Monthly Archives: November 2016

ACLU Proposes New Jury Selection Court Rule

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The Washington Supreme Court is considering a new court rule which would effectively end racial bias in jury selection.

Proposed General Rule 36 (“GR 36”) is proposed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and is meant to protect Washington jury trials from intentional or unintentional, unconscious, or institutional bias in the empanelment of juries.

BACKGROUND 

In State v. Saintcalle, the Washington State Supreme Court expressed concerns that the federal Batson v. Kentucky test fails to protect potential minority jurors from racial bias during jury selection; specifically, the Prosecutor’s use of peremptory challenges to strike them.

The ACLU believes, however, that Batson has failed to adequately protect potential jurors and the justice system from biased use of peremptories. In proposing its new rule, the ACLU deftly cites and relies upon State v. Saintcalle, a Washington State Supreme Court case which admits that Batson was failing to end racial discrimination in jury selection. The  Saintcalle Court recognized there was ample data demonstrating that racial bias in the jury selection process remained “rampant”:

“Twenty-six years after Batson, a growing body of evidence shows that racial discrimination remains rampant in jury selection.  In part, this is because Batson recognizes only “purposeful discrimination,” whereas racism is often unintentional, institutional, or unconscious. We conclude that our Batson procedures must change and that we must strengthen Batson to recognize these more prevalent forms of discrimination.”

Saintcalle, 178 Wn.2d at 36.

In addition to the WA Supreme Court’s Saintcalle, the ACLU also argues that legal scholars have also long noted Batson’s failure to effectively eradicate discrimination in peremptory challenges.

THE “OBJECTIVE-OBSERVER” STANDARD

The ACLU proposes that GR 36 addresses this problem by employing a test that utilizes an objective-observer standard.  Apparently, the trial court would invalidate a peremptory strike if an objective observer could find that race or ethnicity was a factor for a peremptory challenge.  GR 36 also gives trial courts the necessary latitude to protect the justice system from bias by granting courts the freedom to raise objections to a peremptory strike sua sponte.  It would also bring greater diversity to juries, so that juries in Washington are more representative of the communities they serve.[12]  The rule would also improve the appearance of fairness and promote the administration of justice.

My opinion? I hope GR 36 passes. The Washington State Supreme Court has the flexibility to “extend greater-than-federal Batson protections” through its rule-making authority. Also, other states have adopted court rules dealing with the Batson issue.

GR 36 preserves the use of peremptory challenges as part of the right to a jury trial while at the same time addressing racial bias in jury selection.  Thankfully, the rule also provides guidance to the judiciary and attorneys about how to apply the rule. By adopting this rule, Washington will ensure that its justice system is not improperly tainted by bias, protect Washingtonians from discrimination, ensure diversity in juries, and address systemic, institutional, and unintentional racism in jury selection.

Exonerations On the Rise

 

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News reporters Alanna Durkin Richer  and Curt Anderson of the Associated Press wrote an article describing how last year, 68 out of 157 exonerations were cases in which the defendant pleaded guilty. In Trial or Deal? Some Driven to Plead Guilty, Later Exonerated the article describes the difficult dilemma of many defendants in the criminal justice system: either accept the Prosecutor’s plea offer or risk facing much harsher consequences if found guilty at trial.

Apparently, more than 300 of the more than 1,900 people who have been exonerated in the U.S. since 1989 pleaded guilty, according to an estimate by the National Registry of Exonerations. The registry is maintained by the University of Michigan Law School using public information, such as court documents and news articles.

Last year, 68 out of 157 exonerations were cases in which the defendant pleaded guilty, more than any previous year. The numbers reflect an overwhelmed criminal justice system with public defenders taking more cases than they can handle; as well as court officials who try saving the government money with plea bargains compared with costly trials.

The data is even more daunting. Last year, more than 97 percent of criminal defendants sentenced in federal court pleaded guilty compared with about 85 percent more than 30 years ago, according to data collected by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. The increase in guilty pleas has been a gradual rise over the last three decades.

