August 24, 2019

Tenth Circuit: No Error in Failing to Grant Mistrial After Prosecution Elicited Previously-Barred Testimony

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States of America v. Hargrove on Wednesday, January 2, 2019.

Defendant Mr. Hargrove was convicted and sentenced to sixty months imprisonment for conspiracy to distribute more than 100 kilograms of marijuana in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846, and of possession with intent to distribute 100 kilograms or more of a substance containing a detectable amount of marijuana, and aiding and abetting said possession, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(B), and 18 U.S.C. § 2.

Mr. Hargrove raised two challenges on appeal. First, the district court erred in failing to grant him a mistrial after the prosecutor elicited testimony that the district court had previously barred. Second, the district court erred in failing to grant him safety-valve relief under § 5C1.2 of the United States Sentencing Guidelines (U.S.S.G.). The Court of Appeals found no error in the district court’s rulings, and affirmed the district court.

Mr. Hargrove and two others were all found in Mr. Hargrove’s truck in the desert near the border between Arizona and New Mexico. Mr. Hargrove’s truck contained nearly 300 pounds of marijuana and two firearms. Prior to trial, Mr. Hargrove filed a motion in limine, in part to request that the district court exclude evidence that one of the firearms was stolen. The district court ruled that this evidence was inadmissible, as the risk of prejudice substantially outweighed any conceivable relevance, but allowed testimony about the presence of loaded firearms in the truck.

During trial, the prosecutor elicited testimony about the stolen gun, to which Mr. Hargrove’s counsel promptly objected and moved for mistrial. The court instructed the jury that they were to disregard anything regarding the firearm or its ownership. The prosecutor also took remedial measures during the remainder of the trial. Specifically, the prosecutor withdrew an exhibit displaying weapons retrieved from the truck, did not seek testimony from its expert witness regarding the use of firearms in the narcotics trade, and did not discuss either firearm during its closing arguments.

Following Mr. Hargrove’s conviction, Mr. Hargrove argued that he qualified for the safety-valve adjustment during sentencing under U.S.S.G. § 5C1.2. The district court denied Mr. Hargrove safety-valve relief.

With respect to the district court’s denial of Mr. Hargrove’s motion for mistrial, the Court weighed the three factors of the Meridyth test. First, the Court considered whether the prosecutor acted in bad faith. The Court noted that the prosecutor had specifically instructed the witness not to testify about the stolen nature of the gun. Further, the prosecutor’s conduct in immediately accepting responsibility for the improper testimony and taking steps to mitigate its prejudicial effects throughout the remainder of the trial was a strong indication that the prosecutor did not act in bad faith. The Court found this factor to weigh in favor of the government.

Next, the Court considered whether the district court limited the effect of the improper statement through its instructions to the jury. The Court noted that the district court gave two limiting instructions to the jury, one directly following the improper testimony, and one following the close of evidence. Because the district court had expressly and specifically emphasized that the jury was not to consider the improper statement for any purpose, the Court presumed the jury understood it was obliged not to consider any inferences based on such testimony and found this factor to weigh in favor of the government.

Finally, the Court considered whether the improper remark was inconsequential in light of the other evidence of the defendant’s guilt. The Court found that there was undisputed testimony which unequivocally indicated Mr. Hargrove was aware of and actively participated in the drug exchange, and any improper effect the improper statement may have had on the jury paled in comparison to the total weight of the government’s evidence, and therefore found this factor to weigh in favor of the government. Because the Court found all three factors weighed in favor of the government, the Court concluded that the district court did not err in denying Mr. Hargrove’s motion for a mistrial.

Mr. Hargrove also asserted the district court erred in denying him a U.S.S.G. § 5C1.2 safety-valve adjustment during sentencing. The district court had concluded that Mr. Hargrove was ineligible for the safety-valve reduction because the loaded firearms were located in the truck in close proximity to the drug trafficking, and had the potential to facilitate the drug trafficking. Mr. Hargrove argued on appeal that his possession of the firearms was unrelated to the drug-trafficking activity.

The Court disagreed. The Court explained that in evaluating the firearms provision of the safety-valve provision, there is a focus on the defendant’s own conduct and the nature of possession. The Court stated that active possession, by which there is a close connection linking the individual defendant, the weapon, and the offense, is sufficient to bar the application of the safety-valve. The Court noted that Mr. Hargrove had made no argument that the firearms were not his nor that the firearms were merely constructively possessed, instead Mr. Hargrove had conceded actual possession of the firearms by admitting that the firearms belonged to him and that he had brought them in the vehicle to the scene of the arrest. The Court held that for purposes of satisfying the safety-valve criteria, a firearm is possessed in connection with the offense if the firearm facilitates are has the potential to facilitate the offense. The Court therefore concluded that the district court did not err in denying safety-valve relief.

