August 20, 2017

Colorado Supreme Court: Nontestimonial Hearsay Statements do Not Implicate Defendant’s Right to Confrontation

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Nicholls v. People on Monday, June 19, 2017.

Criminal Trials—Right of Accused to Confront Witnesses—Exceptions to Hearsay Rule—Statements Against Interest.

In light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Davis v. Washington, 547 U.S. 813 (2006), the Colorado Supreme Court held that nontestimonial hearsay statements do not implicate a defendant’s state constitutional right to confrontation, overruling Compan v. People, 121 P.3d 876 (Colo. 2005), which held otherwise. Because the hearsay statements at issue in this case were nontestimonial, they did not implicate Colorado’s Confrontation Clause, and the court of appeals did not err in concluding that defendant’s confrontation right was not violated. The court further held that the third requirement for the admission of inculpatory hearsay statements against interest, announced in People v. Newton, 966 P.2d 563, 576 (Colo. 1998) (requiring corroborating circumstances to demonstrate the statement’s trustworthiness), is not constitutionally required for nontestimonial statements against interest. To admit a third party’s nontestimonial statements against interest under the version of CRE 804(b)(3) that existed at the time of defendant’s 2008 trial, only two conditions needed to be satisfied: (1) the witness must have been unavailable, and (2) the statement must have tended to subject the declarant to criminal liability. The court concluded that the third party’s nontestimonial statements against interest satisfied these two requirements, and the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting these statements as a statement against interest under CRE 804(b)(3), as that rule existed at the time of defendant’s trial. Finally, the court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting testimony about defendant’s response to the death of her second child because the testimony was relevant and not unduly prejudicial; nor did the trial court plainly err in admitting testimony about the cause of the second child’s death because the brief, isolated statements did not so undermine the trial’s fairness as to cast serious doubt on the reliability of defendant’s conviction. Accordingly, the court of appeals’ judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Cell Phone Records Created in Regular Course of Business are Nontestimonial

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Ortega on Thursday, October 20, 2016.

Two men, one masked and one not masked, held up a fast-food restaurant at gunpoint. The unmasked man was identified in surveillance video as David Maestas. Police found a car nearby that was registered to Maestas’ wife, and in the car was a cell phone and pair of jeans consistent with those used in the robbery. DNA on the waistband of the jeans was traced to defendant, and several cell phone calls were made to a number listed in the phone as “Ray’s mom.” Defendant was tried separately from Maestas, and a jury convicted him of aggravated robbery. He was adjudicated a habitual offender.

Defendant appealed, arguing three points of error: (1) his Confrontation Clause rights under the U.S. and Colorado Constitutions were violated by admission of the cell phone records; (2) he was denied a fair trial because the prosecutor misstated the evidence; and (3) during the habitual offender trial, his Confrontation Clause rights were violated by admission of sentencing and prison records.

The Colorado Court of Appeals first addressed Defendant’s contention that admission of the cell phone records violated his Confrontation Clause rights. The court examined Crawford v. Washington and found that in order to be considered testimonial, the records must have been made in anticipation of litigation. The court also found a Tenth Circuit opinion dispositive, United States v. Yeley-Davis, 632 F.3d 673 (10th Cir. 2011). In Yeley-Davis, the Tenth Circuit determined that cell phone records kept in the course of regular business by the cell phone company were nontestimonial. The Colorado Court of Appeals found this reasoning persuasive. Although the printout of the records was ultimately included in evidence, the cell phone company created the records in the ordinary course of business and not for litigation purposes. Defendant also contended that his Colorado constitutional rights were violated because there was no showing that the custodian of the records was unavailable. The court of appeals disagreed, citing People v. Dement, 661 P.2d 675 (Colo. 1983). The supreme court’s Dement test provides that the unavailability requirement is subject to an exception when the utility of trial testimony is very remote. Because there would be little practical effect of having the cell phone company’s custodian of records testify, the court found no error.

Defendant also contended the prosecutor impermissibly informed the jury that it was impossible that someone other than Defendant had contact with the jeans. The court of appeals disagreed with Defendant’s characterization of the prosecutor’s statements. The court found that, although the prosecutor’s statements could have been worded more artfully, he did not tell the jury with certainty that the jeans came from Defendant. The court found no error. The court also found no cumulative error, since it found no error at all.

