May 21, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Lack of Compliance with ICWA’s Foster Care Placement Provisions Does Not Deprive Juvenile Court of Jurisdiction

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People in Interest of M.V. on Thursday, November 15, 2018.

Indian Child Welfare ActFoster Care PlacementDependency and NeglectAdmissibility of Video RecordingsSubject Matter Jurisdiction.

The El Paso County Department of Human Services (the Department) initiated a dependency and neglect case regarding mother’s children. The case was based on methamphetamine use, manufacture, and distribution, and domestic violence. Following a jury trial, the juvenile court adjudicated the children dependent and neglected. After another hearing, the court entered a dispositional order that adopted a treatment plan for mother.

On appeal, mother argued that the record did not demonstrate compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) and therefore the juvenile court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to adjudicate the children and enter a dispositional order. The court of appeals first concluded that the juvenile court’s asserted lack of compliance with ICWA’s notice provisions do not divest it of subject matter jurisdiction to enter the adjudicatory and dispositional orders. The ICWA allows Indian children, parents, and tribes to challenge a termination judgment, but this does not take away the jurisdiction of the state court. Here, the asserted lack of compliance with ICWA’s notice provisions did not divest the juvenile court of subject matter jurisdiction to enter the adjudicatory and dispositional orders.

The court also determined that the ICWA’s foster care placement provisions apply to a dispositional order, but not to an order adjudicating a child dependent and neglected. In this case, based on mother’s ICWA assessment form, there was reason for the court to know that the children were Indian children. The record contains no indication that the Department gave the required notices or that the juvenile court made the necessary findings. The record fails to demonstrate compliance with the ICWA.

Mother also argued that the juvenile court committed reversible error by admitting video recordings of her and the children that had been anonymously provided to the Department and were not properly authenticated. Here, the Department did not establish either the accuracy of the scenes depicted in the videos or the accuracy of the recording process. Thus, the juvenile court erred in admitting the video recordings. Further, the court could not conclude that the admission of the videos did not substantially influence the jury’s verdict. Therefore, the error was not harmless.

The adjudicatory and dispositional orders were reversed and the case was remanded for a new adjudicatory trial.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Gives: DU’s Tribal Wills Project Needs Volunteers and Donations

Colorado Gives: CBA CLE Legal Connection will be focusing on several Colorado legal charities in the next few days to prepare for Colorado Gives Day, December 4, 2018. These charities, and many, many others, greatly appreciate your donations of time and money.

Each year, students from the Sturm College of Law at the University of Denver participate in the Tribal Wills Project (TWP). In January, March and May, TWP participants travel to a tribal reservation in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, South Dakota, and Montana for a week to draft wills, medical powers of attorney, living wills, and burial instructions for tribal members on a pro bono basis. This work is extremely important for the following reasons.

Under the American Indian Probate Reform Act (AIPRA), if a tribal member dies without a will and his or her interests in trust land total less than specified amount, such interests automatically pass to the tribal member’s oldest living descendant to the exclusion of his or her remaining descendants. If the tribal member is not survived by any descendants, such interests pass back to the tribe. This is often in contravention of the tribal member’s intent. In some instances, tribal members are unaware of these default provisions under AIPRA; in other instances, tribal members may be aware of the default provision but are without the means or resources to have a will prepared to avoid the foregoing results. TWP gives tribal members a voice so that desired family members are not excluded from inheriting interests in trust land.

Additionally, TWP provides a unique opportunity for law students to gain hands-on experience with real clients. Initially, a student is paired with a client to conduct an interview. Thereafter, the student prepares initial drafts of the desired documents, which are then reviewed by a Colorado supervising attorney. The student and attorney work through the revision process together, which provides an essential learning opportunity for the student. Once the documents appear to be in order, the documents are further reviewed by an attorney who is licensed in the particular state where the reservation is location. Once the documents receive final approval, the student participates in the execution process.

TWP was initially developed in February 2013 by John Roach, who is a Fiduciary Trust Officer for the Southern Ute Agency of the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians; former Colorado Supreme Court Justice Gregory J. Hobbs, Jr.; and University of Denver Professor Lucy Marsh, among others. The first trip occurred in March 2013 when the students and supervising attorneys travelled to the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute Reservations in southern Colorado. Since then, TWP has grown exponentially. Each year, students apply for limited positions on the TWP team; many must be turned away based on the limited availability of funds and supervising attorneys.