Tenth Circuit: Prejudicial Nature of Prosecutor’s Improper Conduct Did Not Significantly Affect Outcome of Proceedings

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Simpson v. Carpenter on Thursday, December 27, 2018.

Oklahoma prisoner Kendrick Simpson sought federal habeas relief from his death sentence for two counts of first-degree murder. The district court denied Simpson’s petition and on appeal, the Court of Appeals found no reversible error and affirmed.

Following an altercation in a night club, Mr. Simpson had fired multiple shots at a moving vehicle containing three passengers. Two of the three passenger victims died at the scene from their gunshot wounds. The State of Oklahoma charged Mr. Simpson with the first-degree murders of the two passenger victims, and with discharging a firearm with intent to kill the third passenger. The prosecution sought a penalty of death for each murder.

The jury convicted Mr. Simpson of two counts of first-degree murder, and sentenced him to death. Mr. Simpson appealed his convictions and sentences, and sought federal post-conviction relief. The district court granted a Certificate of Appealability (“COA”) on two of Mr. Simpson’s eighteen grounds for relief, and the Tenth Circuit subsequently granted a COA on five additional issues.

Mr. Simpson first asserted he was entitled to federal habeas relief because the trial court erroneously excluded expert testimony regarding his PTSD diagnosis and dissociative episodes. Mr. Simpson claimed the testimony was necessary to support the defense that he was incapable of forming the specific intent necessary to commit first-degree murder, and that the Oklahoma Criminal Court of Appeals’ (“OCCA”) determination that the PTSD evidence was irrelevant was both contrary to and an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law. The State countered that the claims were unexhausted, and therefore Mr. Simpson was barred from presenting the arguments on appeal.

The Court rejected the State’s argument that Mr. Simpson’s PTSD claim was unexhausted, concluding instead that although his claim was now more refined, the core of his argument was the same. However, his argument with respect to the dissociative episodes resulting from his PTSD were new. The Court therefore found that Mr. Simpson had properly exhausted his PTSD argument, but that he had failed to properly preserve his argument concerning his dissociative episodes. Turning to the merits, the Court found that the expert testimony regarding Mr. Simpson’s PTSD diagnosis was devoid of any detail on the impact Mr. Simpson’s PTSD had on his ability to form the intent to kill as well as the interactive effects of PTSD and intoxicants. The Court therefore found that the OCCA was reasonable in its determination that the expert testimony regarding Mr. Simpson’s PTSD was irrelevant.

Mr. Simpson next asserted an alleged Brady violation by the prosecutor’s withholding of impeachment evidence as to a jailhouse informant, which he argued was critical to support the Continuing Threat Aggravator. The OCCA had ruled Mr. Simpson’s Brady claim had been waived because Mr. Simpson did not present his Brady claim until his second application for post-conviction relief, in violation of state procedural rules.

Focusing on whether Mr. Simpson was prejudiced by the suppressed evidence, the Court found that the State’s other evidence presented at trial was strong enough to support the Continuing Aggravating Threat factor, even without their reliance on the testimony of the jailhouse informant. The Court concluded that there was no reasonable probability that the jury would have returned a different verdict had the testimony been impeached, therefore the evidence was not material under Brady, and Mr. Simpson could not demonstrate prejudice. Accordingly, the Court held Mr. Simpson’s Brady claim was precluded from federal habeas review, as he could not establish both cause and prejudice as necessary to overcome the state procedural bar.    

Mr. Simpson also claimed that the trial court’s jury instructions and the prosecutor’s improper arguments unconstitutionally limited the jury’s consideration of mitigating evidence. The Court rejected Mr. Simpson’s argument as to the jury instructions, citing its decision in Hanson v. Sherrod,which addressed the constitutionality of the same instructions. The Court went on to explain that because the jury instructions permitted the jury to consider mitigating circumstances other than those enumerated for them, there was no reasonable likelihood the jury would have felt precluded from considering other mitigating evidence, and the OCCA was therefore reasonable in its finding of the same.

With respect to the prosecutor’s improper arguments, Mr. Simpson contended that the prosecutor not only argued that the evidence did not sufficiently mitigate the conduct, the prosecutor suggested that the evidence should not be considered by the jury at all, thus unfairly limiting the jury’s consideration of the mitigating evidence offered. While the Court noted that there were significant and troubling prosecutorial comments (and went so far as to chastise the conduct in a related footnote), the Court found the OCCA was reasonable in its decision that the jury was not precluded from considering the evidence offered by Mr. Simpson because of the language of the jury instructions.

Mr. Simpson next claimed that prosecutorial misconduct denied him a fundamentally fair sentencing proceeding. While the Court acknowledged that the prosecutorial statements at issue were improper, the Court relied on the State having presented significant aggravating evidence to conclude that the OCCA acted reasonably in deciding that the prejudicial impact of these comments did not render the sentencing trial fundamentally unfair.