No one knows exactly how many innocent people are behind bars for pleading guilty. Sociologists have estimated that between 2 and 8 percent of people who plead guilty are in fact innocent.

The article emphasized how defendants who were exonerated after pleading guilty often have prior criminal records and come from poor backgrounds and are not well-educated. They’re typically represented by public defenders juggling dozens of cases in a day.

Many exonerees were cleared of wrongdoing by taking a new look at DNA evidence in blood or other body fluids, according to the University of Michigan database. Some were the victims of prosecutorial misconduct, while shoddy police work was to blame in other cases — such as a mistaken FBI hair analysis or falsified fingerprint evidence. Some falsely confessed because of improper interrogation techniques while others maintained their innocence throughout.

Making the matter worse, it’s not just prosecutors and defense attorneys who seek to cut plea deals. The article said many judges prefer that route, too. Judges who resolve cases rather than let them languish tend to be seen as more successful. Similarly, explained the article, prosecutors who close cases tend to rise faster in their careers.

My opinion? People facing criminal charges MUST seek experienced defense counsel to defend their rights, investigate the facts, interview witnesses, argue pretrial motions, put their clients in the best light possible and conduct an active; fair trial when necessary.

Contact my office as soon as possible if you, a friend or family member is facing criminal charges. The epidemic of increased exonerations due to injustice in our courts as well as our incoming administration’s trampling of individual rights shows a growing need for competent representation. Put simply, defendants should not plead guilty to criminal charges they are not guilty of.

Criminalizing “Illegal Protests”

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The Bellingham Herald reported that Senator Doug Ericksen of Ferndale, a Republican state senator who campaigned for President-elect Donald Trump, wants to propose a bill that criminalizes what he calls “illegal protests.”

In short, his bill would create a new crime of “economic terrorism” and would allow felony prosecution of people involved in protests that block transportation and commerce, damage property, threaten jobs and put public safety at risk.

Erickson said his bill also would apply to people who fund and organize such protests. “We are not just going after the people who commit these acts of terrorism,” Ericksen said. “We are going after the people who fund them.”

American Civil Liberties Union of Washington spokesman Doug Honig told The Associated Press Wednesday that while they’ll need to see an actual bill, Ericksen’s statement throws out a lot of broad rhetoric. Honig said the following:

“We’re already concerned that some of its loose terms appear to be targeting civil disobedience as ‘terrorism.’ That’s the kind of excessive approach to peaceful protest that our country and state do not need. Let’s keep in mind that civil rights protesters who sat down at lunch counters could be seen as ‘disrupting business’ “and ‘obstructing economic activity,’ and their courageous actions were opposed by segregationists as trying to ‘coerce’ business and government.”

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My opinion? Yes, protest is ugly. It’s loud. It’s inconvenient. And it’s American. Fundamentally American. As in, First Amendment American. It’s no secret that the First Amendment plays a large role in enabling robust public political discussion. In particular, expressive freedom can help to generate dynamic political change.

True, there are exceptions to the general protections to the First Amendment; including the Miller test for obscenity, child pornography laws, speech that incites imminent lawless action, and regulation of commercial speech such as advertising.

Despite the exceptions, however, the legal protections of the First Amendment are some of the broadest of any industrialized nation, and remain a critical, and occasionally controversial, component of American jurisprudence.

Erickson’s “economic terrorism” bill is problematic. It attempts to solve little more than a perceived threat and ultimately criminalizes liberty. If proposed and passed through the GOP-controlled Senate, it would likely would face serious obstacles in the current Democratic-controlled House. Even if the bill is passed and made into statute, it would immediately face constitutional challenges as being overly broad and/or facially invalid as applied.

Please contact my office if your friends or family are charged with crimes related to the exercise of their rights to publicly protest. I’m honored to represent clients who face criminal charges for essentially exercising their First Amendment rights. These prosecutions should be dismissed, debunked and exposed.

Trump On Crime.

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Like it or not, Donald Trump won.