In January 2019, 24 students and 7 supervising attorneys will travel to Tohono O’odham Reservation, near Tucson, Arizona. The Tohono O’odham Reservation is partially in the United States and partially in Mexico. At the invitation of various tribes, TWP has now been to six states: Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Utah.

It costs approximately $15,000 to fund each trip, which is funded entirely by donations. Through your donations, you can ensure that no student is prevented from participating in this wonderful educational experience because of finances.

TWP is also actively seeking volunteer supervising attorneys to assist with future trips. If you are unable to serve as a supervising attorney for any reason, you can still help by making a tax-deductible donation to TWP.

For more information, please contact Lucy Marsh at (303) 871-6285 or lmarsh@law.du.edu.

Colorado Court of Appeals: ICWA Requires Notice to BIA in State with No Designated Tribal Agents

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People in Interest of I.B.-R. on Thursday, May 17, 2018.

Dependency and Neglect—Indian Child Welfare Act Notice—Bureau of Indian Affairs.

In this dependency and neglect proceeding, J.S.R. is the father of one of the four children. He told the Weld County Department of Human Services (Department) that he had Cherokee heritage on his father’s side and his lineage descended from a tribe in Arkansas, but he did not know which tribe. The Department did not notify any tribe or the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) of the dependency and neglect proceeding. Following the filing of their motion to terminate parental rights, the Department sent notice of the termination proceedings to the three federally recognized Cherokee Tribes. Each responded that the child was not a member or eligible for membership. The Department also notified the BIA, but did not mention J.S.R.’s reported affiliation to an unknown tribe in Arkansas. No further inquiry was made and all three parents’ parental rights were terminated.

On appeal, J.S.R. contended that the trial court and the Department did not comply with the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA) after he asserted Native American heritage. He argued the Department failed to comply with the ICWA’s notice requirements because it did not send notice to any tribes in Arkansas. ICWA-implementing legislation in Colorado requires that in dependency and neglect proceedings, the petitioning party must make continuing inquiries to determine whether the child is an Indian child. When there is reason to know or believe that a child involved in a child custody proceeding is an Indian child, the petitioning party must send notice of the proceeding to the potentially concerned tribe or tribes. The BIA publishes a list of designated tribal agents for service of ICWA notice in the Federal Register each year. There are no federally recognized tribes with designated tribal agents in Arkansas. If the identity or location of a tribe cannot be determined, notice must be given to the BIA. While the ICWA does not require courts or departments of human services to find tribal connections from vague information, it was the BIA’s burden to research whether there could be a tribal connection in Arkansas. However, the notice in this case did not alert the BIA that J.S.R. had reported a tribal connection to Arkansas, so it had no reason to conduct such an investigation.

The case was remanded with detailed directions to proceed with ICWA compliance.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Where Father Acquitted of Underlying Sexual Abuse Charges, Juvenile Court Erred in Terminating Parental Rights

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People in Interest of L.M. on Thursday, April 19, 2018.

Dependency and Neglect—Juvenile Court—Termination of Parent-Child Legal Relationship.

The juvenile court found by a preponderance of the evidence that father had sexually abused L.M. and that M.M. was suffering secondary trauma as a result of the abuse. The court adjudicated L.M. and M.M. dependent and neglected. The court granted temporary custody to mother and prohibited father from having any contact with the children during the pendency of the case.

Father’s treatment plan was predicated on his guilt, but he was later acquitted in the criminal case. The juvenile court could not find that the assault allegations had been established by clear and convincing evidence and further concluded that it could not discount the possibility that no abuse occurred. Even so, the juvenile court terminated father’s parental rights, finding there were no less drastic alternatives because the children continued to experience trauma specific to father, which he did not recognize.

On appeal, father challenged the finding that there were no less drastic alternatives to terminating his parental rights. When considering termination under C.R.S. § 19-3-604(1)(c), the court must also consider and eliminate less drastic alternatives. The determination of whether there is a less drastic alternative to termination is influenced by a parent’s fitness to care for his or her child. Here, there is no indication in the record that father was offered treatment or a path to becoming a fit parent other than to acknowledge sexual abuse of L.M. It was error to terminate his parental rights.

