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‘A massive onslaught of cases’: Hundreds of DUI crimes without charges due to overwhelmed MCAO

The increase puts a strain on the “onslaught” of cases the office is currently reviewing, has backlogged.

MARICOPA COUNTY, Ariz. — The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office received the submittal of 440 new felony DUI criminal cases in just two weeks. That number has put a strain on an already overwhelmed agency impacted by staffing shortages.

“That’s a lot,” county attorney Rachel Mitchell told 12News. “Right now, pending trial, my office has 187 cases involving aggravated assaults with a vehicle or manslaughter with a vehicle.”

That’s 627 cases that are handled by 15 attorneys in MCAO’s Vehicular Crimes Bureau, where six specialized attorneys take on serious cases, such as felony DUIs.

Each prosecutor in that division handles 50-60 cases on average, the agency told 12news.

“It’s actually one of the largest bureaus, but we still have to have people that have the experience level to handle those cases," Mitchell said. "What I don’t want is somebody who doesn’t have that experience level looking at them.”

Mitchell said drunk driving and motor vehicle crimes that include serious injuries or deaths are always complex cases that can take time to investigate, but the pandemic created a domino effect in the judicial system that worsened the backlog.

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Backlog of cases

In 2020, some courts closed, grand jury slots were canceled but they then went from 9 to just two, MCAO was asked to hold off on the number of fillings after courts lost staff, which increase the number of backlogged cases, Mitchell said.

“We also, as I’ve talked about very publicly, had a 20% deficit in personnel in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office,” the top prosecutor said. “One of the things that I’ve been doing in recruiting and trying to get those numbers to build back up.”

Getting more bodies into MCAO won’t solve or speed up the backlog, Mitchell said. Attorneys need a certain experience to effectively be able to represent the state when prosecuting cases.

“During that COVID time when the courts were shut down or not fully functioning, you didn’t have people gaining the trial experience that they would normally gain during that period of time,” Mitchell said.

The county attorney has reached out to the Maricopa County Clerk of Superior, Jeff Fine, asking if they could devote more resources to the courts so MCAO could submit more cases into the system per day.

“That’s helped dramatically decrease one of the backlogs of cases that we had reviewed and charged, but couldn’t feed into the system,” Mitchell said.

Charging cases timeline

The county attorney's office has hired additional people to come back to the agency to focus specifically on charging cases after at least 180 misdemeanor cases were dropped early this year when they missed the statute of limitations.  

“Our goal is to review them as quickly as possible after we have the information that we need,” Mitchell said. “But we do have a policy that says 30 days.”

That month doesn’t include the time when prosecutors refer cases back to police departments to further investigate a case or ask for additional documents, such as toxicology reports.

“Ideally is 30 days, [but] in today’s world when we’re having a massive onslaught of cases—aggravated DUIs and otherwise – it’s sometimes hard to get to it in 30 days. Very hard,” Mitchell said.

Nearly 15 months after Kimberly Pero lost her left leg to a suspected drunk driver, she reached out to 12News looking for help to get answers in her case. Jason Tasker, the man police said was under the influence when he hit her, has not been formally charged in the crime.

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After 12News asked MCAO for answers, the office reached out to Pero.

“There were a few excuses, but [they] were very apologetic,” Pero told 12News Monday night. “I was pleased with them reaching out to me and what we have discussed, so it’s a good thing moving forward.”

It’s still a tough wait for Belinda Welch, whose 23-year-old son, Jeremiah Washington, lost both of his legs to a different suspected drunk driver on June 25.

“The system is not working for the victims,” Welch said. “I don’t understand what more they need to go and pick [the suspect] up. My son is stuck in a wheelchair and he’s suffering.”

Glendale Police re-submitted Washington’s case to MCAO recommending several charges, including DUI on July 27, after it was forwarded back for more evidence.

MCAO tells 12News, that the agency received the case on August 2nd and is reviewing it. Within their policy, Welch hopes to get a charging decision next month.

In the meantime, the county attorney said “we are working very hard to address,” all the delays in cases but acknowledged “it will take some time.”

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