Criminal defense attorneys serving their clients must survey the aftermath and ponder how Mr. Trump’s administration approaches issues of criminal justice. What is Trump’s stance on the “War on Drugs?” How does his stance embrace the growing legalization of marijuana among the States? How does Mr. Trump view the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unlawful searches and seizures? How does Trump view the discord between police and communities of color? Will Trump’s administration seek the immediate deportation of illegal immigrants who commit crimes? How does he feel about the death penalty? These issues – and many others – affect many defendants facing criminal charges.

If the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, we look no further than Mr. Trump’s comments over the years; especially his comments during his campaign.

THE WAR ON DRUGS: 1990 & 2015

In 1990, Trump argued that the only way to win the War on Drugs was to legalize drugs and use the tax revenue to fund drug education programs. As he put it, “You have to take the profit away from these drug czars.” In his 2000 book,The America We Deserve, he stated that he’d never tried drugs “of any kind.”

Fast-forward 25 years, and now Trump is opposed to legalization. “I say it’s bad,” he told the crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference in June, in response to a question about Colorado’s legal weed. “Medical marijuana is another thing, but I think recreational marijuana is bad. And I feel strongly about that.” Regarding states’ rights, Trump said, “If they vote for it, they vote for it. But they’ve got a lot of problems going on right now, in Colorado. Some big problems. But I think medical marijuana, 100 percent.”

Source: On the Issues: Donald Trump on Drugs.

Apparently, Trump opposes recreational marijuana and endorses medical marijuana. Unfortunately, his stances can become problematic for states like Washington, Colorado and a handful of others which have already passed initiatives allowing its citizens to possess small amounts of marijuana for recreational purposes. Will Trump’s administration reverse these State initiatives? Will Trump’s administration violate federal court opinions which have slowly de-prioritized federal prosecutions of marijuana cases in states which have legalized marijuana? How will drug prosecutions and/or convictions under Trump’s administration affect citizens receiving federal benefits to include welfare, social security and financial aid?

Only time will tell.

CRIME, THE 4TH AMENDMENT AND THE RACIAL DIVIDE BETWEEN POLICE AND COMMUNITIES OF COLOR.

Trump’s recent comments at the First Presidential Debate at Hofstra University, Sept. 26, 2016, moderated by Lester Holt of NBC News gives telling insights on these issues.

Q: What should be done about crime?

TRUMP: “Stop and frisk worked very well in New York. It brought the crime rate way down. You take the gun away from criminals that shouldn’t be having it. We have gangs roaming the street. And in many cases, they’re illegal immigrants. And they have guns. And they shoot people. And we have to be very vigilant. Right now, our police, in many cases, are afraid to do anything. We have to protect our inner cities, because African-American communities are being decimated by crime.”

Q: “Stop-and-frisk was ruled unconstitutional in New York, because it largely singled out black and Hispanic young men.”

TRUMP: “No, you’re wrong. Our new mayor refused to go forward with the case. They would have won on appeal. There are many places where it’s allowed.”

Q: “The argument is that it’s a form of racial profiling.”

TRUMP: “No, the argument is that we have to take the guns away from bad people that shouldn’t have them. You have to have stop-and-frisk.”

Some background information and “fact-checking” is necessary to understand this discussion.

Recently, in Floyd v. City of New York, U.S. District Court Judge Shira A. Scheindlin ruled that New York City police violated the U.S. Constitution in the way that it carried out its stop-and-frisk program, calling it “a form of racial profiling” of young black and Hispanic men. Apparently, there were 4.4 million stops made by New York City police between January 2004 and June 2012, and 83 percent of them were made of blacks and Hispanics — even though those racial groups represented 52 percent of the city’s population in 2010.

During trial, Judge Scheindlin found that 14 of the 19 stops constituted an unconstitutional stop or unconstitutional frisk. Ultimately, Judge Scheindin found the NYPD’s execution of its stop and frisk policy was unconstitutional.

