Sunday, December 6, 2015

Ruminations on Relevance

State v. Gotavaskas, 2015 VT 133

By Andrew Delaney

Two defendants. Different facts. Same issue.

Mr. Gotavaskas was charged with burglary in one case and providing false information and operation without the owner’s consent in another case. He raised the issue of his competency, was evaluated, and found competent to stand trial. During a competency hearing, the State tried to get the evaluation into evidence. Mr. Gotavaskas was like, “Whoa, whoa—only the relevant parts. Here’s a redacted version.” The State was like, “But, but, but . . . we want the whole thing.” The trial court went with Mr. Gotavaskas’s version.

Mr. Gotavaskas again raised the competency issue. This time, the evaluating doctor (same one as before) changed his tune and found Mr. Gotavaskas incompetent. Again, there was a hearing; and again, the defense tried to keep some of it out and the State asked for the whole enchilada. The report was filed under seal. Mr. Gotavaskas was found incompetent and the parties stipulated to issuance of an order of nonhospitalization. 

The trial court reserved ruling on the admission of the competency reports and issued a written ruling a couple months later.

Mr. Bercik was charged with simple assault. He eventually moved for competency and sanity evaluations, and the trial court granted the motions. Mr. Bercik was found incompetent to stand trial by the evaluating doctor. Similarly to the Gotavaskas case, the whole-or-in-part debate was had, the court received the report under seal, found Mr. Bercik incompetent, and deferred ruling on the report’s admission. Mr. Bercik continued on an order of nonhospitalization (he was already on one).

Both Mr. Gotavaskas and Mr. Bercik moved for redaction of their respective “competency evaluations to include only the portions relevant to a finding of competency or incompetency,” under this statute and the rules for public access to court records. The trial court issued similar entry orders granting the motions, balancing the “privacy interests of the defendants in not having ‘less relevant’ information disclosed with the public’s interest in knowing how the court reached its decisions.”

The SCOV majority points out that the relevant portions of a psychiatrist’s report are supposed to be admitted under the statute and that one of the public-access rules specifically says that the public gets access unless an exception applies. Though the trial court touched on all these points, it didn’t make any specific findings about what was being redacted or why.

The majority notes that the SCOV: “has long recognized the public’s interest in access to information upon which judicial decisions are made, an access necessary for the maintenance of public confidence in the judiciary.”

At the outset, the majority notes that nobody outside the case has asked for the information and so it’s necessary to make an initial decision as to whether there’s actually a case here. Is the public’s right to know actually implicated here? Does the State have standing?

The majority acknowledges that the ordinary expectation would be that the public would bring this stuff up, but concludes that there’s a legitimate case here. “Because the public lacks meaningful notice and an opportunity to be heard on the evidentiary ruling, and because that ruling will impact public access to the evidentiary records, there is a public interest at stake.” And because the prosecutor, in the eyes of the majority, is “the only one in a position to raise an objection or appeal on behalf of the” public’s interest, the State has standing.

Next, the majority notes that their still needs to be a case or controversy before the SCOV or the appeals are moot. Here, the majority concludes that the defendants have been found incompetent and have not stood trial. “Each defendant's competency remains subject to further evaluation and consideration by the criminal division. Under these circumstances, the appeals are not moot.” The majority then runs through the capable-of-repetition-yet-evading-review exception to the mootness doctrine. We even get into the negative-collateral-consequences exception, which is one of those I-must’ve-skipped-class-in-law-school-that-day things. We don’t get a decision on whether that particular exception applies, so I’m not going to get into it. Long story short—the majority concludes the capable-of-repetition-yet-evading-review exception to the mootness doctrine applies, and says, “We’re deciding these cases.”

With the preliminaries out of the way, the majority turns to the word “relevant” in the applicable statute. The State argues that the word “relevant” means what it usually means in evidentiary matters; the defendants argue that “relevant” is limited in this context by privacy concerns. In this regard, the majority notes that the statute doesn’t “create hierarchies of relevance or provide the trial court with discretion to exclude relevant portions of competency reports.” Because the trial court didn’t do the relevance test under the rules of evidence or make specific findings, the trial court has to do a do-over.

Justice Skoglund dissents. In her view, the trial court’s discretion is being needlessly tinkered with. Here, the trial court made a decision based on the evidence before it, within its discretion, to exclude certain parts of the reports. Relevance doesn’t include everything under the sun—it includes those things likely to make a consequential fact more or less likely.

The dissent sums it up its view so well that there’s no sense in me trying to rephrase it:
Basically this appeal is simple. The State disagrees with the trial court's evidentiary ruling on relevance. But, the State has not demonstrated that the trial court's decision to redact portions of the competency reports prejudiced it in any sense . . . I fail to see how protecting a defendant's early childhood education, his family's medical and psychological history, and any history of abuse or neglect can be prejudicial to the State.
And there you have it. The dissent would find no abuse of discretion here.  

And, with all cases in which we have a majority opinion and a dissent, you, dear reader, get to vote! So who got it right?

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