By Clint Parker
Buncombe County – The dismissal, by the Buncombe County District Attorney (DA), of an Asheville woman arrested for driving while impaired (DWI) in Woodfin after hitting a police car last year has attracted the attention and ire of a vocal leader of the local chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD).
Ellen Pitt of MADD of WNC sent the Tribune a copy of a letter she sent to Buncombe County DA Todd Williams in which she said she had received several calls from concerned citizens over the dismissal of the DWI charge.
According to a June 3rd, 2018 NC Highway Patrol crash report by Trooper A.B. Depoyster, Sarah Elane Hoski of Asheville “…traveled left of center…” on State Road 1668 and collided with a Woodfin Police car being driven by Woodfin Officer Terry Miller. The report states Hoski was charged with a DWI.
The reason for the dismissal? According to Williams’s statement on the dismissal form, it was because of a social media post by the Woodfin Police Department:
“SOCIAL MEDIA POSTINGS MADE TO THE WOODFIN POLICE DEPARTMENT FACEBOOK PAGE, WHICH INCLUDED FACTS NECESSARY TO SUCCESSFULLY PROSECUTE THE CASE, GARNERED NATIONAL MEDIA ATTENTION THEREBY IRREVOCABLY IMPAIRING THE PROSECUTION’S ETHICAL OBLIGATION TO ENSURE THE DEFENDANT’S FUNDAMENTAL RIGHT TO A FAIR TRIAL,” stated Williams on the dismissal form.
What did Woodfin Police post that would make the case unprosecutable? Here is the post taken from the Woodfin Police Department’s Facebook page (also see picture page 1):
“Shortly after 2:30 am on 06/03/2018 one of our officers was patrolling the area of Brookdale Rd. and N. Woodfin Ave. Sarah E. Hoski while traveling on that same road crossed the double yellow line and ultimately struck our officer’s fully marked Woodfin Patrol Vehicle. The North Carolina State Highway Patrol was requested to come and investigate the collision. Ms. Hoski was arrested by the Trooper working the investigation and was charged with DWI. According to public record, Ms. Hoski submitted to a chemical analysis test for the presence of alcohol in her system and the test results showed a blood alcohol concentration of 0.16 which is twice the legal limit. There was no injury reported at the time of the collision.”
It appears that most, if not all the post, would be public record information and the same thing any news media might post, a point not lost on Pitt.
“I…reviewed the social media and news coverage of the collision and the arrest. The Woodfin PD Facebook page and the WLOS coverage were no different from the public record posts and news coverage of hundreds of DWI arrests/wrecks, including the DWI arrests of several local school bus drivers,” said Pitt in her letter. “I found absolutely nothing out of the ordinary, with the exception of a few comments on Hoski’s unfortunate expression, and even more unfortunate hairdo, neither of which would have had any bearing on the facts of the case.
“In my view, the expression and the hairdo were certainly additional clues to her level of impairment (0.16) and a skillful prosecutor would have capitalized on this unexpected, but compelling, evidence.” (Read Pitt’s complete letter to the editor on page 4.)
According to the MADD North Carolina website “If there were two words that would best describe Ellen Pitt, the words ‘Unstoppable Force’…Pitt has been a MADD North Carolina volunteer for over 15 years as a Chapter Leader, Crime Victim Advocate, and Court Observer.”
Woodfin Police Chief Michael Dykes also believes that the dismissal was not warranted. “We are obviously dismayed that any Driving While Impaired case is dismissed by the District Attorney’s Office in what we feel was not only a prosecutable, but also a winnable case,” said Dykes.
In the past Williams has given indications, before he was elected, that there were some crimes he considered victimless crimes. In a 2014 article by the Asheville Citizen-Times Williams said he regretted listing statutory rape and drunken driving as victimless crimes at a candidate forum. Asked if this had anything to do with the dismissal Williams said, “No.”
Dykes also told the Tribune that there were victims in the Hoski case. “We [Woodfin Police Department], along with the taxpayers of Woodfin, are victims in this matter and obviously would have preferred to have our day in court to let a judge decide the merits of the case.” Dykes added in his comment, “However, we can only move forward at this point and build upon our strong working relationship with Mr. Williams and his office.”
Williams explained to the Tribune the difference between a post on social media by the news media versus by a law enforcement agency saying, “The simple fact that the post was made by law enforcement makes it different. Law enforcement simply cannot make an out-of-court statement about a matter pending before the court absent a ‘legitimate law enforcement purpose.’ These constraints do not apply to the media or the public. The reason for the rule is to ensure that we have a fair and orderly trial process in our public Courts that our community can trust.”
Asked if he had met with Hoski or any of her family before the charges were dismissed, Williams told the Tribune, “The attorney for the family asked that I meet both with the attorney and the defendant’s father. I met together with them to discuss the case.”
Asked if there was a threat of a lawsuit against the DA’s office or Woodfin PD or both if charges were not dropped, Williams said, “There was discussion of a civil suit against the Woodfin Police Department, but I have no way of knowing to what extent that was planned or considered and it was not a factor in my decision to issue the dismissal at any rate.”
He further stated, “But for the impermissible social media post made by the WPD, this case would have been readily prosecuted by this Office. This Office takes enforcement of DWI laws very seriously. We maintain among the highest conviction rates for the offense of DWI in the State of NC. However, we must always balance our ethical obligations under the law to ensure Due Process and a fair judicial process with vigorous advocacy on behalf of law enforcement to ensure public safety.”
Asked if the town was informed by the DA’s office before the charge against Hoski was dropped, Woodfin Town Administrator Jason Young told the Tribune, “The town received no advance notice. As a victim of the crime, it would have been nice to know.”