OXFORD — One of the former Granville County Sheriff’s Office deputies facing prosecution in a departmental scandal contends the obstruction-of-justice charges filed against him are unconstitutional and should be thrown out of court.
Attorneys for the former deputy, Chad Coffey, filed the dismissal motion on Dec. 20.
It contends that the state’s judges, from those sitting on the N.C. Supreme Court on down, have misinterpreted the law on obstruction of justice since at least 1983, harming defendants like Coffey who face “arbitrary enforcement” of something that’s become a “catchall crime crime to cover any conduct the state believes is wrongful.”
Coffey stands accused of 40 felonies in connection with his handling of confidential informants and with his alleged role in falsifying the training records of suspended Granville County Sheriff Brindell Wilkins and former Chief Deputy Sherwood Boyd.
The contested obstruction-of-justice charges account for 19 of those alleged offenses. Coffey’s lawyers have filed separate dismissal motions targeting others on the list, including one that if successful would torpedo the entire prosecution.
But the motion attacking the obstruction-of-justice charges is important because prosecutors here and elsewhere in the state have used obstruction of justice allegations to pursue criminal cases that allege a variety of misconduct by police and other governmental officials.
Here in the Tri-County — along with the cases against Coffey, Wilkins, Boyd and one other deputy in the Granville sheriff’s office — prosecutors are leaning on obstruction charges in a Vance County case that alleges a trio of Vance County Sheriff’s Office deputies bypassed ordinary legal procedure to seize a vehicle.
Elsewhere in the state, obstruction allegations also figured in a Cherokee County case that saw that community’s former Department of Social Services director, Cindy Palmer plead guilty to a single felony. She was charged in connection with allegations her department was using an improper “custody and visitation agreement” to take children away from their parents without state-mandated court supervision.
Palmer’s lawyer, Hart Miles, is one of the attorneys representing Coffey. He had sought to have the case against Palmer thrown out for being unconstitutionally vague, according to a report by Carolina Public Press. Coffey’s dismissal motion makes a similar claim.
Obstruction of justice, in North Carolina, in general is a common-law offense rather than one legislators have spelled in state statute.
According to Miles and his co-counsel, Collin Cook, the trouble is that “obstruction of justice did not exist under the English common law” the state inherited from its colonial rulers, and therefore “cannot exist under the North Carolina common law.”
The lawyers base their argument primarily on a pair of Michigan Supreme Court cases from 1980 and 1991 that deemed obstruction a collection of 22 “separate and specific offenses” catalogued by the English legal commentator William Blackstone in the 1700s. The Michigan court said an obstruction charge in that state has to tie into one of those 22 offenses.
As it interprets North Carolina law, North Carolina’s Supreme Court isn’t obliged to follow Michigan’s lead, and in 1983 said that common-law obstruction exists as a charge in this state, as “an offense to do any act which prevents, obstructs, impedes or hinders public or legal justice.”
Since then, “our courts of appeal have presumed the existence of the offense of common law obstruction of justice,” Miles and Cook said. “However, none of these cases have ever addressed the validity of that presumption. And a review of the genesis of this presumption reveals that it is unfounded.”
Coffey’s case illustrates the resulting problem as he is, among other things, accused of obstructing justice by having used as an informant a convicted criminal who was on probation at the time.
“It is important to note that there is no law or regulation prohibiting this conduct,” Miles and Cook said. “Moreover, neither the North Carolina General Statutes nor the North Carolina Administrative Code set forth any framework for the use of confidential informants in criminal investigations.”
Prosecutors from the Wake County district attorney’s office — who are handling the case because local DA Mike Waters has a conflict of interest — countered the motion by more or less ignoring the Michigan cases, and leaning on the authority of North Carolina courts to interpret North Carolina law.
This state’s courts have “repeatedly upheld convictions for the common law offense of obstruction of justice,” they said.
Moreover, a law is unconstitutionally vague when “it fails to give a person of ordinary intelligence notice of what is prohibited,” they said.
That isn’t the case here, they said, alluding to the charges concerning the falsification of training records in the Granville sheriff’s office.
“A person of ordinary intelligence would know that preparing and submitting fraudulent documents that thereby allowed others to carry a badge and firearm and gave those people the power to enforce the laws on the citizens within their jurisdiction is impeding and obstructing public and legal justice,” they said.
Coffey’s trial had been scheduled to begin in Oxford on Jan. 18, but the case has been continued because some of the charges against him were originally filed in Granville County and others were filed in Wake County, Wake DA Lorrin Freeman said.
The idea was that both sets of charges could be tried at once, but Coffey’s lawyers no longer agree to that, Freeman said, adding that the plan now is to set a Wake County trial date “as soon as possible” to address the charges stemming from the training-records issue.
Miles and Cook, meanwhile, have asked a judge to toss the entire case because Freeman’s office “lacked the authority” to seek indictments. Court documents indicate that they believe Waters had too large a say in the choice of alternative prosecutors.
Contact Ray Gronberg at email@example.com or by phone at 252-436-2850.