the dissent considers the lengthy delay in securing counsel for defendant "unfortunate, but not per se prejudicial." Post, ¶¶ 76, 82. The dissent urges us to remand the case, largely so that its assertions about defendant's motives can be proved at a second hearing on his motion for a speedy trial.

¶ 5. To bolster its theory that defendant is solely responsible for the delay in bringing his case to trial, the dissent examines "related" criminal proceedings involving separate charges and engages in extensive factfinding that attributes motives to defendant. Post, ¶ 57. Ironically, at the same time, the dissent accuses the majority of engaging in "appellate fact finding" and expanding the record in an effort "to render judgment on defendant's bare allegations." Post, ¶¶ 57, 58 n. 4. Our judgment, however, is not based on "defendant's bare allegations," but rather on the undisputed record in this case, the only case that is relevant to determining the speedy-trial issue. That record includes the entire procedural history of the case— including the trial court's actions, the statements of withdrawing counsel, the periods of time defendant was without counsel, the period of time it took to bring defendant to trial, and the actions of the state's attorney and defendant. The record reveals, as detailed below, that an unacceptable amount of the delay was not attributable to defendant, but to the system. The dissent glosses over these systemic factors, instead attributing the delays to defendant's supposed fraud upon the court—even though nothing in the record or the trial court's findings support this view. What the dissent misses is that, notwithstanding defendant's actions and motives, it is ultimately the trial court's responsibility to control the proceedings by denying new counsel or continuances if it believes that the defendant is attempting to manipulate the system.

¶ 6. Therefore, we see no point in remanding this case for the trial court to revisit defendant's motion to dismiss for lack of a speedy trial. The material facts, apparent from the record, are essentially undisputed. Remanding for a post-conviction-relief-like hearing at which all of defendant's assigned counsel would be examined to uncover defendant's underlying motivations would do nothing to further our resolution of the ultimate legal question we must decide. Rather, the undisputed facts need to be examined in light of the relevant legal factors. After doing so here based on the record before us, it is plain that defendant was not prosecuted within a time frame that satisfied his constitutional right to a speedy trial.

¶ 7. Before examining the relevant law, we first set forth the historical and procedural facts. Later, within the context of applying the relevant factors established by our law, we will review the factual details concerning the delay in prosecuting defendant.

¶ 8. The events that led to this appeal stem from defendant's relationship with his former girlfriend, with whom he had a child born in April 2000. As the result of charges arising from an incident in which defendant allegedly slashed the tires on his girlfriend's car, the district court imposed, among others, a condition of release prohibiting defendant from harassing his girlfriend. On July 27, 2001, approximately three weeks after the court's imposition of conditions of release, defendant's girlfriend drove defendant to the local police station for a required check-in before they were to return to the girlfriend's mobile home so that defendant could visit their daughter. Apparently, the girlfriend left after dropping off defendant because she was under the impression that he was going to be arrested. Eventually, the girlfriend's sister gave defendant a ride to the girlfriend's mobile home, where defendant angrily confronted the girlfriend for leaving him at the police station. The girlfriend appeared at the door of the mobile home holding a baseball bat. At one point during the confrontation, the girlfriend attempted to leave with her daughter in her car. As she attempted to do so, defendant struck her in the face. The police were called, and defendant was arrested.

¶ 9. Absent aggravating circumstances, a domestic-assault charge is a misdemeanor punishable by no more than one year in prison. 13 V.S.A. § 1042. Due to a combination of circumstances, however, defendant was charged with an enhanced felony and then as a habitual offender facing a potential life sentence. The enhanced felony charge of second-degree aggravated domestic assault resulted from the fact that defendant's assault on his girlfriend also violated the pre-trial condition of release prohibiting defendant from harassing his girlfriend. See 13 V.S.A. § 1044(a)(1) (providing that a person is guilty of second-degree aggravated domestic assault if the person commits domestic assault that causes bodily injury to another person and, in doing so, "violates specific conditions of a criminal court order in effect at the time of the offense imposed to protect that other person"). Moreover, because defendant had been convicted of felonies on three prior occasions, the prosecution also charged defendant as a habitual offender. See 13 V.S.A. § 11.

¶ 10. Three days after the July 27, 2001 incident, the district court issued a no-bail order, and defendant remained incarcerated. On February 16, 2002, following an evidentiary bail hearing that had been continued several times, the trial court ordered that defendant be held without bail pending trial. Finally, after several more continuances, changes of attorneys, and rotations of judges, a trial was held over three days beginning on June 15, 2004, nearly three years after defendant had...

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