Although not raised on appeal, the court of appeals also determined that the juvenile court failed to make the required inquiry of father under the Indian Child Welfare Act.

The judgment was reversed and the case was remanded with instructions that before considering termination of parental rights, the court must adopt an appropriate treatment plan under C.R.S. § 19-3-508(1)(e)(I) that relates to the children’s trauma and is reasonably calculated to render father a fit parent. If the court again considers termination of father’s parental rights, it must confirm whether he knows or has reason to know or believe that the children are Indian children.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Child’s Medical Records Admissible Under CRE 803(4) where Statements Made for Medical Diagnosis or Treatment

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People in Interest of E.M. on Thursday, April 19, 2018.

Dependency and Neglect—Admissibility of Evidence under CRE 803(4)—Indian Child Welfare Act.

The child was born prematurely and spent six weeks in the hospital. The Mesa County Department of Human Services (Department) sought and received emergency custody after the hospital reported that it could not locate his parents to take him home. The Department later filed a petition in dependency and neglect. At a shelter hearing, the court granted the Department’s request to return the child to his parents’ care under the Department’s supervision.

Three months later the court held an adjudicatory trial. As the sole basis for adjudication, the court found that the child had tested positive for a schedule II controlled substance at birth and that the positive test did not result from mother’s lawful use of prescribed medication. The court relied on testimony from a physician specializing in neonatal care who had cared for the child immediately after his birth.

On appeal, mother argued that certain test results to which the child’s physician testified were inadmissible hearsay under CRE 803(4). CRE 803(4) creates a hearsay exception for statements that are made for purposes of medical diagnosis or treatment; describe medical history, symptoms, or the inception or cause of symptoms; and are reasonably pertinent to diagnosis or treatment. Here, the testifying physician was qualified, without objection, as an expert in neonatology and pediatrics. He gave comprehensive testimony regarding the child’s symptoms and treatment and mother’s positive toxicology screen for methamphetamine. The physician’s testimony conformed to the requirements of CRE 803(4).

The court also rejected mother’s contention that even if the test results were admissible it was error for the trial court to rely on them because they were only admitted as the basis of the expert’s testimony under CRE 703, not as substantive evidence. The trial court admitted the results under both CRE 803(4) and 703 and they were therefore substantive evidence on which the court could rely to conclude that the child had testified positive for a controlled substance at birth.

Mother also argued that the trial court erred when it determined that the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) does not apply to this proceeding because the child had been returned to mother’s home. The ICWA applies to a child custody proceeding even when, following a shelter hearing, the child is returned to the mother’s home, because the hearing could have resulted in foster care placement. The trial court did not conduct the proper ICWA inquiry.

The part of the judgment adjudicating the child dependent or neglected was affirmed. The dispositional order was reversed and the case was remanded for the purpose of conducting a proper ICWA inquiry.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: ICWA Notice Should be Sent to All Tribes in Ancestral Group if Only Ancestral Group Indicated

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People in Interest of L.H. on Thursday, February 22, 2018.

Dependency and Neglect—Indian Child Welfare Act—Notice Requirement.

In this dependency and neglect proceeding, mother initially denied Native American heritage but then informed the Jefferson County Department of Human Services (Department) that her biological brother is registered with “Navajo-Deni.” The Department sent six separate notices to the Navajo Nation at six different addresses. The Navajo Nation responded that there was no record of the family with the Navajo Nation, and therefore the child was not enrolled or eligible for enrollment with the Navajo Nation. Based on this response, at the termination hearing the trial court found that the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) did not apply in this case.

Mother appealed the judgment terminating the parent–child legal relationship with her child. Based on its review of the record, the Court of Appeals could not determine whether the Department complied with the ICWA. A review of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) list of Tribal Agents by Affiliation shows that the Colorado River Indian Tribes are also tribes historically affiliated with the Navajo. The Court concluded that because mother had made a general reference to Navajo, and not just the Navajo Nation, the Department was required to also notify the Colorado River Indian Tribes. The notice to only the Navajo Nation was insufficient to satisfy the ICWA’s notice requirement.

