ASHEVILLE, N.C. (WLOS) — A local district attorney said he dismissed a Woodfin DWI case because of a Facebook post.
Woodfin police said that just after 2:30 a.m. on June 3, 2018, a local officer patrolling the area of Brookdale Road and North Woodfin Avenue, was struck by a vehicle that had crossed the double yellow line.
Sarah E. Hoski was charged with DWI. Additional citations included failure to reduce speed and crossing the center line.
Hoski, according to Woodfin police, hit reserve officer Terry Miller. Hoski’s DWI records show she tested at 0.16 blood alcohol concentration, twice the legal limit.
Three weeks after Hoski’s DWI arrest, Woodfin police posted on its Facebook page information about the incident.
Woodfin Police Chief Michael Dykes said the information, all public record, was confirmed on the crash report completed by North Carolina Highway Patrol.
But District Attorney Todd Williams, after meeting with Hoski’s father, a local orthopedic surgeon, and Hoski’s defense attorney, decided Woodfin police were out of line.
“The reason for the dismissal is to preserve that we have a fair process in court, that we continue to have due process in Buncombe County,” Williams said.
Williams approved the dismissal of Hoski’s DWI case on Dec. 6, 2018.
“This lady could have killed somebody,” said Ellen Pitt of Mothers Against Drunk Driving
Pitt, a staunch advocate speaking out on the serious dangers of drunk driving, vehemently disagrees with Williams’ decision. Pitt said she was incredulous at the thought Williams would dismiss a DWI based on a police department’s post of the facts.
“If you put things out there that are public record, that shouldn't be grounds for dismissing a case, because then you'd have to dismiss every case,” Pitt said, referring to the practice of many departments posting cases and arrests to social media.
In the citation for Hoski, the trooper stated he had probable cause to believe she was operating a car “while subject to an impairing substance.”
“You never want people to receive preferential treatment,” Pitt said upon learning Hoski’s father gained access to the DA while with Hoski’s defense attorney in a meeting before the dismissal.
The specific North Carolina statute referenced in the argument for the dismissal is rule 3.6 and 3.8 of North Carolina code. Rule 3.6 applies to conduct of attorneys and their “associates” when talking publicly or making public statements about a case. The rules reference refraining from speaking of details not in the public record prior to a trial or a case heard before a judge.
“Law enforcement and DAs can't make statements out of court about a matter that's before the court,” Williams said.
In the DA’s long form dismissal of Hoski’s case, signed by assistant DA Rodney Hastey, on Page 2 of the Explanation of Prosecutor form, is a typed statement referencing Woodfin’s post:
"Social media postings made to the Woodfin Police Department Facebook page, which included facts necessary to successfully prosecute the case, garnered national media attention, irrevocably impairing the prosecution's ethical obligation to ensure the defendant's fundamental right to a fair trial."
The form also stated Hoski had a 0.16 alcohol concentration level, and no prior convictions.
Woodfin’s Facebook page stated in part:
"Sarah Hoski, while traveling on Brookdale Road and North Woodin Avenue, crossed the double yellow line, and ultimately struck our officer's fully marked Woodfin patrol vehicle, According to public record, Ms. Hoski submitted to a chemical test and the test results showed a blood alcohol content of 0.16 which is twice the legal limit."
News 13 asked Williams if he was blaming Woodfin for him dropping the case.
“It's not an issue of blame. It's about an issue of ethical responsibility, and neither the DA's office nor law enforcement can initiate social comments outside of court," Williams said.
Williams, in the dismissal statement on the long form, cited national media attention for Hoski that would prevent her from getting a chance to have a fair trial.
Williams said he did a Google search and found several TV stations across the country, including News 13, had posted reports on the web about Hoski's case.
Williams said the fact Woodfin Police posted the information weeks after Hoski's arrest was also an issue for him.
Williams said the department posted information about the arrest six weeks after the DWI. But the Woodfin post was made June 21, 2018, three weeks after the arrest.
“I can't determine that there was any legitimate law enforcement purpose for the post,” Williams said.
Dykes said the officer who handles the Woodfin Police Department Facebook page had been on vacation and posted the case facts when he got back.
Jeff Welty, a criminal proceedings expert and professor at UNC’s School of Government, would not comment specifically on the case, but did talk in general terms about proceedings and pre-trial publicity.
“I'm not familiar with a lot of cases being dismissed based on information of this kind being put out there,” Welty said. “I think it's reasonably common for law enforcement to post something about the arrests they make. It only becomes a due process problem when it is pervasive and profound.”
Welty said, in those instances, a district attorney has options.
“When there's a question about pre-trial publicity, the first issue isn't whether to dismiss the case, it's whether to move the case to another jurisdiction,” Welty said.
Welty also said a judge hears DWI cases, making questions about publicity mute because the focus is on the facts of the case.
News 13 looked at other police department's posts about charges and arrests and found most are made within days of the arrest.
As for the argument a three-week delay in Woodfin's post could impede a fair hearing, Welty said, “I don't think that's a completely irrelevant factor, but whether it's a dispositive factor, you know, I'm not really sure.”
Welty said a DA’s job is to seek justice for victims and that includes DWI charges.
News 13 learned Todd Williams got involved in Hoski's case in the months following her citation. Williams wrote a note asking the Buncombe administrative court to "please reset Sarah Hoski DWI to December."
The note was signed Oct. 3, 2018. News 13 also asked Williams to confirm something sources had heard.
Question: Did you ever meet with Ms. Hoski's parents?
Question: Did you meet with her father? Did you have communication with her dad?
Answer: That's really all the statement I have.
Question: Did you meet with her father?
Answer: There was a meeting with a lawyer.
Question: With her father?
Answer: With her father present.
Williams refused to answer any more questions and left the waiting room of the DA’s office where he spoke with News 13.
Hoski's father, in court records, was listed as the policyholder for his daughter's car insurance. Court records also show Hoski agreed to take a Beyond Addiction short-term treatment program, with 20 hours mandated.
The Woodfin police chief said he was not pleased the case had been dismissed.
"The DA never approached us or let us know of the dismissal," Dykes said. "We're dismayed, but at the same time, we have to maintain a working relationship with the DA's office."
"The (patrol) car had to be totaled. Since it was an older car, insurance would not cover (full) replacement. It costs $40,000 for a new four-wheel drive. It's hard to replace."
Williams said he does meet on occasion with a parent of a defendant but not often.
He said he’s never dismissed a case because of a police department’s social media post, but said Woodfin’s was an unprecedented circumstance.