State v. Stanley Lamar Wrapp, S.C. Ct. App., filed 8/17/17: REVERSAL Due to Lack of Notice that Trial Would Be Held in Absentia
An excellent and fair opinion from the Court of Appeals on an issue that, for whatever reason, never goes away. Here, Wrapp was arrested and charged with drugs and driving under suspension. The State just never really got around to calling the case for trial because apparently, even in light of Langford, the Solicitors are still controlling the docket system and they just didn’t feel like it. It’s hard to imagine that a case of this nature would be so complicated that it would take 18 months for the State to pull its case together. But I digress. Wrapp initially was given a court date for December 6, 2013. On September 29, 2014, the State decided to call his case for trial. Surprise! He wasn’t sitting in the courthouse waiting for his trial, and no one could produce any evidence that he had actually been given meaningful notice of 1) the trial date, or 2) that the trial would be held in absentia if he voluntarily declined to participate. The trial judge admitted he didn’t know why Wrapp wasn’t present, but didn’t “see any purpose” in “continuing the case…”.
The Court of Appeals found that the circuit court erred in trying Wrapp in absentia because it failed to make specific findings that Wrapp (1) received notice of his right to be present, and (2) was not warned that he would be tried in absentia if he failed to attend. The Court found that Wrapp could not be said to have voluntarily waived his right to be present. See State v. Ritch, 292 S.C. 75,76, 354 S.E.2d 909, 909 (1987) (finding error and reversing when a trial court failed to make required findings that an appellant received notice of his right to be present at trial and a warning that he would be tried in his absence should be fail to attend). Seriously, a 1987 case with the very same outcome here. This case serves as yet another reminder that allowing Solicitors to control the docket system absolutely does not protect the rights of defendants. Here, the Solicitor called the case when he found it most convenient, and failed to even bother to ensure that the defendant was made aware of his constitutional right to attend and participate. Tried in his absence, Wrapp was sentenced to 20 years. And then, after all this, the State argued to the Court of Appeals that the error was “harmless.” It is as unbelievable as it is outrageous. Excellent result from the Court, and a great day for due process in South Carolina.