The case was remanded with instructions for the limited purpose of directing the Department to send appropriate notice to the Colorado River Indian Tribes.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Written Advisement Form Does Not Satisfy ICWA Notice Requirements

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People in Interest of J.L. on Thursday, January 25, 2018.

Dependency and Neglect—Indian Child Welfare Act—Tribal Notification Requirements.

In this dependency and neglect proceeding, the trial court first inquired about the applicability of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) at the termination hearing after orally ordering termination of parental rights. When the inquiry was made, mother responded that both she and the father had Native American blood and she and her family had been “kicked off the tribe.” At a subsequent hearing, mother indicated she had Indian heritage through her biological family and named several tribes. She stated she was an adoptee, but her biological mother would know of her tribal affiliation. The Alamosa County Department of Human Services (Department) stated it did not believe the ICWA applied, but failed to describe the efforts it had made to determine whether any of the children was an Indian child, and the record contained no evidence that the Department sent notice to the tribes named. Mother appealed the judgment terminating her parent–child legal relationship with her children.

C.R.S. § 19-1-126(1)(a) requires the petitioning party to make continuing inquiries to determine whether the child subject to the proceeding is an Indian child. The petitioning party must also disclose in the commencing pleading whether the child is an Indian child and the identity of the child’s tribe, or what efforts the petitioner made to determine whether the child is an Indian child. The Bureau of Indian Affairs regulations and guidelines also contain notice and inquiry provisions for trial courts and require trial courts to ask participants in emergency or voluntary or involuntary child-custody proceedings whether they know or have reason to know that the child is an Indian child. This inquiry is made at the commencement of the proceeding, and all responses should be on the record. Departments must directly notify each concerned tribe by registered mail with return receipt of the pending proceedings and its right to intervene.

Here, the trial court’s inquiry should have been made at the first hearing after the petition in dependency and neglect was filed and again at the start of the termination proceeding. Mother’s disclosures gave the trial court reason to believe the children were Indian children. The Department did not comply with the ICWA’s notice requirements.

The Department contended that mother’s signing of a written advisement of her rights, which included a question about the ICWA, served as the court’s initial inquiry. The inquiry should be made on the record. Regardless, the Court of Appeals found that the Department failed to send notice to the appropriate tribes when mother identified a reason to believe the children were Indian children.

The case was remanded with instructions for the limited purpose of directing the Department to send appropriate notice to the Kiowa Indian Tribe of Oklahoma and the Pueblo of Taos.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Expert Witness Need Not Recite Exact Statutory Language for ICWA Finding

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People in Interest of D.B. on Thursday, November 2, 2017.

Dependency and Neglect—Indian Child Welfare Act—Termination—Expert Witness—Hearsay.

This dependency and neglect proceeding was governed by the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). Mother’s parental rights were terminated after the trial court determined that continued custody of the child by one of the parents would likely result in serious emotional or physical damage to the child due to the parents’ extensive substance abuse, extensive domestic violence, lack of housing, and lack of income to meet the child’s needs.

On appeal, mother contended that the trial court erred in terminating her parental rights without testimony from a qualified expert witness that her continued custody of the child would likely result in serious emotional or physical damage to the child, as required by the ICWA. The ICWA provides that a court may only terminate parental rights if it determines that there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the child is likely to suffer serious emotional or physical damage if the child remains in the parent’s care. Such determination must be supported by evidence that includes testimony from qualified expert witnesses. The statute does not mandate, however, that an expert witness specifically opine that the child is likely to suffer emotional or physical damage in the parent’s custody. Rather, the expert testimony must constitute some of the evidence that supports the court’s finding of the likelihood of serious emotional or physical damage to the child. Here, although the expert witness’s testimony did not track the ICWA language, the record as a whole contains sufficient evidence, including testimony from a qualified expert witness, to support the trial court’s determination that the child would likely suffer serious emotional or physical damage if placed in mother’s care.

