GREENFIELD — A drunken-driving case filed five years after the accident hinges on whether prosecutors can convince a judge their misplaced case file didn’t affect the defendant’s right to a fair trial.
During a nearly three-hour hearing in Hancock County Superior Court 1 Monday, Judge Terry Snow heard arguments on whether to toss out the state’s case against Martin Smith, 48, 3303 U.S. 40 West, Greenfield.
Snow took the motion under advisement at the close of the hearing.
Smith has asked the judge to dismiss the single Class C felony count of operating a vehicle while intoxicated causing serious bodily injury against him. The case stems from an accident in August 2012, but the case against Smith wasn’t filed until earlier this year.
Smith’s attorney, Russell Cate of Carmel, said that delay is unjust.
Prosecutor John Keiffner said the case file was simply misplaced, and a jury should be given a chance to consider the evidence.
The Hancock County Prosecutor’s Office had all the evidence needed to file the Class C felony against Smith by September 2012, according to testimony. The charge was filed in March.
Investigators say Smith ran a stop sign while driving south on County Road 300W in August 2012, colliding with passenger car that was headed eastbound on State Road 234, according to police reports.
Two people in the car were injured, including a woman who fractured her spine, officials said. She reportedly has since recovered.
But Smith’s case file was lost in the prosecutor’s office for nearly five years, and the man’s attorneys say the faded memories of witnesses will make it difficult for Smith to mount a proper defense. This, Cate argued during the hearing, makes it impossible for Smith to get a fair trial.
Grey Chandler, the deputy prosecutor who handled the case in 2012, took the witness stand and admitted he doesn’t recall why the case wasn’t filed immediately. Chandler no longer works for the county prosecutor’s office.
Cate called three witnesses during the hearing, including Hancock County Sheriff’s Deputy Russell Silver, who investigated the 2012 crash, and Chandler, who was tasked with screening drunken-driving cases under former elected prosecutor Michael Griffin’s administration.
Chandler told the judge he can’t remember the file or specifics of the case. He recalls reading the paperwork and meeting with Silver in early 2013 to discuss getting additional information about property damage done in the accident.
Chandler’s duties within the prosecutor’s office changed in March 2013. He assumed another prosecutor would pick up the workload and move forward with filing charges against Smith, he said. He can only guess the charges weren’t filed because the extra information from police wasn’t received, he said.
Silver said he recalls trying to contact the victim in the weeks that followed the crash, but he has no recollection of the prosecutor’s office asking him to investigate the wreck further.
After all the witnesses had stepped down from the stand, Cate made a final plea to Snow, arguing that he sees three reasons for the judge to dismiss the case.
First, a sample of blood taken from his client in 2012 following the crash was destroyed by the Indiana Department of Toxicology in the five years that passed between the incident and when prosecutors filed felony the case against Smith. This takes away any chance Smith had of having the blood tested by another laboratory, he argued.
Cate also argued the prosecutor’s office filed a felony charge against Smith only because the state statute of limitations for a misdemeanor drunken-driving charge had passed.
Snow quickly dismissed these two notions, instead focusing on the allegation that Smith’s constitutional right to a fair trial has been compromised by the time delay.
No one is accused of mishandling the blood sample or the corresponding test results showing the defendant’s blood-alcohol content was at least three times the legal limit of .08 percent, Snow said.
Snow also disagreed the prosecutor’s office unfairly elevated the charge to a felony to save the case. There was no malice in that decision, just a difference of opinion, the judge said.
But Snow wasn’t convinced Smith could receive a fair trial so many years after the accident he’s accused of causing.
At the hearing’s conclusion, Snow told lawyers on both sides of the case to submit written arguments, voicing their opinions on that final point alone, within the next 10 days. He’ll rule on the motion to dismiss after considering those documents, he said.