My opinion?  Sure, most would agree we want guns and criminals off our streets. However, if stop and frisk policies involve systematically targeting certain racial groups, then these policies are simply unlawful. Period. Given his statements during the debates, I fear Trump’s administration may create, endorse and execute criminal justice policies which ultimately violate Fourth Amendment protections against unlawful searches and seizure.

2. How do you heal the racial divide?

TRUMP: “We need law and order. If we don’t have it, we’re not going to have a country. I just got today the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police. We have endorsements from almost every police group, a large percentage of them in the US. We have a situation where we have our inner cities, African- Americans, Hispanics are living in he’ll because it’s so dangerous. You walk down the street, you get shot.”

3. Do you see a crisis in the US of white police officers shooting unarmed blacks?

TRUMP: “It’s a massive crisis. It’s a double crisis. I look at these things, I see them on television. And some horrible mistakes are made. But at the same time, we have to give power back to the police because crime is rampant. I believe very strongly that we need police. Cities need strong police protection. But officers’ jobs are being taken away from them. And there’s no question about it, there is turmoil in our country on both sides.”

4. Do you understand why African Americans don’t trust the police right now?

TRUMP: “Well, I can certainly see it when I see what’s going on. But at the same time, we have to give power back to the police because we have to have law and order. And you’re always going to have mistakes made. And you’re always going to have bad apples. But you can’t let that stop the fact that police have to regain control of this tremendous crime wave that’s hitting the US.”

THE SUPREME COURT

According to Politico Magazine, Trump will probably pick ultra-conservative judges to fill anticipated vacancies in the United States Supreme Court. In an article titled, “How President Trump Could Reshape the Supreme Court – and the Country,” reporter Jeffrey Rosen surmises that Trump’s lasting legacy could be his power to shape the Supreme Court.

Apparently, during the third presidential debate, Trump described the 21 judicial candidates he has identified:

“They will be pro-life. They will have a conservative bent. They will be protecting the Second Amendment. They are great scholars in all cases, and they’re people of tremendous respect. They will interpret the Constitution the way the Founders wanted it interpreted, and I believe that’s very important.”

Apparently, Trump’s judicial picks are pro-law enforcement on issues involving government searches and seizures. This bodes negatively for preserving Fourth Amendment protections against search and seizure.

Also, Trump vows to give more power to police to handle the racial divide between police and communities of color. My opinion? That’s similar to dousing a forest fire with gasoline. or allowing a fox to guard your henhouse. Police aren’t experts at policing themselves. What is needed are the reinforcement of police accountability policies as well as a substantial shift with the culture of today’s police departments.

Let’s be frank: the unjustified killing of citizens at the hands of police can no longer go unpunished, especially in the face of indisputable video evidence. In those cases, police must be held accountable for the crimes they commit against the citizens they are sworn to serve and protect. It’s the only way to rebuild trust between police and the communities of color.

Equally important, we need policies which increase training on de-escalation techniques and decrease police militarization models which involves the use of military equipment and tactics by law enforcement officers. This includes decreasing the use of armored personnel carriers, assault rifles, submachine guns, flashbang grenadesgrenade launcherssniper rifles, and Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams if more reasonable alternatives are possible.

THE DEATH PENALTY

Put simply, Mr. Trump as a staunch advocate of the death penalty.

“A life is a life, and if you criminally take an innocent life you’d better be prepared to forfeit your own. My only complaint is that lethal injection is too comfortable a way to go.”

“I can’t believe that executing criminals doesn’t have a deterrent effect . . . Young male murderers, we are constantly told, are led astray by violent music and violent movies. Fair enough. I believe that people are affected by what they read, see, hear, and experience. Only a fool believes otherwise. So you can’t say on one hand that a kid is affected by music and movies and then turn around and say he is absolutely not affected when he turns on the evening news and sees that a criminal has gone to the chair for killing a child. Obviously, capital punishment isn’t going to deter everyone. But how can it not put the fear of death into many would-be killers?”

Source: The America We Deserve, by Donald Trump, pp. 102-104, July 2, 2000.