Mr. Simpson also argued that there was insufficient evidence to support the heinous, atrocious, or cruel aggravating factor determination, and the finding was therefore unconstitutional and unreasonable. Although no evidence was presented with respect to how long the victim remained conscious after having been shot or as to whether the victim appeared to be in pain, the Court found that the jury could have reasonably inferred that the victim experienced conscious physical suffering based on the evidence about the victim’s wounds, therefore OCCA was reasonable in deciding there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s finding with respect to the HAC Aggravating factor.

Mr. Simpson also alleged his trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective during both the guilt and sentencing stages of the trial. The Court disagreed, and discussed each instance of alleged ineffective counsel individually. First, with respect to the trial counsel’s alleged failure to investigate and present mitigating evidence, the Court concluded that the State had presented strong evidence in support of the death sentence, and the additional mitigating evidence would have done little if anything to undermine the jury’s findings. Second, the Court found that Mr. Simpson’s trial counsel was not required to request an instruction for second-degree murder, as the offense was not reasonably supported by the evidence. Third, with respect to the trial counsel’s failure to object to improper prosecutorial argument, the Court noted it had already been determined that the prosecutor’s misconduct did not deprive Mr. Simpson of a fundamentally fair sentencing trial, therefore Mr. Simpson could not show that he was actually prejudiced by counsel’s deficient performance. Finally, the Court concluded that the trial counsel did not perform deficiently in failing to object to the jury instruction on mitigation evidence because the mitigation instruction was a correct statement of law. The Court therefore concluded that the OCCA’s adjudication of Mr. Simpson’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim was reasonable.

Mr. Simpson’s final claim was that the cumulative errors in his trial denied him a fundamentally fair trail and sentencing proceeding. Despite the identified errors, the jury was presented with copious amounts of aggravating evidence, overwhelming evidence of guilt, and proper instructions from the trial court. The Court therefore found the OCCA was reasonable in its finding that the cumulative effect of the prosecutorial misconduct and instances of his counsel’s deficient performance was harmless.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Supreme Court’s Complicity Reasoning in Rosemund Does Not Apply to Colorado’s Complicity Statute

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Sandoval on Thursday, November 15, 2018.

Criminal Law—Complicity—Jury Instructions—Demonstrative Evidence—Partial Reconstruction—Prosecutorial Misconduct.

Brown agreed to sell her friend Goggin five pounds of marijuana, which he intended to sell to Sandoval. Brown delivered the marijuana to Goggin and his girlfriend. Sandoval arrived, accompanied by his cousin Palacios. Sandoval, Palacios, and Goggin each had guns, and after a struggle Goggin was fatally shot. Palacios grabbed the marijuana and ran to the vehicle outside where Sandoval was waiting. Sandoval was found guilty of one count of murder in the first degree, one count of aggravated robbery, two counts of accessory to crime, and one count of felony menacing.

On appeal, Sandoval contended that the trial court violated his constitutional right to due process when it declined to instruct the jury in accordance with Rosemond v. United States, 572 U.S. 65 (2014), that an alleged felony murder complicitor must know in advance of the occurrence of the predicate felony that another participant intends to commit. Sandoval alleged that, because he was unaware of his cousin’s intent to rob and kill Goggin before the crimes occurred, he was not guilty of robbery and felony murder. However, Rosemond relied on language in the federal aiding and abetting statute that is not present in Colorado’s complicity statute; thus Rosemond does not apply to Colorado’s complicity statute, and Sandoval’s due process rights were not violated.

Sandoval also asserted that the trial court violated his constitutional rights to a fair trial and impartial jury when it allowed the prosecutor to use a partial reconstruction of the crime scene as a demonstrative aid to assist witnesses in explaining their testimony. Here, (1) the partial reconstruction was authenticated by the prosecution’s criminalist; (2) the demonstrative aid was relevant because it assisted the jury in understanding Brown’s testimony; and (3) though the prosecution conceded that there were discrepancies in the partial reconstruction, those discrepancies were disclosed to the jury and Sandoval had an opportunity to cross-examine the prosecution’s criminalist about them. Thus, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in determining that the reconstruction was a fair and accurate representation of the crime scene. Further, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in finding that the probative value of the partial reconstruction was not substantially outweighed by its danger of unfair prejudice. Sandoval’s rights were not violated.

Sandoval further alleged that the prosecutor committed misconduct by misstating the law of complicity as well as key evidence to undermine the defense. The prosecutor’s statements were fairly based on the evidence presented and the inferences drawn were not inappropriate. There was not improper conduct that would warrant reversal.

The judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Error in Denying Defendant His Tendered Self-Defense Instruction Not Harmless

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Koper on Thursday, September 20, 2018.

Criminal Law—Jury Instructions—Self-Defense—Transferred Intent—Affirmative Defense—Prosecutorial Misconduct.

