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Editorial: Speedy trial rule shouldn’t derail worthy DWI trials

More than 140 people likely got a “get-out-of-jail free” card because the police officer who wrote them up on drunken driving charges couldn’t make it to court.

It wasn’t his fault. Albuquerque Police Department officer Lou Golson was laid up recovering from horrific wounds inflicted during a January traffic stop. The suspected drunken driver, who has a lengthy criminal record, is now accused of shooting the officer.

Golson, who now has a metal rod and four bolts in his left leg and a plate and 10 screws in his wrist, is back on light duty, but of his 180 pending DWI cases, only 36 were still scheduled for trial when he returned in June. The rest had been dismissed by the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office, mostly citing the state Supreme Court’s “Six-month Rule,” which calls for an offender in DWI cases to have his or her day in court within six months of arraignment.

Judges can grant limited extensions for the prosecution and more generous ones for the defense, which tends to seek them more often. While speedy trial is the right policy, one of Golson’s cases has been in the system for almost three years, largely because of repeated requests for extensions – of 14 delays, 12 were by the defense.

There was no such latitude available for the wounded officer. As Golson was recovering, most of his cases were granted 30-day extensions under “exceptional circumstances.” But even so, many were dismissed because of the length of time he was out.

The veteran DWI officer is understandably unhappy: “I arrest drunk drivers. It’s what I do.”

The speedy trial rule is a good way to ensure that both victims and defendants do not have to wait too long for justice. But, as in Golson’s case, there’s always the exception to the rule.

Justice would be better served if the Supreme Court revisited the rule and considered when extenuating circumstances such as Golson’s might justify extending the six-month rule more than 30 days. Could that be abused? Yes. But the court could give clear guidance on when such an exceptional circumstance might apply.

That way dedicated officers like Golson can do their jobs and DWI scofflaws who win the injured officer lottery don’t get off with little more than a brush with the law.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.