Mother also contended that the trial court erred in relying on inadmissible hearsay statements in the termination report to conclude that she had failed to maintain sobriety and that the child would thus likely suffer serious emotional or physical damage if he remained in her custody. The trial court, however, had access to other admissible evidence to support its determination that mother had failed to maintain sobriety. Further, this was not the sole basis to terminate mother’s parental rights.

The judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Trial Court Must Make Inquiry Into Whether Indian Child Welfare Act Applies in Dependency and Neglect Proceeding

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People in Interest of C.A. on Thursday, October 19, 2017.

Dependency and Neglect—Termination of Parental Rights—Indian Child Welfare Act Inquiry Provisions.

The Montrose Department of Health and Human Services (Department) initiated a dependency and neglect petition on behalf of C.A. At the initial hearing, the trial court asked the parties generally if the child was a Native American and if the child had any Native American heritage. Father said he did not, and mother offered no response. Father and mother were not represented by counsel at this time. The Department ultimately moved to terminate mother’s and father’s parental rights. The Department’s motion did not state the efforts the Department made to determine if C.A. is an Indian child and the trial court did not inquire on the record whether the child is an Indian child. Following a contested hearing, the trial court terminated parental rights and determined that the child was not subject to the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).

On appeal, mother contended that the trial court did not comply with the ICWA’s inquiry provisions. The Colorado Court of Appeals concluded that when a trial court inquires at an initial temporary custody hearing at the commencement of a dependency and neglect proceeding whether there is a reason to know that a child is an Indian child, it must make another inquiry when termination is sought, at least when the court has not already identified the child as an Indian child and the petitioning party has not disclosed what efforts it has made to determine if the child is an Indian child.

Because the record did not show that the trial court made the proper inquiry at the termination proceeding, the case was remanded for the limited purpose of making the ICWA inquiry. The trial court was further directed to make appropriate findings and proceed accordingly with any actions necessary to comply with ICWA. In addition, court of appeals gave the parties detailed directions to take further actions, based on the trial court’s determination, within a specified timeframe.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Tenth Circuit: Jurisdiction Over Crimes Committed in Indian Country is Properly Under the Federal Government

The Tenth Circuit of Appeals issued its opinion in Murphy v. Royal on Tuesday, August 8, 2017.

Petitioner-Appellant Murphy challenged the jurisdiction of the Oklahoma state court in which he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. He contended he should have been tried in federal court because he is an Indian and the offense occurred in Indian country. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed and remanded to the district court to issue a writ of habeas corpus vacating his conviction and sentence.

The Tenth Circuit addressed four issues in determining whether the state court had jurisdiction: (1) federal habeas corpus review; (2) Indian county jurisdiction generally; (3) Indian reservations; and (4) how a reservation can be disestablished or diminished.

The court found that Murphy’s crime occurred on the Indian Reservation, and therefore, the Oklahoma court lacked jurisdiction. The court reviewed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). Section 2254(d) provides three ways to overcome AEDPA deference. The court focused on §2254(d)(1), which states that a state prisoner can qualify for habeas relief by showing a state court decision was “contrary to” federal law that was clearly established by the Supreme Court.

When a state court adjudicates a prisoner’s federal claim on the merits, review under § 2254(d)(1)’s contrary to clause proceeds in three steps: (1) whether there is clearly established federal law that applies to the claim; (2) whether the state court’s decision was contrary to that law; and (3) if the state court rendered a decision that was contrary to clearly established Supreme Court precedent by applying the wrong legal test, applying the correct law. The Circuit assumed that AEDPA supplied the standard of review, therefore the substantive law governing Indian country jurisdiction applies to these claims.

The Major Crimes Act is the jurisdictional statute at the heart of this case and applies to enumerated crimes committed by Indians in Indian country. The jurisdiction is exclusively federal, meaning the State of Oklahoma does not have jurisdiction over crimes committed by or against an Indian in Indian Country.

Congress has provided that “Indian Country” includes all land within the limits of any Indian reservation under the jurisdiction of the United States Government, notwithstanding the issuance of any patent, and, including rights-of-way running through the reservation. Therefore, all lands within the boundaries of a reservation have Indian country status.

