Washington, et al. v Cline, et al.

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Opinion Filed March 22, 2024
Attorney for the Case Bob Ekstrand
Amicus Brief Writers Christopher Heaney S. Luke Largess
Court NC Supreme Court
Docket No. 48PA14-2

In this case, the NCAJ joined with the ACLU of NC to support plaintiff Frankie Washington in his appeal to the state Supreme Court. The amicus brief urges the Court to protect the ability of all North Carolinians to vindicate their fundamental constitutional rights.

In 2008, Mr. Washington’s criminal convictions were vacated by the North Carolina Court of Appeals because his state and federal constitutional rights to a speedy trial had been violated. State v. Washington, 192 N.C. 277, 298 (2008). Mr. Washington had been arrested and imprisoned on several charges in 2002, and, for more than three years following his arrest, had unsuccessfully sought to have the evidence against him analyzed by the State Bureau of Investigations. He had also moved to have the charges against him dismissed on speedy trial grounds. He lost the speedy trial motions, was tried and convicted by a jury after the evidence was finally analyzed, and appealed to the Court of Appeals, which ruled in his favor. The Court summarized: “Given the length of the delay, defendant’s repeated efforts to expedite his trial, the overwhelming evidence that the delay could have been avoided if the State had exercised even the slightest care during the course of this prosecution, and the fact that this delay actually prejudiced defendant at trial . . . we have no choice but to conclude that defendant has been deprived of a right specifically affirmed in both our state and federal constitutions.” Id. at 297.

In 2011, Mr. Washington filed a lawsuit against the State, the City of Durham, and various individuals, including Tracy Cline in her official capacity as District Attorney. He sought redress, including money damages, for harms suffered from his pre-trial detention, the investigation, and the prosecution. He brought claims directly under the speedy trial portion of the North Carolina Constitution — Article I, section 18. When the trial court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment, Washington again appealed to the Court of Appeals, arguing that the state constitutional right to a speedy trial must be protected by the courts. He cited the seminal case of Corum v. Univ. of N.C., 330 N.C. 761, 782 (1992), which establishes “in the absence of an adequate state remedy, one whose state constitutional rights have been abridged has a direct claim against the State under our Constitution.”

In 2019, the Court of Appeals ruled against Mr. Washington in his civil case and did not mention Corum or any of its progeny in its opinion. Rather, that Court relied on federal case law established in other speedy trial cases, to determine that “no private cause of action for injunctive relief or damages lies in connection with the deprivation of the right to a speedy trial.” Washington v. Cline,  267 N.C. App. 370, 375 (2019). In December 2021, the Supreme Court granted Mr. Washington, represented by Bob Ekstrand, discretionary review, and he is supported in his case with an amicus brief by NCAJ and the North Carolina ACLU.

In the amicus brief, NCAJ and the ACLU argue the necessity of citizens’ access to the courts to vindicate their fundamental constitutional rights. The Court of Appeals erred by “failing to engage in this fundamental principle” of North Carolina constitutional law, and the Supreme Court must “apply its longstanding precedent” in this case. The right to a speedy trial should not be excluded from the protection afforded other rights enshrined in Article 1 of the state constitution. The Court of Appeals ignored state law and relied instead on federal law, which strictly limits direct federal constitutional claims, thus weakening North Carolinian’s access to the courts to vindicate their state constitutional rights.