JAILING AND DEPORTATION OF UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANTS.

According to the Huffington Post, Trump vows to immediately deport or imprison up to 3 million undocumented immigrants.  Trump said he would launch what could be the largest mass deportation effort in modern history, vowing to immediately deport a number of people comparable to the record-setting figure that President Barack Obama carried out over two terms in office.

This should come as no surprise. According to a recent article from the Washington Post, Trump’s proposal calls for the deportation of undocumented immigrants who have committed violent crimes. Trump said he would push for two new laws aimed at punishing criminal aliens convicted of illegal reentry and removing “criminal immigrants and terrorists,” including previously deported unauthorized immigrants. He said he would name these laws after victims killed by people in the United States illegally.

Although Trump’s removal of undocumented immigrants at this pace is apparently limited to convicted felons, his enthusiasm for removals suggests that overall deportations will likely rise when he takes office, after declining sharply last year.

Clearly, Trump’s presidency shall affect our nation’s approach to crime and punishment. Consequently, it’s imperative to hire defense counsel who is competent handling drug charges, death penalty crimes, violent crime, racial injustice and immigration issues. Today’s defense counsel must stay abreast of today’s ever-changing political landscape.

Cell Phone Spying Is Unlawful

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In State v. Novick, The WA Court of Appeals Division II held the Defendant committed Computer Trespass in the First Degree when he installed “Mobile Spy” software on the victim’s cell phone and sent commands to activate the recording feature of the program in order to intentionally record the victim’s private communications.

David Novick and Lisa Maunu began dating in December 2013. Novick bought her a new mobile phone on March 11, 2014, and set it up for her. Unbeknownst to Maunu, Novick installed an application called Mobile Spy on Maunu’s new phone. The application allowed a person to log onto the Mobile Spy website and monitor the phone on which the application was installed.

From the Mobile Spy website, a user could access all the information stored on the monitored phone, including text messages, call logs, and e-mails. The versions of Mobile Spy software also permitted a user to send commands to the targetted phone from a “live control panel” on the website. One such command allowed a user to activate the phone’s microphone and recording features and record audio into a file that could then be downloaded from the website.

Eventually, Novick was caught after his girlfriend Maunu became suspicious. In short, Maunu became concerned because Novick expressed specific knowledge about Maunu’s health conditions, medications, doctors’ appointments, and private conversations.

With the assistance of Novick’s employer, it was discovered that Novick had downloaded over 500 audio files from Mobile Spy, searched for GPS (global positioning system) locations, and searched for particular telephone numbers.

The State charged Novick with eight counts of Computer Trespass in the First degree and eight counts of Recording Private Communications based on Novick’s use of Mobile Spy to record Maunu’s conversations. At trial, Novick was convicted on all charges.

Novick appealed on arguments that (1) the State failed to provide sufficient evidence that he intentionally recorded a private communication, and (2) entry of eight convictions of each crime violated his right against double jeopardy because the correct unit of prosecution covers the entire course of conduct.

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals disagree with Novick and affirmed his convictions.

