Category Archives: Opinion Testimony

Improper Opinion Testimony

Chicago cops reluctantly testify against 1 of their own

In State v. Hawkins, the WA Court of Appeals held that a police officer gave improper opinion testimony regarding the defendant’s guilt and credibility.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

The Defendant Mr. Hawkins was arrested and charged with assault in the third degree for briefly strangling Mr. Ali, a King County Metro bus driver, over a fare dispute. The incident was witnessed by a passenger who did not speak English and a passenger who saw an argument occur, but did not witness actual physical touching.

The State’s only other witnesses were Deputy Baker and Deputy Garrison, the King County Sheriff’s detective that reviewed Baker’s initial investigation and referred Hawkins’s case for prosecution. Over defense counsel’s repeated objections, the prosecutor tried to elicit opinion testimony from both deputies concerning whether they believed whether the bus driver Ali was a credible witness.

Several of the defense’s objections were sustained, but the court eventually allowed Officer Baker to answer. Although Deputy Baker’s answer was couched in probable cause to arrest, Baker’s answer implied he believed Ali’s version of events over Hawkins.

Deputy Garrison’s answers also gave an opinion about credibility. Garrison stated he would only refer a case for prosecution if there was “some credible ability to prosecute.”

The jury convicted Hawkins as charged.

On appeal, Hawkins contends that the prosecutor committed prejudicial misconduct by eliciting opinion testimony from police witnesses concerning witness credibility.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Court of Appeals reasoned that a prosecutor must enforce the law by prosecuting those who have violated the peace and dignity of the state by breaking the law. A prosecutor also functions as the representative of the people in a quasi-judicial capacity in a search for justice.

The Court said the prosecutor owes a duty to defendants to see that their rights to a constitutionally fair trial are not violated. Thus, a prosecutor must function within boundaries while zealously seeking justice.

Also, the Court of Appeals emphasized there are some areas of opinion testimony that are inappropriate in criminal trials.

“This is particularly true when the opinion testimony is sought from law enforcement,” said the Court of Appeals. “Officer testimony has an aura of special reliability and trustworthiness.”

The Court of Appeals said the State’s case was weak.

“There is no question that the State’s case against Hawkins was weak. There was no physical evidence, there was no surveillance footage, and Ali had no visible injuries and declined medical attention. The State offered no firsthand witnesses other than Ali.” ~WA Court of Appeals

As a result, the Court reasoned that the State’s case inappropriately focused on the police officers’ opinion of the bus driver Ali’s credibility:

“Because the State’s case was weak, eliciting the officers’ opinions that they believed they had a credible witness in Ali had a clear prejudicial effect on Hawkins’s right to a fair trial.” ~WA Court of Appeals

The Court ruled the Defendant’s case was prejudiced and overturned his conviction.

My opinion? Good decision. A prosecutor functions as the representative of the people in the search for justice. The prosecutor also owes a duty to defendants to see that their rights to a constitutionally fair trial are not violated.

It is inappropriate in a criminal trial for the prosecutor to seek opinion testimony as to the guilt of the defendant, the intent of the accused, or the credibility of witnesses. This is particularly true where the opinion sought is that of a law enforcement officer.

Please review my Legal Guide on Prosecutorial Misconduct for more information on this subject. And please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges. Hiring an experienced and competent defense attorney is the first and best step toward justice.

Unlawful Opinion Testimony of Police Officer

Chicago cops reluctantly testify against 1 of their own

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.

BACKGROUND FACTS

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.