Defendant argued that, during the habitual offender phase of his trial, the court erroneously allowed evidence of sentencing and prison records without requiring the presence of the record custodian. The court of appeals found this contention analogous to Defendant’s argument about the cell phone records and found no error for the same reason.

The court of appeals affirmed the judgment.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Note Written by Murder Victim was Testimonial Hearsay

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. McFee on Thursday, June 30, 2016.

L.E. was an in-house manager of a residential facility for people with HIV and AIDS. One night, a resident found her lying in a pool of blood in the hallway. By the time police arrived, L.E. was dead. A few months later, police arrested Jonathan McFee, L.E.’s ex-boyfriend, for the murder. At trial, numerous witnesses testified about hearing McFee threaten to kill L.E., and the prosecution introduced an audio recording of a statement muttered by McFee during a break in interviewing that sounded like “I did it. That bitch.” A handwritten note from L.E. was admitted into evidence, which expressed that McFee had threatened to kill her and it was only a matter of time until he succeeded. The jury convicted McFee of first degree murder, and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

McFee appealed, arguing that testimony of L.E.’s mother, daughter, and cousin about McFee’s intention to kill L.E. were hearsay and were improperly admitted. McFee also argued that the handwritten note was testimonial hearsay that was improperly admitted. The district court determined that the statements of the mother, daughter, and cousin were admissible under CRE 807 (residual exception), and arguably under CRE 803(3) (state of mind exception). The court of appeals agreed with the district court that the statements were properly admitted under CRE 807. The court of appeals found that L.E.’s statements were trustworthy because they were made spontaneously to close family members, they were not self-serving, and L.E. had no motive to lie about McFee’s threats. Additionally, all of the witnesses testified that L.E. seemed afraid when describing the threats. Further, the statements tended to show that L.E.’s and McFee’s relationship was volatile and he had a motive to kill. The court found that the statements were properly admitted.

Next, McFee argued that L.E.’s note was testimonial hearsay and should have been excluded because it violated his Sixth Amendment Confrontation Clause rights. The court of appeals agreed, but found that any error in admitting the note was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The court of appeals found that the note was created out of court to substitute for testimony in the event of L.E.’s death and therefore was “testimonial.” And because L.E. was unavailable at trial and McFee had not had prior opportunity for cross-examination, admission of the note violated McFee’s Confrontation Clause rights. However, the court found that any error in admitting the note was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Several witnesses testified as to threats McFee had made to kill L.E., McFee’s DNA was on the murder weapon, he had a key to the facility where L.E. lived on his key ring at the time of his arrest, he failed to contact L.E.’s daughter after the murder despite his close relationship with her, and he may have said “I did it” on the audio recording. Given the plentiful evidence of McFee’s guilt, the court found that admission of the note was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

The court of appeals affirmed McFee’s conviction.

Tenth Circuit: Confrontation Clause Only Implicated when Statement Admitted to Prove Truth of Matter Asserted

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Ibarra-Diaz on Monday, November 9, 2015.

An undercover detective with the Wichita Police Department set up a methamphetamine purchase from Jesus Ibarra-Diaz through a confidential informant (CI). The detective met Ibarra-Diaz and his girlfriend, Ana Valeriano-Trejo, in a shopping mall parking lot and got in their vehicle. Ibarra-Diaz indicated that another accomplice, Ricardo Estrada, would bring the drugs. When Estrada arrived, he recognized the detective and informed Ibarra-Diaz and Valeriano-Trejo that he was a cop. The detective got out of Ibarra-Diaz’s vehicle and confronted Estrada, and Ibarra-Diaz started to drive away, at which point police officers surrounded his vehicle and arrested him and Valeriano-Trejo.

After searching the two vehicles, officers found suspected methamphetamine in the wheel well of the vehicle Estrada was driving. Estrada, who was in a patrol car, voluntarily spoke to officers, telling them that there was over a pound of meth at the house he shared with Ibarra-Diaz and Valeriano-Trejo. Officers obtained a warrant and searched the residence, finding several pertinent items, including approximately one pound of meth in a container in the laundry room. A federal grand jury indicted the three co-defendants on one count of possession with intent to distribute a substance containing 50 grams or more of methamphetamine. Ibarra-Diaz exercised his right to a jury trial. He was convicted and sentenced to 188 months’ imprisonment.

