Automotive CEO Charged With Choking Woman Wins Dismissal

North Carolina prosecutors have dropped their case against David Smith, the chief executive officer of Sonic Automotive Inc. who was accused of trying to strangle a woman in a domestic dispute last fall.

Smith, son of a billionaire and scion of the powerful family that controls Sonic, was arrested in October and indicted this month. Sonic is one of the largest car dealership chains in the U.S.

The arrest warrant described a man shoving and starting to strangle a woman in her early 20s, knocking a phone out of her hand when she tried to call for help, in the early hours of Oct. 5. Smith, 46, was charged with three misdemeanors: assault on a female, false imprisonment and interference with emergency communications. He was also charged with attempted strangulation of a female, a felony that carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison.

After consulting with the woman, prosecutors determined that the state didn’t have “a reasonable likelihood of success in proving each of the elements of this offense beyond a reasonable doubt,” they said in court documents. For example, they said they were unlikely to be able to show that Smith “knew the victim was attempting to contact emergency personnel.” On March 12 the Mecklenburg County district attorney’s office dropped the charges.

The decision vindicates Smith, who was going to plead not guilty once the courts reopened from the pandemic shutdown, said his lawyer, George V. Laughrun II. Sonic’s board had declared its “steadfast support” for Smith.

“The outcome confirms Mr. Smith’s belief in the justice system, and he is obviously pleased that the charges have been dismissed,” Laughrun said in a statement Monday.

A spokesman for Sonic declined to comment on the dismissal.

Victims’ Reluctance

The court documents don’t fully clarify why the charges were dropped. One reason may be that the woman didn’t want to testify, said Beth Posner, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law who focuses on domestic violence and sexual assault cases. It’s common for victims to hesitate to play a role in a prosecution, said Posner, who spoke generally because she has no specific knowledge of the case.

“Sometimes victims feel guilty -- they don’t want to ruin someone’s life,” Posner said. Or “they may fear retaliation,” she said. “There are so many reasons why she may not want to go through with prosecution.”

It’s unusual for prosecutors to offer even the level of explanation the D.A.’s office did in the Smith case, she added.

Sonic’s founder and chairman is O. Bruton Smith, 94, the CEO’s father. The company’s board includes him, David Smith and one other family member, as well as eight non-family members.

A March 12 regulatory filing showed that David Smith was paid $5.06 million last year, including $1.1 million in salary, a $1.95 million bonus and a stock option grant of similar size. The package was 18% bigger than the one he got in 2019.

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