Category Archives: Toxicologist

Right to Present a Defense

1538.5 Motions To Suppress Evidence In California

In State v. Jennings, the WA Court of Appeals held the trial court’s exclusion of a shooting victim’s toxicology report indicating the victim had methamphetamine in his body at the time of his death did not violate the defendant’s constitutional right to present a defense.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On the date of the incident, the defendant Mr. Jennings accompanied his friend Mr. Redman to get Redman’s car from a mobile home in Puyallup, Washington. Redman had been living there, but had recently been kicked out. Drug activity occurred there. Jennings was there to defuse any hostilities between Redman and others at the house. Jennings armed himself with bear spray and a gun.

When they arrived, Jennings was on high alert. He knew violent events had recently occurred there. His friend Mr. Redman got into an argument with Mr. Burton, an individual at the house. Redman had his gun out. Jennings was familiar with the behavior of people who consumed methamphetamine. He realized that both Redman and Burton were high on methamphetamine and acting aggressively.

Burton and Redman argued about Redman’s car and then began to scuffle, wrestling in the foyer of the house. Jennings sprayed his bear spray at them to break up the fight. Burton then turned around and started walking toward Jennings, who backed up. Jennings believed Burton had Redman’s gun.

Jennings feared for his life. He was afraid Burton was reacting violently because he was high on methamphetamine. Jennings fired his gun and hit Burton twice. Burton died at the scene shortly after the shooting and before the ambulance arrived.

Jennings was arrested the next day. He was charged with second degree intentional murder (RCW 9A.32.050(1)(a)), second degree felony murder predicated on second degree assault (RCW 9A.32.050(1)(b)), and unlawful possession of a firearm.

At trial, Jennings claimed at trial that he shot Burton in self-defense. However, the judge excluded the toxicology report showing that Burton had methamphetamine in his body at the time of his death.  A jury found Jennings guilty of second degree felony murder.

Jennings appealed on numerous issues, including arguments that the trial court violated his constitutional right to present a defense by excluding a toxicology report showing that Burton had methamphetamine in his body at the time of his death.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals began by emphasizing that criminal defendants have a constitutional right to present a defense under the Sixth Amendment. Furthermore, evidence of self-defense must be assessed from the standpoint of the reasonably prudent person standing in the shoes of the defendant, knowing all the defendant knows and seeing all the defendant sees. Finally, the court reasoned that evidence that might impact a defendant’s assessment of the danger presented, like the victim’s prior specific violent acts, is admissible only if known to the defendant when the incident occurred.

“In analyzing the Sixth Amendment right to present a defense, we balance the State’s interest in excluding the toxicology report against Jennings’s need for evidence showing that his subjective fear was reasonable,” said the Court of Appeals.

The Court further reasoned that in this case, the toxicology report did not have extremely high probative value and it did not constitute Jennings’s entire defense. “At trial, Jennings testified that what he observed on the day of the shooting gave rise to his subjective fear . . . his belief that Burton was high on methamphetamine,” said the Court.

“Jennings has not shown that there was a reasonable probability that any additional corroboration from the toxicology report would have materially changed the result at trial,” said the Court. “We hold that even if the trial court abused its discretion by excluding the toxicology report under ER 401 and 402, this ruling was harmless error.”

With that, the Court of Appeals upheld Mr. Jennings’ conviction.

My opinion? Evidentiary and legal issues aside, these facts are terribly tragic. My heart goes out to the friends and families of all who were impacted by this. From a legal standpoint, however, It appears the WA Court of Appeals conducted a basic balancing test under Washington’s Rules of Evidence and determined that the toxicology report of the victim’s meth/blood levels was neither probative nor relevant at trial.

Under Washington’s Rules of Evidence, relevant evidence is defined in ER 401 as “evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence. ER 402 provides that evidence which is not relevant is not admissible. Finally, ER 403 provides that relevant evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by, among other things, the danger of unfair prejudice.

Here, the Court of Appeals was convinced that Mr. Jennings’ self-defense theory was properly supported by his testimony that he responded in self-defense to the victim’s meth-induced attack. Therefore, no other evidence was necessary to admit more evidence that the victim was high on meth. Jennings’ testimony, by itself, was enough. Any additional evidence on that issue was therefore cumulative, repetitive, unnecessary and potentially prejudicial to the State’s case under ER 403.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges and self-defense is a possible defense. It’s important to hire an experienced criminal defense trial attorney who understands the law, the rules of evidence and how both contribute to trial defenses.

New Year’s Eve DUI Patrols

Image result for A New Year but an old truth- There’s no safe place for impaired drivers to hide. 

The WA State Patrol (WSP) issued a press release stating WSP Troopers will be out looking for impaired drivers this week in preparation for the New Year. Patrols will be increased to include Troopers brought out to supplement regularly assigned patrols. WSP has partnered with five other states to form the Western States Traffic Safety Coalition. Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Nevada and Arizona are working together to save lives by removing impaired drivers from all of our roadways. The message is clear; A New Year but an old truth- There’s no safe place for impaired drivers to hide.

