In State v. Winborne, the WA Court of Appeals held that an officer’s use of the word “reckless” or “eluding” while testifying in a Felony Eluding trial was improper opinion testimony.
The State of Washington charged Tishawn Winborne with Theft of a Motor Vehicle, two counts of Attempting to Elude a Police Vehicle, one count of Second Degree Assault, and one count of Third Degree Assault. The assault charges arise from his resisting
of police officers.
At the start of trial, Tishawn Winborne made a motion in limine to prohibit the State’s witnesses from testifying regarding ultimate factual issues such as whether Winborne “eluded” or drove “recklessly.” However, the trial court denied the motion. For those who don’t know, a motion in limine is a pretrial motion asking that certain evidence be found inadmissible, and that it not be referred to or offered at trial.
During trial, State witnesses repeatedly testified to Tishawn Winborne’s driving “recklessly” or “eluding” law enforcement. At the close of the State’s case, the trial court dismissed the Theft of a Motor Vehicle charge because of insufficient evidence.
The jury found Tishawn Winborne guilty of both counts of Attempting to Elude a Police Vehicle, but acquitted Winborne of both assault charges.
Winborne appealed. Among other issues, he challenged the trial court’s denial of his motion in limine to prohibit any witness from testifying that Winborne drove “recklessly” or “eluded” police.
COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS
The Court of Appeals reasoned that no witness, lay or expert, may testify to his or her opinion as to the guilt of a defendant, whether by direct statement or inference. Whether testimony provides an improper opinion turns on the circumstances of the case, including (1) the type of witness involved, (2) the specific nature of the testimony, (3) the nature of the charges, (4) the type of defense, and (5) the other evidence before the trier of fact.
Next, the Court held this case was similar to the controlling precedent of State v. Farr-Lenzini:
“The state trooper in State v. Farr-Lenzini did not employ the word “reckless” in his testimony as did officers in Tishawn Winborne’s trial. Nevertheless, the same reasoning behind excluding the testimony applies. An officer can testify to his observations of the driving of the defendant without drawing conclusions assigned to the jury.”
Finally, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court abused its discretion by denying Tishawn Winborne’s motion in limine. It reasoned that the State’s police officer witnesses testified by direct statements to Tishawn Winborne’s guilt. “Whether Tishawn Winborne drove ‘recklessly’ or ‘eluded’ the officer is an element of attempting to elude a police vehicle,” said the Court. “A law enforcement officer’s improper opinion testimony may be particularly prejudicial because it carries a special aura of reliability.”
With that, the Court of Appeals reversed Tishawn Winbome’s convictions for Felony Eluding a Police Officer and remanded for a new trial.
My opinion? Good decision. The Court of Appeals is correct in saying that a police officer’s improper opinion testimony may be particularly prejudicial because it carries a special aura of reliability. This is true. Instinctively, most jurors give much weight to the testimony of police officers. And the police officers know that. For those reasons, it is imperative for defense attorneys to argue pretrial motions in limine asking the trial judge to prohibit the police officers from offering their opinions at trial and to take exception to the court’s adverse rulings; thus preserving the issue for appeal. Kudos to the defense attorney in this case.
Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime. Hiring an effective and competent defense attorney is the first and best step toward justice.