  1. THE PROSECUTION SHOWED SUFFICIENT EVIDENCE OF COMPUTER TRESPASS FIRST DEGREE.
First, the Court explained that Computer Trespass in the First Degree occurs when a person intentionally gains access without authorization to a computer system or electronic database of another and the access is made with the intent to commit another crime. The Court further reasoned that here, the underlying crime was Recording Private Communications. A person commits the crime of recording private communications when he intercepts or records private communications transmitted by any device designed to record and/or transmit said communications.
Second, the Court reasoned that a forensic review of Novick’s computer activity revealed that he intentionally logged into Mobile Spy’s webiste and sent commands from the website to Maunu’s phone. Also, Novick’s computer records showed that he visited the live control panel on Mobile Spy’s website, downloaded audio files collected from Maunu’s phone and intentionally recorded Maunu’s private communications.
Accordingly, the Court held that the State presented sufficient evidence that Novick committed the crime of Recording Private Communications, and with that, committed Computer Trespass First Degree.
2. NO EVIDENCE OF DOUBLE JEOPARDY.
Next, the Court rejected arguments that Novick’s multiple convictions for Computer Trespass and Recording Private Communications violated the prohibition against Double Jeopardy because the correct unit of prosecution for each crime covers the entire course of Novick’s conduct.
The Court began by saying the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that no “person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” Similarly, article I, section 9 of the Washington Constitution says, “No person shall . . . be twice put in jeopardy for the same offense.” In short, explained the Court, these double jeopardy provisions prohibit multiple convictions for the same offense.
Furthermore, when a defendant is convicted for violating one statute multiple times, the proper inquiry is, “What unit of prosecution has the Legislature intended as the punishable act under the specific criminal statute?” The Court explained that in order to determine whether there is a double jeopardy violation, the question becomes “what act or course of conduct has the Legislature defined as the punishable act?” Consequently, the scope of the criminal act as defined by the legislature is considered the unit of prosecution.
The Court explained that the first step is to analyze the statute in question. If the statute does not plainly define the unit of prosecution, we next examine the legislative history to discern legislative intent. Finally, a factual analysis is conducted to determine if, under the facts of the specific case, more than one unit of prosecution is present.
Ultimately, the Court was not persuaded by Novick’s “plain language of the statute” argument the if the legislature intended a single unit of prosecution based on a course of conduct, it could have said so plainly.
“What matters is not what the legislature did not say, but what it did say,” said the Court. “The plain language of the statutes support the conclusion that the units of prosecution . . . are each separate unauthorized access and each recording of a conversation without consent.” The Court further reasoned that while Novick’s actions were somewhat repetitious, they were not continuous:
“On at least eight separate and distinct times, Novick logged onto Mobile Spy’s website, accessed Maunu’s phone by issuing a command through the live control panel, and downloaded at least eight different recordings of conversations between Maunu and various other people. Each access was separated by time and reflected a separate intent to record a separate conversation.”
The Court concluded that the State proved that Novick intentionally recorded eight private communications. Additionally, Novick’s actions constituted multiple units of prosecution, and therefore, his multiple convictions did not violate double jeopardy principles. Thus, the Court affirmed Novick’s convictions.
My opinion? On the one hand, it’s shocking that citizens can be convicted of felonies by accessing mainstream computer software. Shouldn’t the software itself be outlawed instead? On the other hand, I see how parents can legally using the same software to track their minor children’s whereabouts, conversations and activities. That type of activity os not illegal.
This case presents a very good example of an atypical computer crime. We see that Computer Trespass First Degree is very similar to standard Burglary charges in that the State must prove the Defendant intends to commit a crime once they gain access to the victim’s computer system or electronic database. Recording Private Communications is a crime.  Therefore, if a defendant records private communications after gaining access, they can be found guilty of Computer Trespass in the First Degree. Simple.
Computer crime cases require experts and/or lay witnesses who are competent in discussing these matters. Speaking for the defense, it’s usually best to hire experts familiar with computer forensics to determine if/when the said access was unlawful and/or intentional. Again, the State must prove intent.

Court Denies Prosecutor’s “Missing Witness” Jury Instruction in DUI Case.

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In State v. Houser, the WA Court of Appeals Division I held that in a DUI trial, Prosecutors are not entitled to a missing witness jury instruction if the real driver’s testimony would implicate themselves in the crime of failing to remain at the scene of a collision.

On May 19, 2013, defendant Steven Houser was involved in a car accident. He knocked on the door of nearby residence. The occupants observed Houser seemed excited and somewhat disoriented. He answered only a few questions and gave slow responses.

Emergency medical technicians arrived shortly after and attended to Houser. State Patrol Troopers noticed Houser had a swollen lip, bloodshot, watery eyes, and a flushed face. Houser told the trooper he had driven off the road and hit a pole. Houser said he had three to four beers that night and that he had been drinking all the way from a friend’s house to the scene of the accident.