While at a bar, defendant said something to Abram’s sister that offended Abram. Defendant tried to make amends by offering Abram a beer. Abram responded by punching defendant twice in the face. Defendant then drew his firearm, for which he had a concealed carry permit, and aimed it at Abram. After a short standoff, defendant handed the gun to his fiancée and the two left the bar. A jury found defendant guilty of two counts of felony menacing and prohibited possession of a firearm. The first count of felony menacing named the alleged victim as a security guard who had stepped between defendant and Abram after defendant drew his weapon; the second count named the alleged victim as another bar patron who had been sitting near Abram.

On appeal, defendant contended that the trial court erred in rejecting his jury instructions on the affirmative defense of self-defense. Here, defendant raised credible evidence that he acted in self-defense against Abram. Defendant’s intent to defend himself against Abram would, if the jury believed his testimony, allow the intent as to Abram to transfer to the encounter with the alleged victims. Thus, the trial court erred in rejecting defendant’s jury instructions on self-defense as an affirmative defense to the menacing charges. Further, the error was not harmless because while the defense’s theory of the case instruction referred generally to self-defense, the instruction did not require the prosecution to disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.

Defendant also contended that prosecutorial misconduct required reversal of his conviction for possession of a firearm while intoxicated. Here, the prosecutor asked defendant 44 times whether another witness’s testimony was incorrect, wrong, or untrue, or whether the witness had lied; this went beyond asking non-prejudicial questions designed to highlight discrepancies in the evidence. The error was plain and warranted reversal.

The judgment was reversed and the case was remanded for a new trial on all charges.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Person Acting in Self-Defense Has No Duty to Retreat

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Monroe on Thursday, August 8, 2018.

Criminal Law—Self-Defense—Duty to Retreat—Jury Instructions—Prosecutorial Misconduct.

Monroe boarded a city bus and sat down next to Faulkenberry. The two almost immediately began to argue. Eight to 10 minutes after the dispute began, Monroe stabbed Faulkenberry in the neck. At trial, Monroe did not testify, but her counsel asserted that Monroe had been acting in self-defense. During closing and rebuttal arguments, the prosecution made several references to Monroe’s ability to retreat from the situation. Defense counsel’s objections to these statements were overruled. The jury was formally instructed regarding the duty to retreat. Monroe was convicted of attempted first degree murder and first degree assault. The trial court adjudicated her a habitual criminal and sentenced her to concurrent prison terms of 96 years on the attempted murder count and 48 years on the assault count.

On appeal, Monroe argued that the trial court committed reversible error when it permitted the prosecution to argue that the jury should consider Monroe’s failure to retreat when deciding whether she had acted in self-defense. A person who reasonably perceives an imminent use of unlawful physical force by another may use force in defending himself or herself without first retreating and does not have to consider whether a reasonable person in the situation would choose to retreat rather than to resort to physical force in defense. Here, the prosecution raised the issue of the availability of retreat five times during its closing and rebuttal arguments, and the prosecution’s argument inappropriately imposed a duty to retreat. The trial court permitted the jury to believe that it could consider whether a reasonable person would have retreated, in direct contravention of its instruction that no such duty exists. Thus, the trial court abused its discretion. Further, although the court and the prosecutors themselves repeatedly stated that Monroe had no duty to retreat, there was a reasonable probability that the jury was misled and that the misleading arguments contributed to the verdict, so the error was not harmless.

The judgment was reversed and the case was remanded for a new trial.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Prosecutor’s Use of Partially Completed Puzzle to Illustrate Reasonable Doubt was Misconduct

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Van Meter on Thursday, February 8, 2018.

Criminal Law—Possession of a Weapon by a Previous Offender—Reasonable Doubt—Mistrial—Prosecutorial Misconduct—Jury Instruction—Possession—Evidence.

Van Meter pleaded guilty to multiple crimes and served time in the Department of Corrections’ custody. After Van Meter was released on parole, his employer told Van Meter’s parole officer that Van Meter had a gun in his car and was possibly using heroin and stealing from customers. When Van Meter arrived at work he was arrested, and officers found a loaded semi-automatic handgun inside a toolbox in the trunk of his car. A jury found Van Meter guilty of possession of a weapon by a previous offender (POWPO).

On appeal, Van Meter argued that the trial court reversibly erred in failing to declare a mistrial after a prospective juror stated in front of the panel that he was aware of the underlying case because he was a deputy sheriff and had transported Van Meter to court. The record supports the trial court’s determination that the challenged comments did not taint the entire panel because they did not necessarily imply that the deputy sheriff transported Van Meter to court for the underlying case rather than a previous case, and the POWPO charge required the jury to learn that Van Meter had a prior felony conviction. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in declining to declare a mistrial.