Only Congress can disestablish or diminish a reservation. As Congress possesses plenary power over Indian affairs, including the power to modify or eliminate tribal rights, Congress also has the power to eliminate or reduce a reservation against a tribe’s wishes and without consent. Having recognized this power, the Supreme Court has developed a framework to determine whether Congress has exercised its power with respect to a given reservation.

First, there is a presumption against disestablishment and diminishment, and courts do not lightly infer that Congress has exercised this power. The Supreme Court has required that the congressional determination to terminate be expressed on the face of the Act or be clear from the surrounding circumstances and legislative history.

Next is Congress’s pursuit of a policy called allotment and its relationship to reservation borders. Congress has historically adopted the view that the Indians tribes should abandon their nomadic lives on the communal reservations and settle into an agrarian economy on privately-owned parcels of land. This policy involved Congress dividing, or “allotting,” communal Indian lands into individualized parcels for private ownership by tribal members. Allotment on its own, however, does not disestablish or diminish a reservation, but may alter the boundaries of some reservations.

To distinguish congressional acts that changed a reservation’s borders from those that simply offered non-Indians the opportunity to purchase land within established reservation boundaries, the Supreme Court has developed a three-part framework:

  1. Courts must examine the text of the statute purportedly disestablishing or diminishing the reservation. No particular form of words, however, is necessary to diminish a reservation.
  2. Courts must consider events surrounding the passage of the statute. Courts have found that Congress altered the borders if evidence at step two unequivocally reveals a widely-held understanding that the affected reservation would shrink as a result of the proposed legislation.
  3. Courts must consider events that occurred after the passage of the statute. Evidence to be considered can include Congress’s own treatment of the affected areas, as well as the manner in which the Bureau of Indian Affairs and local judicial authorities dealt with unallotted open lands.

The Tenth Circuit applied the three-part framework described above and concluded that Congress did not disestablish the Reservation at issue in this case. The court found that the most important evidence, the statutory text, failed to reveal disestablishment at step one. Instead, the relevant statutes contain language affirmatively recognizing the Reservation’s borders. The evidence of contemporaneous understanding and later history, which was considered at steps two and three, is mixed and falls far short of unequivocally revealing a congressional intent to disestablish. Because the application of the framework shows Congress has not disestablished the Reservation, the crime in this case occurred within the Reservation’s boundaries. The State of Oklahoma accordingly lacked jurisdiction to prosecute Murphy.

After applying the three-part framework, the court concluded that Congress has not disestablished the Indian Reservation at issue in this case. The crime in this case occurred in Indian country, Murphy is an Indian, and the federal court has exclusive jurisdiction, not Oklahoma. Murphy’s state conviction and death sentence are thus invalid. The decision whether to prosecute Murphy in federal court rests with the United States and decisions about the borders of the Indian Reservation remain with Congress.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals REVERSED the district court’s judgement and REMANDED with instructions to grant Murphy’s application for writ of habeas corpus.

Tenth Circuit: Sexual Assault Victim’s Prior Mental Health History Not Even Marginally Relevant to Assault at Issue

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. John on February 27, 2017.

Defendant and the victim were related. At trial, the victim testified to the following facts: The victim was in the shower when Defendant showed up at her house. He started undressing in front of the shower door while the victim was still in the shower. Defendant moved towards the victim and the victim struggled to get away. Defendant pulled the towel away from the victim and pushed her head toward his “private parts.” The victim was able to get away from Defendant and grabbed a blanket before running outside. When outside, the victim called the police. Officers arrived after Defendant had left. The officers found the shower door tilted and the bathroom trashcan turned over. No forensic testing occurred. Defendant was convicted on one count of attempted aggravated sexual abuse in Indian country and one count of abusive sexual contact in Indian county after a jury trial.

At trial, Defendant wanted to cross-examine the victim about an incident that occurred in Phoenix. The district court did not allow the line of questioning and the Defendant challenged the courts ruling on appeal claiming it violated his Confrontation Clause rights under the Sixth Amendment and his right to present a complete defense under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments.