The Trooper asked Houser if he was willing to submit to field sobriety tests. Houser agreed, and the trooper performed the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, which indicated impairment. Houser then agreed to a voluntary portable breathalyzer test. When the troopers arrested him, Houser became agitated and hostile, yelling, “I wasn’t even driving. My buddy was driving” and that they could not prove Houser was the driver.

After impounding the truck, the Troopers took Houser to the hospital and applied for a blood draw. He confirmed he had consumed alcohol within the last 24 hours, but denied driving. Houser’s blood draw registered a blood alcohol content level of 0.19, which was more than twice the legal limit. Houser was charged with felony DUI due to prior convictions.

At trial, Houser testified that a friend named “Gary” drove Houser’s truck because Houser had already been drinking beer. After getting some marijuana, they drove to a grocery store and Houser continued to drink beer. They then began driving to another friend’s house, and got into the accident along the way. Houser testified Gary was driving and Houser was in the passenger seat when the accident occurred. Houser remembered going off the road, but did not remember getting out ofthe truck. He testified that Gary did not remain in the truck, but did not know what happened to him. Houser did not know how Gary got out of the truck or whether he was injured. He testified he had not been in contact with Gary since the accident, did not know how to contact him, and had not tried to contact him.

None of this information about “Gary” was provided to the Prosecutor before Houser testified.

After both sides had rested, the Prosecutor requested a missing witness jury instruction. For those who don’t know, the “missing-witness” rule—which developed from a century-old U.S. Supreme Court decision, Graves v. United States, 150 U.S. 118 (1893)—allows one party to obtain an adverse inference against the other for failure to call a controlled witness with material information.

Houser objected to the jury instruction, noting he had been unable to conduct an investigation to find Gary. The trial court allowed the instruction and permitted the State to refer to the defense’s failure to call Gary to corroborate Houser’s  theory of the case in its closing argument. The jury found Houser guilty.

Houser appealed. He argued his conviction should be reversed because the trial court misapplied the missing witness doctrine and improperly instructed the jury.

The Court of Appeals agreed with Houser.

The Court reasoned that the missing witness rule permits the jury to infer that evidence or testimony would be unfavorable to a party if that “‘evidence which would properly be part of a case is within the control of the party whose interest it would naturally be to produce it'” and that party fails to do so.

The Court emphasized the missing witness instruction “should be used sparingly.” Furthermore, the limitations on the application of the missing witness rule are particularly important when, as here, the doctrine is applied against a criminal defendant. “The doctrine applies only if several requirements have been satisfied,” said the court.

The court also reasoned the rule does not apply where the missing witness’s testimony, if favorable to the party who would naturally have called the witness, would necessarily be self-incriminating. The court reasoned that here, Houser testified that Gary was driving, Houser was in the passenger seat when the accident occurred, and Gary did not remain in the truck.

“Houser also testified about his injuries,” said the Court. “Thus, if Gary corroborated Houser’s testimony, Gary would necessarily have incriminated himself for failing to remain at the scene of an accident.” Since the core of Houser’s defense was that he was not driving; and that giving a missing witness instruction and allowing the Prosecutor to comment on Gary’s absence here substantially undercut Houser’s defense.

While there was evidence sufficient to support a conviction, there was not overwhelming evidence of guilt. Therefore, we cannot conclude the missing witness instruction, in combination with the prosecutor’s multiple references to Gary’s absence, was harmless.

The court reversed Houser’s conviction.

My opinion? Good decision. I’ve conducted jury trials where the Prosecutor has tried admitting Missing Witness Jury Instructions in the midst of trial. Luckily, most judges know these instructions should be used sparingly.

Worst-case scenario, Missing Witness Jury Instructions shift the burden to the Defendant to prove their defense. This small, yet subtle burden-shift has incredibly damaging implications which ultimately violate a defendant’s rights at trial. Remember, it’s the State – and not the defendant – who carries the burden of proof. The defendant has no burden of proving anything unless the defense is self-defense or other defenses requiring expert witnesses.