Van Meter next asserted that the trial court reversibly erred by allowing the prosecutor to show the jury a picture of a partially completed puzzle of an iconic and easily recognizable space shuttle image to explain the concept of reasonable doubt. There was no contemporaneous objection. The challenged behavior constituted prosecutorial misconduct. However, because all the elements of the POWPO charge were clearly proven, and the error was neither obvious nor substantial, the trial court did not plainly err in allowing the prosecutor’s improper conduct.

Van Meter also argued that the trial court erroneously instructed the jury on the definition of “possession” in the context of the POWPO charge. The trial court gave the definition of “possession” from the new criminal jury instructions, and defense counsel affirmatively declined to object to the challenged instruction three times. The challenged instruction was not incorrect or otherwise confusing to the extent that it constituted plain error.

Van Meter next contended that the trial court reversibly erred in allowing evidence that the gun found in his vehicle was stolen and that Van Meter was allegedly using illicit drugs. Here, defense counsel offered no contemporaneous objections and strategically chose to elicit CRE 404(b) evidence, and there was overwhelming evidence of Van Meter’s guilt. Any error in allowing the challenged evidence did not rise to the level of plain error.

The judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Prosecutor’s Racially Charged Statements Necessitate Reversal

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Robinson on Thursday, October 19, 2017.

Sexual Assault—Prosecutorial Misconduct—Racial Prejudice—Evidence.

Robinson was charged with multiple counts of sexual assault, attempted sexual assault, and unlawful sexual contact. During opening statement in his criminal prosecution, the prosecutor described the incidents to the jury using race-based statements. Defense counsel did not object and the trial court did not admonish the prosecutor or instruct the jury to disregard the prosecutor’s statements. The jury convicted Robinson of two counts of unlawful sexual contact and two counts of the lesser included offense of attempted sexual assault. The trial court sentenced Robinson under the Sex Offender Lifetime Supervision Act to four years to life imprisonment.

On appeal, Robinson argued that the prosecutor’s description of “a dark penis going into a white body” during opening statement constituted prosecutorial misconduct amounting to plain error, requiring reversal of his convictions. Viewed objectively, the prosecutor’s opening statement, by its words and in the context it was presented to the jury, was an appeal to racial prejudice and improper. The statements cast serious doubt on the reliability of Robinson’s convictions.

Robinson also argued that the prosecutor engaged in misconduct when she implied that Robinson was unfaithful to his girlfriend. The nature of Robinson’s relationship with the woman with whom he lived, and whether he might have been unfaithful to her, was irrelevant.

The judgment was reversed and the case was remanded for a new trial.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Multiple Errors from Prosecutorial Overreach Did Not Influence Outcome of Trial

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Howard-Walker on Thursday, June 15, 2017.

Batson Challenges—Peremptory Strikes—Jurors—Testimony—Expert Opinion—Lay Witness—Prosecutorial Misconduct—Jury Instructions—Cumulative Error Doctrine.

Defendant was charged with first degree burglary and conspiracy to commit first degree burglary. Among other evidence presented, his girlfriend and Detective Garcia testified at his trial. He was convicted as charged and sentenced.

On appeal, defendant contended that the trial court erred when it denied his challenges, under Batson v. Kentucky, to the prosecutor’s peremptory strikes excusing three prospective jurors—one who identified himself as African-American and two who identified themselves as Hispanic—asserting that the prosecutor’s “race-neutral” reasons for removing the jurors were not worthy of belief. One challenged juror was disinterested, the second juror had a negative experience with law enforcement and a belief that police officers sometimes misidentify suspects, and the third juror had previously faced criminal charges from the same district attorney’s office and had a negative view of law enforcement. Therefore, the trial court’s Batson findings are supported by the record.

Defendant next argued that the admission of several portions of Garcia’s testimony constituted reversible error: (1) Garcia was not admitted as an expert witness, but gave opinions regarding whether the gun depicted in the video surveillance was real. Although this was improper, it did not constitute plain error. (2) Garcia testified about the manner in which the gun was being used. Any error in admitting this testimony was harmless. (3) It was not error for Garcia to identify defendant. No specialized knowledge is necessary to recognize an individual in a video and this evidence was probative of a material fact. (4) Garcia testified regarding probable cause, which was not relevant; however, this was not plain error. (5) Garcia testified but had no personal information about the reasons why defendant’s girlfriend was crying during the police interview. This testimony was not obviously improper and did not undermine the fairness of the trial. (6) Garcia opined about defendant’s statement regarding another perpetrator. Even if this was improper, it did not undermine the fundamental fairness of the trial. (7) Garcia opined about the truthfulness of defendant’s statements to police. Though this testimony was improper, it does not rise to the level of plain error because there was other sufficient evidence to support his conviction.