The Tenth Circuit summarized the facts of the Phoenix incident that it obtained from police reports. The victim had visited her sister in Phoenix. She alleged that her sister pressured her to drink. After the two argued, the victim tried to cut her writs. She was then taken to the hospital where she was transferred to an inpatient behavioral-health unit after telling the staff that she had been having suicidal thoughts for two years. During intake, she denied using any illicit substances, even though she told emergency staff that she used marijuana. The intake staff determined she had a mood disorder, but she was discharged without any medication needed. The victim’s sister denied to police that she gave the victim alcohol or coerced her to drink. Because the police could not determine how the victim got the alcohol, they closed the case.

On appeal, the Defendant argued that the Phoenix incident showed that the victim would falsely accuse him of sexual assault given her poorly controlled behavior and drug use revealed by the incident. It also would show her propensity to lie and accuse family members. These facts could have led the jury to draw “vital inferences” in his favor.

The Tenth Circuit held that because the Defendant only argued at trial that the Phoenix incident would show that the victim had an impaired ability to perceive events, and not the reasons given on appeal, Defendant was precluded from arguing such reasons on appeal. In fact, the Tenth Circuit points to the fact that Defendant’s counsel rejected the possibility of using the Phoenix incident for the reasons stated on appeal, which the Tenth Circuit held was an “intentional relinquishment or abandonment of a known right.”

The Tenth Circuit held that Defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to confrontation was not violated because that right is not unlimited. The Supreme Court has held that trial judges retain wide latitude to impose reasonable limits on cross-examination based on concerns about harassment, prejudice, and confusion of the issues. The Tenth Circuit held that the Phoenix incident was not even marginally relevant to the victim’s ability to remember or relate the shower incident. It would not show that the victim was on drugs at the time of the shower incident. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that no lay person could draw those inferences.

Next, the Tenth Circuit addressed the Defendant’s challenges to three jury instructs concerning the assessment of evidence.

The first challenged instruction stated: “The testimony of the complaining witness need not be corroborated if the jury believes the complaining witness beyond a reasonable doubt.” Defendant argued that the instruction did no accurately reflect the government’s burden of proving each element of the charged offenses beyond a reasonable doubt. The Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion by giving this instruction because it properly informed the jury that it could convict on the basis of the testimony of a single witness, only if they believed that witness. Further, another instruction told the jurors that they could not convict unless they found each element of each offense beyond reasonable doubt.

The second challenged instruction stated: “An attorney has the right to interview a witness for the purpose of learning what testimony the witness will give. The fact that a witness has talked to an attorney does not reflect adversely to the truth of such testimony.” Defendant argued that this instruction insulated from the jury’s scrutiny the cross-examination of the victim about being improperly influenced by the prosecutor. The Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion by giving this instruction because it did not prevent defense counsel from making a commonsense suggestion that inappropriate coaching influenced the witness, which the counsel actually made.

The final challenged instruction stated: “You may infer, but you are certainly not required to infer, that a person intends the natural and probably consequences of acts knowingly done or knowingly omitted.” Defendant argues that this instruction was ambiguous, because it was not stated which element the instruction was meant to modify, and that it was confusing because it created uncertainty as to the requisite level of intent. The Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion by issuing this instruction because the court made clear to the jury that the burden was on the government to prove the requisite intent beyond a reasonable doubt.

Finally, the Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not err in declining to instruct the jury that it could consider the lesser-included charge of simple assault, rather than just the charges of attempted aggravated sexual abuse and abusive sexual contact. The district court held that there was no evidence that the encounter was anything but sexual. The Tenth Circuit affirmed this decision holding that the jury could reasonably have found that the alleged incident did not occur, but that there was no reasonable grounds for believing that Defendant assaulted the victim but with no sexual intent.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment.

Tenth Circuit: No Sixth Amendment Violation where Court Disallowed Questioning Regarding Victim’s Mental Health

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. John on February 27, 2017.

Defendant and the victim were related. At trial, the victim testified to the following facts: The victim was in the shower when Defendant showed up at her house. He started undressing in front of the shower door while the victim was still in the shower. Defendant moved towards the victim and the victim struggled to get away. Defendant pulled the towel away from the victim and pushed her head toward his “private parts.” The victim was able to get away from Defendant and grabbed a blanket before running outside. When outside, the victim called the police. Officers arrived after Defendant had left. The officers found the shower door tilted and the bathroom trashcan turned over. No forensic testing occurred. Defendant was convicted after a jury trial of one count of attempted aggravated sexual abuse in Indian country and one count of abusive sexual contact in Indian county.