Ibarra-Diaz appealed, raising several contentions of error. First, he argued that the district court violated his Confrontation Clause rights when it erroneously admitted several hearsay statements. Next, he argued he was denied a fair trial when the detective was allowed to present inflammatory testimony. Third, he contended that certain evidence rendered the indictment duplicitous and therefore denied him a fair trial. Finally, he contended there was insufficient evidence to support his conviction. The Tenth Circuit rejected each argument in turn, noting as an initial matter that all of Ibarra-Diaz’s arguments except his sufficiency challenge were raised for the first time on appeal and were subject only to plain error review.

Ibarra-Diaz argued that the district court erred in admitting through the detective’s testimony several statements of the CI or Mr. Estrada. The Tenth Circuit analyzed each in turn, reminding Ibarra-Diaz that a statement is only testimonial when it is admitted to prove the truth of the matter asserted. Ibarra-Diaz first argued it was error for the detective to testify that the narcotics investigation commenced because a CI gave information to the detective. The Tenth Circuit found no error, since the trial court stopped the detective’s testimony before he could reveal what he learned from the CI. Next, Ibarra-Diaz argued the court erred in allowing the detective to testify that the CI was afraid of Ibarra-Diaz. Because the detective’s remark was stricken from the record and the court gave the jury two separate instructions to consider only testimony that was not stricken, there was no error. Third, Ibarra-Diaz argued it was error for the detective to testify that the CI told him Ibarra-Diaz had “some dope” for sale. The Tenth Circuit found no error because the statement in question was not hearsay since it was offered for a different purpose than to prove the truth of the matter asserted. The Tenth Circuit similarly found no Confrontation Clause violations for the fourth and fifth points of error, since the actions in question were not statements. The next statement was also not hearsay because it was offered to explain the detective’s conduct. Ibarra-Diaz’s seventh challenge similarly failed because the detective was not reciting statements. The Tenth Circuit found that the eighth statement was also not offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted.

Ibarra-Diaz’s final Confrontation Clause challenge concerned the detective’s testimony that Estrada told him there was additional methamphetamine at the house. The government conceded that the statement was testimonial and violated the Confrontation Clause, but the Tenth Circuit did not find plain error because the admission did not substantially affect the outcome of the proceeding because even without the statement, overwhelming evidence supported Ibarra-Diaz’s conviction.

Ibarra-Diaz argued that some of the detective’s testimony was inflammatory and unduly prejudiced the jury. Ibarra-Diaz argued the statements unfairly painted a picture of him as a dangerous drug dealer. The Tenth Circuit elected to consider Ibarra-Diaz’s arguments as FRE 403 challenges, and found that the testimony was mostly irrelevant and its probative value was outweighed by the danger of confusing the issues or misleading the jury. However, the Tenth Circuit found that even if the district court erred, the error was not clear or obvious, and any error did not substantially prejudice Ibarra-Diaz. The Tenth Circuit noted that the evidence tended to show that the detective was afraid of Mr. Estrada, not Ibarra-Diaz, and the testimony had no effect on Ibarra-Diaz’s substantial rights.

The Tenth Circuit then turned to Ibarra-Diaz’s contention that he was deprived of a unanimous jury verdict by a duplicitous indictment. Ibarra-Diaz acknowledged that the indictment was not duplicitous on its face, but argued that the presentation of the two separate bundles of methamphetamine, taken from the vehicle and the house, rendered the indictment duplicitous because there were two factual presentations for the same offense. The Tenth Circuit declined to consider the issue, which was raised for the first time on appeal.

Finally, Ibarra-Diaz challenged the sufficiency of the evidence. At trial, the prosecution advanced two theories of Ibarra-Diaz’s guilt: as a complicitor and as a principal. Ibarra-Diaz confined his sufficiency challenge to the aiding and abetting theory, notably not challenging the theory of him as principal. The Tenth Circuit found this fatal to his arguments. Because there was more than enough evidence to support Ibarra-Diaz’s convictions as a principal, there was no need to address the aiding-and-abetting theory. However, the Tenth Circuit found ample evidence to support the complicitor theory as well.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court.

Tenth Circuit: No Speedy Trial Act Violation Where Motions Pending During Contested Period

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Zar on Tuesday, June 23, 2015.

