Thursday, March 26, 2015

State v. Streiff, 2015 UT 2 - Attenuation Exception to the Exclusionary Rule

The Court discusses what circumstances can be considered to be "intervening" in the legal chain of events leading to discovery of evidence.

            The “attenuation” exception to the exclusionary rule applies when an unlawful detention leads to the obtaining of an arrest warrant followed by a search incident to arrest. Attenuation is essentially determination by a proximate cause analysis. The doctrine asks “whether the fruit of the search is tainted by the initial, unlawful detention, or whether the taint is dissipated by an intervening circumstance.”
           The Brown court gave three factors of relevance to the analysis: “the ‘temporal proximity of the arrest and the confession’; the ‘presence of intervening circumstances’; and the ’purpose and flagrancy of the official misconduct.’”

The threshold inquiry for attenuation analysis concerns the existence of “intervening circumstances.” Such circumstances are those that establish a break in the legal chain of events leading to the discovery of the evidence at issue. See United States v. Green, 111 F.3d 515, 522 (7th Cir. 1997).
           The Utah Supreme Court stated that “[a] prototypical intervening circumstance involves a voluntary act by the defendant, such as a confession or consent to search given after illegal police action.” The independence of such acts comes when the confession or consent “comes well after termination of a defendant’s illegal detention, after defendant’s consultation with counsel, or as a spontaneous comment not in response to any police interrogation.”
           This court followed Chief Justice Parient’s dissent in State v. Frierson, 926 S0.2d 1139 (Fla. 2006) (Parient, C.J., dissenting). He proposed to limit the attenuation doctrine as it was originally, to cases involving voluntary confessions resulting from an independent act of the defendant’s “free will.”
          The court determined that “the Brown formulation of attenuation [is] limited to cases involving a defendant’s independent acts of free will.” Here, the attenuation was based on a warrant, and not a voluntary act, the attenuation exception does not apply.

State v. Barela, 2015 UT 22 - Misleading Jury Instructions Overturns Conviction

The defendant’s conviction was overturned based on the ineffective assistance of counsel when counsel did not object to a misleading jury instruction.

An appeal from a conviction of first-degree rape. Barela claims that his counsel was ineffective in a variety of ways and that the district court erred in refusing to subpoena for the victim's medical records. He also challenged the sufficiency of the evidence that the victim had not consented to sex.

The Court reversed based on the ineffective assistance of counsel claim because the defense attorney did not object to a jury instruction that misstated the mens rea requirement as applied to first-degree rape. 

The trial court gave the following jury instruction: “1. The defendant, Robert K. Barela, 2. Intentionally or knowingly; 3. Had sexual intercourse with K.M.; 4. That said act of intercourse was without the consent of K.M.”

The Court ruled that the instruction was in error because it implied that the mens rea aspect applied only to the act of sexual intercourse, and not to the victim's nonconsent.

Monday, March 16, 2015

State v. Gonzalez, 2015 UT 10 - URE 404 and Gang-Related Character Evidence.

Mr. Gonzalez appealed his murder conviction mostly with the argument that evidence of his gang affiliation was cumulative and unfairly prejudicial.

State v. Gonzalez, 2015 UT 10

Mr. Gonzalez appealed his murder by arguing that the trial court erred by (1) denying his motion for directed verdict on the murder and obstruction-of-justice charges, (2) permitting the State to present allegedly cumulative and unfairly prejudicial gang-related evidence, and (3) dismissing as untimely his constitutional challenge to the gang-enhancement statute.

Mr. Gonzalez tried to bifurcate the trial, so his gang involvement would not be admitted until he was convicted. Gang involvement enhances the charges, and would increase the sentence. 

First, the Court determined that there was sufficient evidence to show that Mr. Gonzalez was not acting in self-defense. When looking at the issue of aggression, evidence of a “defendant’s verbal and physical acts at the scene of the homicide [is] sufficient” to show that the defendant was the aggressor. State v. Starks, 627 P.2d 88, 91 (Utah 1981). As an aggressor, he was not able to claim self-defense. The court determined the expert testimony and the evidence of Mr. Gonzalez’s actions indicate that he was the aggressor.

Second, the court ruled that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it allowed the gang-related evidence during the guilt phase of the trial. Rule 403 of the Utah Rules of Evidence provides an exception to the general rule of admissibility by permitting courts to “exclude relevant evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of . . . unfair prejudice . . . or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence.” Evidence is unfairly prejudicial if it has “an undue tendency to suggest decision on an improper basis.” State v. Maurer, 770 P.2d 981, 984 (Utah 1989) (internal quotation marks omitted).

This evidence is also allowed because “where gang-related evidence is prejudicial, it is not necessarily unfairly prejudicial and therefore should be admitted where it has high probative value. See United States v. Santiago, 643 F.3d 1007, 1011 (7th Cir. 2011). There may be an issue under Utah R. Evid. 404(a)(1), (b)(1), for using gang-related evidence as character evidence, which is prohibited.

            But mere evidence of gang affiliation that does not relate to prior bad acts does not violate rule 404’s prohibition against character evidence. See United States v. Hodges, 315 F.3d 794, 801 (7th Cir. 2003). Moreover, gang-related character or bad-acts evidence will not violate rule 404 if it is admitted for a reason other than to show conformity with that character trait on a particular occasion.

            The court concluded saying that “the gang-related evidence was highly relevant to the State’s theories of motive and intent and to Mr. Gonzalez’s claim of self-defense. The evidence of Mr. Gonzalez’s gang-related tattoos and clothing was relevant to establishing his loyalty to his gang and his willingness to publicly display his gang membership. And evidence of his gang loyalty suggested that, as a committed member of Dog Town, Mr. Gonzalez was highly motivated to retaliate against an insult to his gang.

Friday, March 6, 2015

State v. Ashcraft, 2015 UT 5 - Prosecutorial Misconduct

Ashcraft appealed his 'possession with intent to distribute' conviction by alleging prosecutorial misconduct.

State v. Ashcraft, 2015 UT 5

            The defendant appealed his conviction of possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute, possession of drug paraphernalia, and possession of a dangerous weapon by challenging the sufficiency of the evidence and prosecutorial misconduct. The Utah Supreme Court rejected his arguments giving “substantial deference to the jury.” They “review the evidence and ill inferences which may reasonably be drawn from it in the light most favorable to the verdict.” State v. Nielsen, 2014 UT 10, ¶ 46.

            Possession charges need only a showing of a “sufficient nexus between the accused and the [contraband] to permit an inference that the accused had both the power and the inherent to exercise dominion and control over the [contraband].” State v. Fox, 709 P.2d 316, 319 (Utah 1985). The court looked at the cumulative evidence, in the light of the specific situation, to confirm that the jury verdict was reasonable, not to determine if there is another possible explanation for the events.

            “To sustain a reversal on an assertion of prosecutorial misconduct, a defendant must establish both that the prosecutor’s conduct ‘call[ed] to the attention of the jurors matters they would not be justified in considering in determining their verdict and, under the circumstances of the particular case, the error is substantial and prejudicial.’” State v. Tillman, 750 P.2d 546, 555 (Utah 1987).

            The court did not find prosecutorial misconduct here because “[t]he prosecutor did not ask the jurors to defer to the state’s judgment over their own. He simply summarized his position and the evidence supporting it and then asked the jury to enter a conviction. Such a statement is as commonplace as it is innocuous in closing argument—a matter well within the realm of appropriate prosecutorial conduct.”