“Secondary judicial system for select defendants”

Based on their agreements to resign and never to seek judicial office, the West Virginia Judicial Investigation Commission publicly admonished two former magistrates for dismissing criminal charges in exchange for donations to a charitable organization pursuant to motions from the prosecution.  Public Admonishment of Nutter (West Virginia Judicial Investigation Commission August 27, 2021); Public Admonishment of Taylor (West Virginia Judicial Investigation Commission August 27, 2021).  The Commission found that, by dismissing criminal charges in exchange for donations to a charitable organization, the magistrates “created the appearance of selling justice” in their courtrooms and that, by going along with the prosecutor’s office, the magistrates “created a secondary judicial system for select defendants.”

The St. Marys Police Department had a non-profit program called “Slow Down for the Holidays” to raise money to provide Christmas presents for children in the community.  During the final 2 or 3 months of the year, during a traffic stop, police had the option of giving a driver a flyer that indicated that the driver could face their criminal charges or make a $50 donation to the program.  If the driver chose the donation, the municipal court would dismiss the citation, and the driver would avoid criminal fines, court costs, and a conviction on their record.  All of the citations were for non-serious traffic offenses such as speeding, and none involved jail time.  In 2018, the Pleasants County Sheriff’s Office joined the “Slow Down for the Holidays” program.

Also in 2018, the county prosecutor’s office decided to offer a few defendants charged with misdemeanors the opportunity to donate to the program in exchange for dismissal of their charges.  During the holiday months in 2018, 2019, and 2020, the prosecutor’s office offered at least 19 defendants the opportunity to avoid the consequences of their charges by donating to the program.  The cases involved more serious charges than traffic charges, and the defendants were required to donate $200 to $5,000, not $50 a charge.  Upon proof of a donation, the prosecutor’s office would make a motion to dismiss the charges to one the magistrates, and the magistrates would grant the motion.

The 2 magistrates dismissed 17 cases in total in which donations had been made to the program.  Of those, 12 involved criminal charges that would have resulted in an enhanced penalty if the defendant had been charged again; by dismissing the charges, the magistrates had ensured that the defendants would not receive a judgment of guilty that could later have been used to enhance criminal penalties.  Similarly, in 16 of the cases, the dismissals allowed the defendants to avoid receiving points on their license or a possible license suspension.

The magistrates were aware that there were no legal defects in the cases and that the only reason for the motions to dismiss was that the defendants had donated money to the police department charity.  As the magistrates admitted, no law, court rule, or caselaw allowed them to dismiss cases because the defendants donated to charity; they had not investigated whether there was any authority for the dismissals or asked for advice from other magistrates, judges, or the Commission, but had relied on the representations of the prosecutor’s office. 

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