Derek Zar and his mother Susanne Zar participated in a mortgage fraud scheme orchestrated by Michael Jacoby. The three were tried together and, after a three-week trial, a jury convicted Jacoby of 11 counts of wire fraud, three counts of money laundering, and two counts of bank fraud; Derek Zar of four counts of wire fraud and one count of money laundering; and Susanne Zar of three counts of wire fraud and one count of money laundering. Each defendant was sentenced to a term of imprisonment and ordered to pay restitution. They each appealed separately, but the Tenth Circuit joined the appeals.

The Tenth Circuit first considered Derek’s and Susanne’s challenges to the district court’s denial of the Zars’ joint motion to sever their trial from Jacoby’s, their joint motion to dismiss the indictment based on Speedy Trial Act violations, and their joint motion to suppress statements made to IRS agents. Because the motion to sever and the motion to dismiss were both based on Speedy Trial Act violations, the Tenth Circuit considered those first. Noting that the Speedy Trial clock is tolled when motions are pending, the Tenth Circuit initially found that motions were pending during the entire period the Zars contest was applicable to their speedy trial rights. The Tenth Circuit analyzed the district court’s rulings and found that it did not abuse its discretion in denying the severance motion, and counted only 23 days ticked off the speedy trial clock between the indictment and the trial. The district court’s denials of the motions to dismiss and to sever were affirmed.

Next the Tenth Circuit evaluated the statements the defendants made to IRS agents. Although it was somewhat concerned that the agents did not specifically announce that their questioning of the Zars was a consensual conversation, the Tenth Circuit found no error in the district court’s allowance of the testimony. The Tenth Circuit found that the statements made by the Zars to the IRS agents were non-testimonial and not barred. Susanne Zar also argued that the admission of statements Derek Zar made to an IRS agent violated her Confrontation Clause rights as stated in Crawford v. Washington. After a plain error review, the Tenth Circuit concluded that the district court’s limiting instruction sufficiently ameliorated any harm that could have come from admission of the statements.

The three defendants jointly argued that Instruction 17 incorrectly stated the elements of wire fraud by omitting an essential element, the scheme to defraud, and by adding an element which impermissibly broadened the basis for conviction. The Tenth Circuit analyzed the instruction and found that the district court correctly applied Tenth Circuit precedent in omitting the language from the instruction. The Tenth Circuit further found that the modifications to the instruction were harmless, and if they had any effect it worked in defendants’ favor. The three defendants also asserted ineffective assistance of counsel claims, which the Tenth Circuit dismissed as unripe since they had not yet been adjudicated in district court.

The defendants also all challenged their sentences, averring the increase in base offense level was unsupported and relying on Apprendi and Alleyne. The Tenth Circuit found their reliance misplaced, since none of the defendants were subject to mandatory minimum sentences. It evaluated each defendant’s sentence and affirmed each separately.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s rulings as to each defendant.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Defense Counsel Waived Confrontation Clause Claim by Eliciting Testimonial Statements

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Merritt on Thursday, September 25, 2014.

Confrontation Clause—Autopsy Report—Testimonial.

A hotel desk clerk found Welch’s body in the room where she had lived for about five years. Her throat had been cut and a large amount of blood was visible on her body and on the bed beneath her. Defendant, a security guard at the hotel, was charged with her death. He was found guilty of second-degree murder and was sentenced to thirty-six years in the custody of the Department of Corrections.

On appeal, defendant alleged that the court violated his rights under the Confrontation Clause by admitting an autopsy report prepared by a doctor who was not present at trial. Dr. Lear-Kaul performed an autopsy and authored a report detailing her findings and conclusions regarding the cause and manner of Welch’s death. Because Dr. Lear-Kaul was on maternity leave during the trial, her supervisor, Dr. Dobersen, testified regarding the autopsy report and the cause of death.

Given the state of the body, the nature of the crime scene, and the statutorily mandated cooperation between the coroner’s office and the district attorney’s office, it was reasonable for Dr. Lear-Kaul to assume that the report containing her findings and conclusions would be used in the eventual prosecution of a murder suspect. Therefore, the statements were testimonial. However, by asking Dr. Dobersen questions about alternative causes of death, which relied on facts contained in the autopsy report, defendant’s counsel intentionally opened the door on a particular line of questioning and effectively waived the right to confrontation. The judgment was affirmed.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.