In State v. Lile, the WA Supreme Court held that a judge’s granting a continuance is a discretionary ruling which effectively negates any affidavits of prejudice which the parties may file against that judge afterward.
One evening in 2013, two intoxicated groups crossed paths on a Bellingham sidewalk. United States Navy sailor Lile (the Defendant) and his companions were walking in one direction on the sidewalk and another group moved toward them in the opposite direction. Lile’s group had recently left a party in which Lile had admittedly consumed alcohol over a period of about five hours.
Unfortunately, Mr. Lile’s group had negative interactions with the other group of individuals. This resulted in Liles being striking someone in the face, fracturing their jaw, knocking out some teeth, concussing the victim and rendering them briefly unconscious. Lile was pulled away by one of his companions. A nearby police officer witnessed the fracas and approached Lile, who ran away.
A chase ensued. Officer Woodward jumped onto Lile’s back. Lile struggled, striking Officer Woodward in the face. Officer Josh McKissick arrived shortly thereafter and assisted Officer Woodward in finally subduing and arresting Lile. Ultimately, Lile was charged with Assault in the Fourth Degree, Assault in the Third Degree, Assault in the Second Degree and Resisting Arrest under numerous counts.
CRIMINAL PROCEEDINGS & AFFIDAVIT OF PREJUDICE
The matter was set for a January 22, 2014 pretrial status hearing. During the hearing, the judge orally granted a 1-week continuance, issuing a written order to that effect February 3, 2014.
On February 4, 2014, Lile’s attorney submitted a motion to sever, asking the court to order separate trials for Lile’s alleged assaults on Millman and Rowles from his assault on Officer Woodward.
During the February 6, 2014 status hearing, before Judge Uhrig ruled on the motion to sever, Lile’s attorney informed Judge Uhrig that Lile had filed an affidavit of prejudice against him.
Affidavit of Prejudice
For those who don’t know, an affidavit of prejudice (AOP) is a statutory pleading/device which gives either the Prosecutor of the Defense Attorney opportunity to dismiss/excuse a particular judge from deciding any issues on a pending criminal case. The AOP must be filed as soon as possible; preferably before the particular judge decides any issues on the case. Typically, AOP’s are not honored if they are filed after the judge has already made discretionary rulings on the case.
The Prosecutor asserted the affidavit was not timely because the judge’s ruling on the January 22, 2014 continuance motion preceded the affidavit and was discretionary. The judge agreed with the Prosecutor, indicating that the continuance ruling was indeed discretionary; as he had denied such requests in the past. As a result, he ruled the AOP untimely. He then denied Lile’s motion to sever. Lile did not later renew the motion to sever, an option provided by CrR 4.4(a)(2).
Months later, Lile’s case proceeded to jury trial, where a different judge handled the proceedings. Lile was convicted on all charges. Lile appealed to the WA Court of Appeals on a number of issues, however, the Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction. Afterward, Lile appealed to the WA Supreme Court.
For purposes of this blog entry, we focus on the issue of whether the joint continuance motion was discretionary, making Lile’ s affidavit of prejudice untimely and leaving the original judge qualified to hear the motion to sever.
COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS
The WA Supreme Court decided that a ruling to continue a case is, in fact, a discretionary ruling. For those who don’t know, a discretionary ruling is an official, substantive decision from the judge using reason and judgment to choose from among acceptable alternatives.
The court reasoned that under an AOP, a party has the right to disqualify a trial judge for prejudice, without substantiating the claim, if the requirements of the statute are met. The statute says, “no Judge of a superior court … shall sit to hear or try any action or proceeding when it shall be established … that said judge is prejudiced against any party or attorney.”
To establish prejudice, a party can file a motion supported by an affidavit indicating
that the party cannot, or believes that it cannot, have a fair and impartial trial before
such judge. In order to be timely, however, an AOP must be made ‘before the judge presiding has made any order or ruling involving discretion. The statute also provides that the arrangement of the calendar, the setting of an action, motion or proceeding down for hearing or trial, the arraignment of the accused in a criminal action or the fixing of bail shall not be construed as a ruling or order involving discretion.
The Court reasoned that a trial court’s ruling on an opposed continuance is discretionary because the court must consider various factors; such as diligence, materiality, due process, a need for orderly procedure, and the possible impact of the result on the trial.
Furthermore, the WA Supreme Court held that the judge’s continuance ruling was discretionary. It reasoned that continuances, even when unopposed, have a significant impact on the efficient operation of our courts and the rights of the parties, particularly in criminal proceedings. Correspondingly, CrR 3 .3(h) gives trial courts discretion in granting them. Here, the continuance ruling here impacted the “duties and functions of the court, and therefore involved discretion.
In conclusion, the WA Supreme Court held that the judge’s continuance ruling was discretionary; which made him qualified to rule on Lile’ s severance motion.
JUDGE MADSEN’S CONCURRING OPINION
Although Judge Madsen concurred with the opinion, her reasoning differed. She did, in fact, find that the judge did not make a discretionary ruling when granting the continuance.
She reasoned that whether an order is discretionary is not about the form of the motion, but about whether there was something substantive related to the case underlying the motion.
“In the present case, I would find that the continuance ruling was not discretionary for purposes of RCW 4.12.050 because the court’s ruling indicated no predisposition on the issues in the case,” she said. She elaborated that, admittedly, granting or denying a motion necessarily involves some type of discretion, but the same is true of the other preliminary matters that the majority distinguishes. “Arranging the calendar, setting a matter for hearing or trial, arraigning an accused, and setting an amount for bail are all discretionary acts in the sense that the judge has the general freedom to make those decisions,” she said. However, the legislature has dictated that these acts will not be construed as rulings involving discretion within the meaning of RCW 4.12.050(1).
“The same is true of the agreed continuance in this case. The motion occurred pretrial and was unopposed. It was a calendaring matter, not a substantive ruling on an issue in the case.”
With that, Judge Madsen held that the judge erred in denying Lile’ s affidavit of prejudice.
My opinion? I must agree with Judge Madsen’s concurrence. Like her, I believe that arranging the calendar, setting a matter for hearing or trial, arraigning an accused, and setting an amount for bail can be seen as discretionary, however, the legislature has dictated that these acts will not be construed as rulings involving discretion within the meaning of the statute.
At any rate, the Court’s decision in this case highlights the fact that AOP’s must be filed by Defense Counsel as soon as possible.
Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime. Hiring an effective and competent defense attorney is the first and best step toward justice.