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Due Process in the NFL

By David Benowitz, criminal defense attorney and firm co-founder
Sept. 16, 2014

Given the justifiable uproar generated by the developments in the cases of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, it’s not surprising that the Carolina Panthers deactivated defensive end Greg Hardy for Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions.  Hardy was convicted of misdemeanor counts of domestic assault after a trial before a judge.  He received a 60-day suspended sentence and 18 months of probation.  What’s important to note about Hardy’s legal situation is that, following his conviction, he has requested a jury trial.  In North Carolina, like other states such as Maryland, every trial on a misdemeanor charge is conducted first before a judge in a district court.  If you are acquitted, that’s the end of the matter.  However, if you’re convicted, you are entitled to a trial “de novo” in front of a jury.

According to the North Carolina Supreme Court, a de novo proceeding is conducted as if there had been no previous trial.  State v. Sparrow, 276 N.C. 499, 507 (1970).  Hardy has this absolute right to a new trial, which totally disregards the original trial and verdict of the district court.  State v. Brooks, 287 N.C. 392, 405 (1975).  In Colten v. Kentucky, the United States Supreme Court termed the verdict in the lower court in a de novo system like North Carolina’s as no more than an offer to settle the state’s case.   407 U.S. 104, 119 (1972).  The purpose of this procedure is to provide defendants charged with misdemeanors the right to a “speedy trial” and the opportunity to learn about the State’s case without revealing their own.  Brooks, 287 N.C. at 406.

Many commentators have been calling for Hardy’s suspension, saying that he’s received due process, been convicted, and that the NFL should not wait to suspend him while his case is “on appeal.”  However, the traditional “appeal” process is totally different than the new trial North Carolina’s de novo system allows Hardy.  Hardy has not received the due process he’s allowed by a long shot.  It’s quite possible that he could win a jury trial.  The NFL needs to be cognizant of the crucial differences in the legal systems of the various states where its players may find themselves embroiled in a legal matter.

David Benowitz is a veteran criminal defense attorney based in Washington, DC who has successfully defended clients against a variety of charges, including state and federal offenses. Mr. Benowitz is licensed to practice law in the District of Columbia and Maryland as well as the United States District Courts for the District of Columbia and the District of Maryland, and the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.