These extra patrols will include specially trained troopers to help identify and detect drug impaired drivers. Most WSP troopers receive additional training in drug impaired driver detection. This training, Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement (ARIDE) is specifically focused on detecting drivers impaired by drugs. Troopers trained as Drug Recognition Experts (DRE) will also be out to assist in identifying and detecting drug impaired drivers. DREs receive training to identify what drugs a driver may be impaired by.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face DUI or any other alcohol-related driving crimes. It’s imperative to hire an experienced defense attorney who is knowledgeable of DUI defense.

Who Is The Toxicologist?

Image result for toxicologist testimony

In the deeply divided 5-4 court decision State v. Salgado-Mendoza, the WA Supreme Court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the defendant’s motion to suppress the toxicologist’s testimony under CrRLJ 8.3(b) even though the defendant was not informed which State toxicologist would testify.

I originally discussed this case in my blog titled, “Prosecutors Must Reveal Toxicologist Identities in DUI Trials.” At that time, the WA Court of Appeals Division II reversed the defendant’s DUI conviction because the Prosecutor failed to give Defense Counsel the name of their Toxicologist expert witness before trial.

On appeal, however, the WA Supreme Court decided differently. It overturned the Court of Appeals and said the trial court, in fact, was correct in denying the defendant’s motion to suppress the toxicologist’s testimony.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On the evening of August 11, 2012, a Washington State Patrol trooper stopped and arrested Mr. Salgado-Mendoza for DUI. His BAC test showed a blood alcohol concentration of 0.103 and 0.104; which is over the .o8 limit.

Before trial, the State initially disclosed the names of nine toxicologists from the Washington State Patrol toxicology laboratory, indicating its intent to call “one of the following.” It whittled the list to three names the day before trial, but did not specify which toxicologist it would call until the morning of trial, noting that it provided the witness’s name “as soon as we had it and that’s all that we can do in terms of disclosure.”

Mendoza moved to suppress the toxicologist’s testimony under CrRLJ 8.3(b) based on
late disclosure, asking the court to “send a message to the state patrol crime lab and
say this isn’t okay anymore.” The trial court refused, finding no actual prejudice to the defense and observing that the practice of disclosing a list of available toxicologists rather than a specific witness was driven more by underfunding of the crime labs than by mismanagement.

Salgado-Mendoza appealed to the superior court, which found the district
court had abused its discretion. The Court of Appeals affirmed, reasoning that the
delayed disclosure violated the discovery rules and caused prejudice. Again, however, the WA Court of Appeals disagreed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Supreme Court reasoned that while the State’s disclosure practice amounted to mismanagement within the meaning of CrRLJ 8.3(b), Salgado-Mendoza has not demonstrated actual prejudice to justify suppression.

The majority Court explained that under CrRLJ 8.3(b), the party seeking relief bears the burden of showing both misconduct and actual prejudice.

“In this case, Salgado-Mendoza can demonstrate misconduct within the meaning of the rule, but not actual prejudice. He can prove misconduct because a discovery violation need not be willful—simple mismanagement will suffice. Here, the State’s failure to at least narrow the list of possible toxicology witnesses pretrial reflects mismanagement,” said the Court. “However, Salgado-Mendoza cannot show prejudice that wan’ants complete suppression of the toxicologist’s testimony.”

With that, the WA Supreme Court held that Mr. Mendoza has not demonstrated actual prejudice to justify suppression of the toxicologist’s testimony. “Because there was no abuse of discretion, we reverse the Court of Appeals.”

THE DISSENT

Justice Madsen authored the dissenting opinion. She was joined by Justices Yu, Gordon McCloud and Johnson.

In short, the dissenting judges disagreed with the majority because they believed the defendant was prejudiced by this delayed disclosure of the possible toxicologists who would testify. They reasoned that forcing a defendant to bear the burden of preparing to cross-examine a long list of witnesses when the State only intends to call one is not how our system of justice operates.

“The State cannot cite funding deficiencies and simply shift its burden of prosecution onto defense counsel,” wrote Judge Madsen. “If the State wishes to pursue prosecution, it must allocate sufficient resources to its departments so that they may operate in a way that is consistent with a defendant’s right to a fair trial.”

“By under-staffing the State’s toxicology laboratory so that they cannot confirm who will testify until the day of trial, the State is not meeting this burden and defendants are being forced to compensate for the deficiency. Therefore, I would find that the trial court abused its discretion by denying Salgado-Mendoza’s motion to suppress the toxicologist’s testimony.”

My opinion? I must agree with the dissenting opinion. Under the Sixth Amendment and the WA Constitution, The State bears the burden of proving their charges beyond a reasonable doubt. Also, the State must follow discovery rules under CrR 4.7. One of the State’s discovery obligations is to name their witnesses who they call to testify. Period. Collateral issues revolving around the State’s under-staffing and a lack of funding should not excuse violating a defendant’s Constitutional rights.