Saturday, February 25, 2017

Evidentiary Error

State v. Cameron, 2016 VT 134

By Elizabeth Kruska

This case is really sad. Tristan Cameron, a 17-year-old kid, got a new car, and while driving it got into a crash that killed his friend. He got charged with grossly negligent operation with death resulting as a result of the accident. He had a trial and was found guilty. He appeals on two issues. SCOV affirms on one issue, but reverses and remands on the other.

As I understand the facts, Tristan drove on Duffy Hill Road in Franklin County. This is apparently a gravel road that had recently been re-graveled. The road has curves and hills (because, Vermont), and at one point has a very sharp right-hand bend. As he drove around the bend, he encountered two farm trucks. One truck veered to the right to avoid a collision. Tristan steered, too, but this caused the car to fishtail, and ultimately it hit the second farm truck. His passenger was really seriously hurt and later died from his injuries.

At trial, those are the facts that came out, along with additional facts about Tristan’s speed being way too fast, and a statement by Tristan to the effect that he may have fallen asleep.

At the close of the State’s case, Tristan moved for judgment of acquittal. He argued that no reasonable jury could find him guilty of the elements of grossly negligent operation with death resulting beyond a reasonable doubt based on those facts. The trial court disagreed and denied the motion.

SCOV affirms the trial court on this part. Because this is a fact-specific inquiry, SCOV reviews the facts available, and uses the same standard of review as the trial court. If, taken in the light most favorable to the state and excluding modifying evidence, the state lacks sufficient evidence upon which a reasonable jury could find the defendant guilty, then the motion for judgment of acquittal should be granted. This only ever gets granted if there is no evidence to support a guilty verdict.

SCOV looks at the available facts and also the law on grossly negligent operation. It’s kind of a high standard for someone to be convicted of grossly negligent operation. The operator must have acted grossly outside the ordinary duty of care that a reasonable person would use under the same circumstances. Something like momentary inattention to the road (hey, we all glance down for a second, or see a deer on the side of the road, or whatever) by itself is not enough to sustain a conviction for grossly negligent operation. But that in combination with other factors, like road conditions, speed, time of day can all add up to grossly negligent operation. It’s a very fact-specific inquiry. SCOV says it was possible for a jury to find he was guilty because a reasonable driver, when faced with a blind corner like the one in this case, would exercise a lot of caution. And that’s even without factoring in his speed.

So, SCOV affirms the denial of the motion for judgment of acquittal.

But SCOV reverses on an issue regarding alleged marijuana use, so this case gets sent back to the trial court.

Tristan gave an interview to a state trooper after the accident and admitted to having used marijuana earlier in the day. The accident happened around 2:00 in the afternoon. The trooper testified about what Tristan told him, and Tristan objected. The court admitted the evidence anyway. On appeal, he argued that admitting that evidence was erroneous for several reasons.

First, he made some arguments related to having not been read his Miranda warnings. He also made Miranda-related arguments about protections he should have received because he was a minor at the time of the incident and interrogation.

There was an objection made and an evidentiary hearing at trial about the statements. The trial court admitted the statements. SCOV points out that the defendant should have filed a motion to suppress the statements in the pre-trial phase. A Miranda issue is based on a Fifth Amendment argument, and should be figured out prior to trial. If a confession is going to be suppressed that could change the shape of a trial, or could potentially cause a case to be dismissed. Doing this in the middle of the trial is not the right time to do it, and does not properly preserve the issue for appeal.

There was also an objection that the statements regarding marijuana use earlier in the day were not relevant. The trial court disagreed and allowed the statements to be admitted, reasoning that there could be a connection between Tristan’s marijuana use earlier in the day and the accident in the afternoon. On appeal he sharpens this a little and says that because there was no actual evidence of impairment at the time of the crash, and no expert to draw that together, the evidence was actually far more prejudicial than it was probative.

SCOV reviews evidentiary issues like this one for clear error. SCOV also sets forth how to analyze this. This is also how I learned to do it, and it’s really very nice to take it step by step.

Only relevant evidence is admissible. Evidence is relevant if it tends to make the ultimate question to be proven more or less likely. Evidence might be relevant, but still could be excluded if it’s going to cause a sideshow that gets away from the subject of the actual trial. Furthermore, sometimes evidence is complicated and is the kind of thing an expert would have to explain. The State probably didn’t need an expert to show that at 2:00 p.m. on a July day it was light outside. Everybody would take it as a commonly known fact that it’s light out on a summer afternoon.

The State did not, however, bring an expert to testify about any alleged marijuana usage by Tristan. Even though marijuana is commonly understood to be a drug, and lots of people have experience with it—either personally or by observation of others—its exact effects are not as commonly known and understandable as whether or not it’s light out on a July afternoon. Someone needs to be able to explain the link, and that someone is an expert.

Furthermore, there wasn’t any evidence about actual usage. Although Tristan told the police officer he had used marijuana earlier in the day, and there was evidence he tried to conceal some unused marijuana immediately after the crash, there was no link to show that there was any impairment at the time of the crash. He probably hid the marijuana so he wouldn’t get in trouble for having it, not because he was impaired. Tristan argued to the trial court that the bag of marijuana was irrelevant.

The problem, of course, is that admitting the bag of marijuana and also the statements about it, is that without evidence of actual impairment, it’s very prejudicial. Jurors may inappropriately make a causal connection between the fact of the accident and the presence of marijuana without them actually having anything to do with one another. They also could have concluded that because Tristan committed one crime by possessing marijuana that he must have committed another crime—grossly negligent operation. It’s the “he’s a bad man” theory, and it’s not permissible. It’s for this reason that SCOV reverses and remands.

Tristan also argues on appeal that the jurors may have engaged in some misconduct because the trial judge didn’t tell them not to discuss the case with one another until given permission to do so. SCOV bats this away, since it’s getting reversed anyway. But they warn trial judges to make sure to continue to stress appropriate behavior to jurors so there isn’t any sort of juror misconduct issue raised later.

There's a last argument about language surrounding “beyond a reasonable doubt.” That is also disposed in one unpreserved-and-not-getting-into-it sentence.

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