Tuesday, August 07, 2007, 9:03 PM

Rule Violation Dismissal In Criminal Case; Judge Wynn Disagrees

Today in State v. Patterson the panel majority (Judges Calabria and Tyson) voted to dismiss a criminal defendant's appeal issue based on a rule violation (an overly broad assignment of error which failed to state the legal basis for the challenge). The majority held that there was no "manifest injustice" to justify suspension of the rules under Rule 2.

Judge Wynn concurred in the result. He thought the assignment of error, though broad, didn't impede understanding of the issue. He has argued in the past that it's better to reach the merits of a criminal defendant's appeal and reject the merits than to dismiss on a procedural technicality so that the criminal defendant will feel he had his day in court. Today Judge Wynn reiterated that view, opining that "the majority's adherence to technical rules of procedure denies this incarcerated defendant an opportunity to determine how the judges in the majority here would decide this issue if they chose to reach the merits of his appeal. That is a manifest injustice." Judge Wynn then went on to find that the defendant's argument failed on the merits.

The majority responded that Judge Wynn's conclusion that the appeal had no merit proved there was no manifest injustice in dismissing the appeal. By fusing the merits with "manifest injustice," the majority seems to open the door to the argument that a “manifest injustice” under Rule 2 is something tantamount to “plain error,” so that Rule 2 would permit the appellate court to entertain the merits of an appeal to prevent a party from being subjected to a plain error by the lower court. (Federal courts have held that, in the context of a motion for reconsideration, a “manifest injustice” is defined as an error by the court that is direct and obvious—i.e., manifest.) Under this meaning of "manifest injustice," the appellate court would, after finding a rule violation, have to determine whether the lower court committed an obvious mistake before invoking Rule 2 to issue a disposition on the merits. That seems like a sensible rule.

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