Defendant next asserted that the prosecutor engaged in reversible misconduct. Although the prosecutor stepped over the line when he repeatedly suggested that the girlfriend was committing perjury, the prosecutor did not threaten or coerce her, and any misconduct was not reversible. The prosecutor also commented on the girlfriend’s truthfulness. The evidence supported a reasonable inference that her testimony was false, and thus these comments were proper. Finally, although the court did not condone the prosecutor’s comment on defendant’s decision not to testify, the comment did not amount to plain error.

Defendant further argued that the trial court erred when it failed to instruct the jury on the predicate crime of theft and when it failed to define the word “intent.” While the jury instructions were deficient, (1) the record demonstrates that the specification of the underlying crime was not a controverted element of the burglary offense; therefore, the court’s failure to instruct the jury on theft was not plain error, and (2) under the circumstances of this case, the court’s failure to define the culpable mental state similarly did not constitute plain error.

Finally, defendant argued that the cumulative effect of the trial court’s errors and prosecutorial misconduct violated his right to a fair trial. The errors were relatively small events occurring over a two-day trial during which substantial evidence was presented. Defendant received a fair trial in spite of the identified errors.

The judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Prosecutorial Misconduct Not Intended to Provoke Mistrial

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. August on Thursday, April 21, 2016.

Double Jeopardy—Prosecution Intentionally Seeking a Mistrial.

Defendant was tried twice on charges of kidnapping and sexual assault of his former wife. The first trial was declared a mistrial and the charges were dismissed on federal double jeopardy grounds based on a finding that the prosecution had willfully violated a court order. On appeal, a division of the court of appeals concluded that the reprosecution would only be barred if the prosecutor had acted with the intent to provoke a mistrial, and the case was remanded with directions to make findings on this issue. On remand, the trial court found that the prosecutor had not intended to provoke defendant into moving for a mistrial, denied defendant’s motion to dismiss the charges, and held a second trial.

At the second trial the defense objected to the prosecution’s closing statement referencing a prior assault and remark that “history repeats itself” as an impermissible reference to propensity. The court agreed with the defense, declared a mistrial, and heard argument as to whether the charges should be dismissed under the double jeopardy provisions of the U.S. and Colorado constitutions. The trial court dismissed the charges on double jeopardy grounds, finding that the prosecutor had willfully goaded the defense into asking for a mistrial in order to try the case a third time and benefit from the experience of the second trial’s weaknesses.

On appeal, the People argued that the trial court erred. The court agreed, finding that the state and federal standard on this issue is the same: a retrial is barred only if prosecutorial misconduct giving rise to the mistrial was intended to provoke the defense into moving for a mistrial. Double jeopardy bars retrial in the mistrial context only where the prosecutor’s intent is to avoid a jury verdict. In evaluating the prosecutor’s conduct, the trial court used an improper legal standard and may not have considered the totality of the circumstances surrounding the prosecutor’s conduct.

The order of dismissal was vacated and the case was remanded to the trial court for reconsideration of its ruling and further findings of fact consistent with the court’s opinion.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Prosecutor “Channeling” Victim in Opening Statement was Error but Not Plain

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Manyik on Thursday, March 24, 2016.

Prosecutorial Misconduct—Amended Information—Crim.P. 7(e)—Jury Instruction—Mistaken Belief—Hearsay.

Adams was romantically involved with Manyik and lived in his house. Adams remained in contact and continued to socialize with the victim, with whom she previously had been in a relationship. Adams invited the victim to Manyik’s house and told victim that Manyik was out of town on a hunting trip. When the victim arrived, Manyik shot and killed him.

Manyik was convicted of second-degree murder, aggravated robbery, and tampering with physical evidence.

Manyik raised five arguments on appeal. First, he argued that the prosecutor’s “channeling” (a technique by which a lawyer speaks to the jury in the first person as though he is the injured or deceased person) constituted prosecutorial misconduct and required reversal of his convictions. Although the prosecutor’s opening statement was impermissible, under the limited circumstances of this case it was not plain error and did not require reversal of Manyik’s convictions.

Second, Manyik argued that the trial court erred in allowing the prosecution to amend the aggravated robbery charge during trial. Because the amended information charged a different offense and subjected Manyik to mandatory sentencing for a crime of violence, while the original charge did not, Crim.P. 7(e) precluded the amendment. Manyik’s conviction for aggravated robbery was reversed and the case was remanded for a new trial on that charge.

Third, Manyik argued that the court erred in rejecting his tendered jury instruction about evaluating statements he made to police officers. The tendered instruction emphasized only selective evidence that was favorable to Manyik and thus was improper. The trial court did not err in rejecting Manyik’s proposed jury instruction on this issue.

Fourth, Manyik contended that the court’s jury instruction on the defense of mistaken belief of fact was incorrect. The language of the instruction given was almost identical to that in the relevant statute, CRS § 18-1- 504(1)(c). Additionally, defense counsel’s argument about Manyik’s mistaken belief made the jury aware of his mistake of fact defense. Therefore, the given instruction was proper.