At trial, Defendant wanted to cross-examine the victim about an incident that occurred in Phoenix. The district court did not allow the line of questioning and the Defendant challenged the courts ruling on appeal claiming it violated his Confrontation Clause rights under the Sixth Amendment and his right to present a complete defense under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments.

The Tenth Circuit summarized the facts of the Phoenix incident that it obtained from police reports. The victim had visited her sister in Phoenix. She alleged that her sister pressured her to drink. After the two argued, the victim tried to cut her writs. She was then taken to the hospital where she was transferred to an inpatient behavioral-health unit after telling the staff that she had been having suicidal thoughts for two years. During intake, she denied using any illicit substances, even though she told emergency staff that she used marijuana. The intake staff determined she had a mood disorder, but she was discharged without any medication needed. The victim’s sister denied to police that she gave the victim alcohol or coerced her to drink. Because the police could not determine how the victim got the alcohol, they closed the case.

On appeal, the Defendant argued that the Phoenix incident showed that the victim would falsely accuse him of sexual assault given her poorly controlled behavior and drug use revealed by the incident. It also would show her propensity to lie and accuse family members. These facts could have led the jury to draw “vital inferences” in his favor.

The Tenth Circuit held that because the Defendant only argued at trial that the Phoenix incident would show that the victim had an impaired ability to perceive events, and not the reasons given on appeal, Defendant was precluded from arguing such reasons on appeal. In fact, the Tenth Circuit points to the fact that Defendant’s counsel rejected the possibility of using the Phoenix incident for the reasons stated on appeal, which the Tenth Circuit held was an “intentional relinquishment or abandonment of a known right.”

The Tenth Circuit held that Defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to confrontation was not violated because that right is not unlimited. The Supreme Court has held that trial judges retain wide latitude to impose reasonable limits on cross-examination based on concerns about harassment, prejudice, and confusion of the issues. The Tenth Circuit held that the Phoenix incident was not even marginally relevant to the victim’s ability to remember or relate the shower incident. It would not show that the victim was on drugs at the time of the shower incident. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that no lay person could draw those inferences.

Next, the Tenth Circuit addressed the Defendant’s challenges to three jury instructs concerning the assessment of evidence.

The first challenged instruction stated: “The testimony of the complaining witness need not be corroborated if the jury believes the complaining witness beyond a reasonable doubt.” Defendant argued that the instruction did no accurately reflect the government’s burden of proving each element of the charged offenses beyond a reasonable doubt. The Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion by giving this instruction because it properly informed the jury that it could convict on the basis of the testimony of a single witness, only if they believed that witness. Further, another instruction told the jurors that they could not convict unless they found each element of each offense beyond reasonable doubt.

The second challenged instruction stated: “ An attorney has the right to interview a witness for the purpose of learning what testimony the witness will give. The fact that a witness has talked to an attorney does not reflect adversely to the truth of such testimony.” Defendant argued that this instruction insulated from the jury’s scrutiny the cross-examination of the victim about being improperly influenced by the prosecutor. The Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion by giving this instruction because it did not prevent defense counsel from making a commonsense suggestion that inappropriate coaching influenced the witness, which the counsel actually made.

The final challenged instruction stated: “You may infer, but you are certainly not required to infer, that a person intends the natural and probably consequences of acts knowingly done or knowingly omitted.” Defendant argues that this instruction was ambiguous, because it was not stated which element the instruction was meant to modify, and that it was confusing because it created uncertainty as to the requisite level of intent. The Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion by issuing this instruction because the court made clear to the jury that the burden was on the government to prove the requisite intent beyond a reasonable doubt.

Finally, the Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not err in declining to instruct the jury that it could consider the lesser-included charge of simple assault, rather than just the charges of attempted aggravated sexual abuse and abusive sexual contact. The district court held that there was no evidence that the encounter was anything but sexual. The Tent Circuit affirmed this decision holding that the jury could reasonably have found that the alleged incident did not occur, but that there was no reasonable grounds for believing that Defendant assaulted the victim but with no sexual intent.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment.