State v. Cayetano-James: Prohibiting Phone Call Testimony

In State v. Cayetano-James, the WA Court of Appeals Division I decided the trial court mistakenly denied the defendant’s motion to have a witness testify telephonically from Mexico.

The defendant was charged with Rape of a Child in the First Degree. While the case was pending, he filed a notice of the defense of alibi. The Prosecutor changed the trial dates and amended the charges. In response, Defense Counsel filed and argued a motion to dismiss under CR 8.3(b). Because of this, Defense Counsel argued a potential witness in Mexico will most likely need to be contacted to refute the amendment to the charges.

On March 27, 2013, the trial court heard a defense motion to permit the telephonic testimony of Laura Camacho. Defense counsel argued that because of Camacho’s immigration status, the court should allow her to testify by telephone or, alternatively, order her telephonic deposition. Although Defense Counsel argued that Camacho’s testimony was material, the court denied the motion for telephonic testimony. The court also denied Defense Counsel’s motion for a continuance. Finally, at trial, the court excluded Camacho’s Skype testimony and phone call testimony of other witnesses. Not surprisingly, the jury returned a verdict of guilty.

On appeal, the WA Court of Appeals held the trial court abused its discretion by excluding the telephonic testimony of this defense witness.

First, the court reasoned that the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 3 of the Washington Constitution guarantee that “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” This right to due process includes the right to be heard and to offer testimony. The accused’s right to due process is, in essence, the right to a fair opportunity to defend against the State’s accusations.

Second, said the court, the right to call witnesses in one’s own behalf has long been recognized as essential to due process. “Just as an accused has the right to confront the prosecution’s witnesses for the purpose of challenging their testimony, he has the right to present his own witnesses to establish a defense.” Additionally, Washington courts have broad authority under ER 611 to control trial proceedings and also have discretion to permit telephonic testimony under CR 43(a)(1).

Finally, the trial court abused its discretion when it excluded “essential facts of high probative value whose exclusion effectively barred [the defendant] from presenting his defense” without a showing by the State that allowing Camacho to testify by telephone would disrupt the fairness of the fact-finding process. This deprived the Defendant’s witness of the opportunity to present testimony that would have been relevant, material and vital to the defense; and violated his constitutional right to present a complete defense.

The court reversed the conviction and remanded for a new trial.

My opinion? Good decision. Obstructing a defendant from presenting witnesses for their defense violates the 6th Amendment. Period.