Lastly, Manyik argued that the court erred in excluding evidence of recorded statements he made during telephone conversations with family members when he was at the police station. Because the statements contained impermissible hearsay, the court did not err in excluding them.

The judgment was affirmed in part and reversed in part, and the case was remanded with directions.

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

Colorado Court of Appeals: Prosecution Not Entitled to Withdraw from Plea Bargain Regardless of Prosecutorial Misconduct

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Mazzarelli on Thursday, March 10, 2016.

Mazzarelli was charged with child abuse in violation of C.R.S. § 18-6-401(1)(a), a class 3 felony, but entered into a plea agreement in which he agreed to plead guilty to a reduced charge of class 4 felony child abuse in exchange for a stipulated sentencing range of 2 to 8 years. The trial court accepted the plea agreement at the initial hearing but delayed sentencing until it could review the presentence report.

At the next hearing, the prosecution proposed a five-year sentence, arguing that the defendant was unemployed and was playing video games when the incident in question occurred. The trial judge, who was also presiding over the accompanying dependency and neglect proceeding, informed the prosecution that it disliked the sentence because the father’s incarceration would not be in the child’s best interest, further saying he was not going to accept the plea agreement. The judge offered the parties a chance to withdraw the agreement at that time.

After that hearing, Mazzarelli filed a motion for a special prosecutor due to “blatantly false statements” made by the People. At the third hearing, the People clarified the misstatements, saying that defendant had been employed when the abuse occurred and was not playing video games as they had previously represented. The People requested to withdraw the plea agreement and set the case for trial, but the trial court denied the request and sentenced Mazzarelli to 36 months supervised probation.

The People appealed, contending the trial court should be bound by the plea agreement because it did not inform the parties that it was not inclined to accept the proposed sentencing, and that the court erred when it found prosecutorial misconduct and would not allow the People to withdraw from the plea agreement. The court of appeals disagreed with the People’s arguments but did not address the prosecutorial misconduct issue because the People had no right to withdraw from the plea agreement, further finding that the trial court had decided not to sentence the defendant pursuant to the plea agreement prior to having knowledge of the prosecutorial misconduct.

The court of appeals affirmed.

Tenth Circuit: Excessive Force Claim Does Not Require Showing of More than De Minimus Injury

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Rodella on Wednesday, November 4, 2015.

Michael Tafoya was driving home from his grandfather’s house in rural Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, when a green Jeep began tailgating him and flashing its headlights. Tafoya stepped on his brakes to try to get the Jeep to back off, and flipped off the driver of the Jeep through his back window, but the Jeep continued to tailgate him. Eventually, he found a place to pull over and allowed the Jeep to pass. When it sped past him, Tafoya again flipped off the driver. The Jeep slammed on its brakes and rapidly reversed back to where Tafoya was stopped. Two men got out of the Jeep: defendant Thomas Rodella, who was the passenger, and his son, Thomas Rodella Jr., who was the driver. The two men approached Tafoya and urged him to “come on.” Although Rodella was the acting sheriff of Rio Arriba County, at no point did he identify himself as a law enforcement officer.

Tafoya, believing the men wanted to fight him, sped off, followed by the Jeep. Tafoya became scared and began driving 60 to 65 miles per hour down the road, despite the 35 mph posted speed limit. He tried to plan a route to reverse his course but missed his turn. Panicked, he yelled out the window at a passing jogger to call the police. Tafoya turned into a nearby driveway, and the Jeep quickly followed. Tafoya reversed, trying to evade the Jeep, but crashed into a metal pole in the middle of the driveway. His vehicle became stuck.

Rodella jumped out of the passenger side of the Jeep and tried to get into the driver’s side. When that failed, he successfully entered the passenger side with a shiny silver firearm in his hand, later confirmed to be a .38 special revolver. Rodella tried to turn the gun toward Tafoya, who grabbed at his wrists, begging, “Please don’t kill me!” Rodella responded by saying, “It’s too late, it’s too late.” As the two struggled, Rodella Jr. approached the vehicle and pulled Tafoya out. Tafoya struggled to get up, continuing to say “Please don’t kill me.” As Rodella Jr. held him down, he told Tafoya that his dad was the sheriff. Tafoya reported that he froze in shock, and eventually calmly asked Rodella to show him his badge in order to confirm he was the sheriff. Rodella said, “You want to see my badge?,” grabbed Tafoya by the hair, and smacked him across the face with his badge, saying “Here’s my badge, motherfucker.”

