‘Unable to find’ noted on indictment of suspect who lived, worked at same place for more than a decade
A Laurel woman who was accused of dealing drugs had her case dismissed from Jones County Circuit Court because her indictment wasn’t served in time, Judge Dal Williamson ruled. The woman had lived at the same residence and had the same employer for more than a decade.
Stephanie Bolton, 46, was charged with two counts of selling prescription pain medication — Hydrocodone and Demerol — in 2016. She was indicted by a Jones County grand jury in August of 2017, but she wasn’t served with court papers until January of 2019, said her attorney, Grant Hedgepeth.
“She has lived at the same address for 10 years and had the same job for 12 years,” he said, adding that his client was never arrested until she was served with the indictment.
Bolton is at least the 21st accused felon who walked away free and clear in 2019 because Sheriff Alex Hodge’s department failed to serve them fast enough so as not to violate their Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial.
In this case, the District Attorney’s Office did argue that the defendant should still go to trial, but the judge gave a spirited response defending his decision. Williamson said he has “wrestled with each of these cases” that have come before him in recent months.
“I don’t like having these hearings and what they may reveal,” he said, “but the law says if there’s an eight-month delay or more, it has to be justified. (Bolton) owns her house, she’s on the tax roll, she goes to her job at Howard Industries every day and she has to go home to sleep some time … For the life of me, I can’t see why it’s that hard to serve her papers. Chances are good that in the middle of the day, people are either at their job or where they live.”
The delay in this case wasn’t as long as in some others — a few of which were 10 years or more — “but it’s still longer than the Supreme Court has set,” Williamson said.
Hedgepeth also noted that Bolton was ticketed twice by the Laurel Police Department after the indictment — in October 2017 and October 2018 — and went to the LPD to pay the fines, but she was not served with the indictment either time she was there.
Bolton was on the National Crime Information Center database when she went to the police station, Assistant District Attorney Kristen Martin said, showing proof Bolton’s name was placed on there in September 2017.
“The LPD didn’t run her on NCIC,” Martin said, adding that law enforcement officers may or may not do a check on people who are stopped for traffic offenses. “Why? I can’t answer that.”
Records show that Sgt. Jarod Lindsay of the Jones County Sheriff’s Department Narcotics Division did serve Bolton with her indictment at her home on Mar-ree Drive in January of this year.
“No prejudice was suffered by Ms. Bolton” in presenting her defense in trial, Martin said. That’s one of the “prongs” the defense has to prove in order make the claim that the right to a speedy trial was violated, Martin said.
“Once there’s an eight-month delay, it’s up to the state to show good cause,” Hedgepeth said.
The state Supreme Court has ruled that a delay of more than eight months between the time of the indictment and the defendant being served is prejudicial to defendants, Williamson has said in all of the motion hearings on similar cases. Anything more than that would be appealed and likely reversed by a higher court, he has said.
“The Supreme Court has ruled over and over that it’s prejudicial to the defense,” the judge said of the delayed service. “The burden is on the prosecution to show the cause and the legitimacy of the reasons if the delay is more than eight months.”
The indictment was returned to the file with a hand-written note on it that read “Court date passed — unable to find,” Williamson said, and it was noted that Bolton was “on NCIC.”
“It’s up to the state to justify the delay,” the judge said. “I keep wanting to hear proof that someone went out there to the house, went to the place of employment on this date or that date or after hours … that’s what I keep wanting to hear, but I don’t hear anything like that. I need evidence justifying the delay, and I haven’t heard any evidence. I’ll be happy to hear some.”
Martin didn’t offer any other argument, so Williamson said, “Case dismissed for violation of the defendant’s right to a speedy trial.”
In most of the cases that have been dismissed, the delays ranged from almost three years to more than 12 years between the time the defendants were arrested and the time they were served with their indictments. There was “no satisfactory reason” for the delays, Williamson wrote in the orders to dismiss. All of the defendants had lived and/or worked at the same locations for years and JCSD officials made only one attempt to get the paperwork to them.
“With reasonable diligence, the Sheriff’s Department should have been able to serve the indictment,” Williamson wrote in most of the orders.
Hodge called a press conference in May and said his department has a 94-percent success rate of serving indictments since he took office in 2008 and noted, “We’ve done that with a total staffing of 39 people.”
He said that “manpower and staffing” are issues with the department, continuing with a theme that goes back to his budget battles with the Board of Supervisors that boiled over last year.
“Let me be honest,” he said. “If we go one time (to serve an indictment), that’s great. If we get there two times, it’s a blessing. If we make it a third time, it’s a miracle … that doesn’t mean we’re not looking for them and we don’t keep looking.”