Tafoya remained on the ground for several minutes until deputies from the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office arrived on the scene. The deputies were contacted by Rodella directly during the chase; he did not report the chase to dispatch. The deputies took Tafoya to his car, frisked him, and transported him to the jail. Although Tafoya attempted repeatedly to explain what happened, they did not listen, and eventually charged him with a felony offense. Tafoya remained in jail for several days until his grandfather bailed him out. The criminal charges against Tafoya were eventually dismissed, and Tafoya contacted the FBI to report what had happened to him.

In August 2014, a federal grand jury indicted Rodella on four counts: conspiring with his son to violate Tafoya’s constitutional rights against unreasonable seizures, depriving Tafoya of his civil rights, brandishing a firearm in the commission of that offense, and falsifying a document because of his official written report documenting what happened before and during the arrest of Tafoya. In September 2014, the grand jury returned a superseding indictment charging two offenses: deprivation of Tafoya’s constitutional right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures by a law enforcement officer and brandishing a firearm duing the commission of that offense. Rodella proceeded to trial, and the jury found him guilty on both counts. He was sentenced to a total term of imprisonment of 121 months. He appealed.

On appeal, Rodella argued the evidence was insufficient to show that he had subjected Tafoya to a deprivation of rights while under color of law. The government presented two theories to show Rodella’s violation of 18 U.S.C. § 242: that Rodella unlawfully arrested Tafoya, and that he used unreasonable force in the course of arresting Tafoya. The jury accepted the government’s theory on both counts. Considering the unreasonable force theory, the jury found beyond a reasonable doubt that Rodella used or threatened to use a dangerous weapon, but not that he caused serious bodily injury. Rodella challenged both theories of liability on appeal.

The Tenth Circuit initially noted that Rodella failed to preserve his argument that Tafoya was committing certain traffic infractions, thus supplying reasonable cause to stop him. The Tenth Circuit further noted that, because Rodella did not testify in his defense, the jury could only evaluate the testimony of the other eyewitnesses: Tafoya, Rodella Jr., and Mark Thompson, the owner of the property where Tafoya crashed his car. Thompson’s testimony generally supported Tafoya’s, and although Rodella Jr.’s testimony was dramatically different, the jury could have reasonably found it was not credible. Additionally, because Rodella was not in uniform, he could not have arrested Tafoya for the traffic offenses under New Mexico law. The Tenth Circuit found the evidence sufficient to support the unlawful arrest charge.

Next, the Tenth Circuit examined Rodella’s challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the excessive force claim. Rodella based his challenge on a Tenth Circuit opinion that an excessive force claim in the context of handcuffing too tightly requires more than a de minimus injury. The Tenth Circuit noted that the holding on which Rodella relied was limited to handcuffing injuries, and also that the Supreme Court rejected the theory that more than a de minimus injury was required to support an excessive force claim. The Tenth Circuit rejected Rodella’s claim that more than a de minimus injury was required to support excessive force and therefore concluded the evidence was sufficient for Tafoya’s excessive force claim. Rodella also argued that he was deprived of his Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights when the jury was not instructed that excessive force requires more than a de minimus injury, which the Tenth Circuit similarly rejected.

Next, Rodella argued the district court erred in admitting evidence of three similar incidents in which he was involved. Prior to trial, the government had filed a motion in limine, seeking to introduce evidence of the three similar incidents pursuant to FRE 404(b) to show motive, intent, plan, knowledge, absence of mistake, and lack of accident, listing specifically what the government thought the evidence would show. The district court granted the government’s motion on the eve of trial. To reduce the risk of prejudice, the court ordered the government to instruct the jury specifically for what purpose the evidence was admitted. The Tenth Circuit rejected Rodella’s argument that the evidence tended to make propensity-based inferences in order to show willfulness. The Tenth Circuit found that the evidence had significant probative value and was not unfairly prejudicial.

Rodella similarly argued the prosecution committed misconduct when it improperly referenced his other bad acts during closing argument, pointing to eight specific statements. The Tenth Circuit evaluated each statement separately. As to the statements that contrasted the personalities of Rodella and Tafoya, the Tenth Circuit found no misconduct. The Tenth Circuit also found no prejudice in the prosecutor’s statement that Rodella’s tailgating of Tafoya was “familiar,” considering the other similar incidents. The Tenth Circuit similarly found the prosecutor’s mention of the other three incidents acceptable three other times. As for the government’s mention of the emotional distress suffered by one of the other victims, the Tenth Circuit found no error because the government’s evidence was sufficient to establish that Tafoya experienced emotional distress from the incident. Finally, the Tenth Circuit found the last statement proper because it asked the jury to infer from the totality of the circumstances that Rodella had acted willfully.

The Tenth Circuit also rejected Rodella’s claim that the admission of evidence on officer training was an abuse of discretion, noting that the evidence showed that Rodella knew his conduct was illegal. The Tenth Circuit also addressed Rodella’s cumulative error claim, finding that it only had accepted one instance of prosecutorial misconduct as potentially erroneous and that was not enough to prove cumulative error.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court.