Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Blood Draws by Police Officers: Bridging a Supreme Court Gap

In Schmerber v. California, 348 U.S. 757 (1966), the U.S. Supreme Court held that a warrantless blood draw constitutes a search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment. The Court also laid out the two-part test for determining the legality of the search:
1) Whether the police were justified in requiring [the suspect] to submit to a blood test; and
2) Whether the means and procedures employed in taking [the suspect’s] blood respected relevant Fourth Amendment standards of reasonableness.
Schmerber, however, involved a blood draw performed by medical personnel at a hospital according to acceptable medical practice. In holding that the search was reasonable in that case, the Court conspicuously noted:
We are this not presented with the serious questions which would arise if a search involving use of a medical technique, even the most rudimentary sort, were made by other than medical personnel or in other than a medical environment – for example, if it were administered by police in the privacy of the stationhouse. To tolerate searches under these conditions might be to invite an unjustified element of personal risk of infection or pain.
Id. at 771-772 [emphasis added]. 

Well…what if a police officer draws the blood? At the stationhouse?

This happened in State v. Johnston.

A woman was arrested for suspicion of DWI and two Dalworthington Gardens officers drew her blood at the Dalworthington Gardens stationhouse. That the officers had a warrant did not convince the suspect to comply with the request to draw her blood. Ultimately, the officers had to strap her to a table using gauze to keep her still enough to draw her blood.

Although the officer that drew the blood was a prior EMT and had been certified by a local physician to draw blood, the trial court suppressed the blood evidence, finding that the search was unreasonable under Schmerber. Troubled by the fact that the officers did not ask the suspect for a general medical history before conducting the blood draw, the fact that the blood draw was not recorded, the fact that the suspect was restrained, and the fact that the department did not have any clear guidelines for using force during DWI blood draws, the 2nd District Court of Appeals (Fort Worth) agreed that the trial court appropriately suppressed the evidence.

The State appealed, arguing that the Court of Appeals’ interpretation was too narrow. The defendant also appealed, arguing that the Supreme Court intended a per se ban on police officers drawing blood from DWI suspects.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals began its analysis by recognizing that the “for the general population, the Supreme Court has determined that a blood test is a reasonable means in which to analyze an individual’s blood alcohol content.” And in this case, because there was no evidence that the suspect suffered from a medical condition that would have made another means of testing preferable, it was not unreasonable (under Schmerber) to draw the suspect’s blood.

The CCA also held that Chapter 724 of the Texas Transportation Code – the chapter that deals with the implied consent law and details who may draw a person’s blood – is inapplicable to a reasonableness determination in this case, because the officers had a warrant. The defendant argued that because a police officer is not listed as a person authorized to draw blood under Chapter 724, the blood draw was unreasonable.  Chapter 724, the CCA concluded, applies only in cases where there is no warrant.

Regarding the test for reasonableness, the CCA concluded that “the reasonableness of the manner in which a DWI suspect’s blood is drawn should be assayed on an objective, case-by-case basis in light of the totality of the circumstances. In this case, the totality of the circumstances indicate that the search was reasonable.

  •  The officer that drew the blood was a licensed EMT. (He had also been certified by a local physician, but the CCA didn’t care about that).
  • The Supreme Court (Schmerber) does not require that the draw be done in a hospital or clinic and several other jurisdictions agree.
  • The trial court concluded that the officers followed medically accepted procedures for drawing the blood.
  • The use of reasonable physical force to obtain a blood sample is permissible.
The CCA held that the blood draw performed at the stationhouse by the police officers was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment and Schmerber.   I would agree (in this case).  I wonder how many police officers (especially ones that deal regularly with DWI) are getting in line to get EMT certified now.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Compliance by Taser

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals recently heard a case involving excessive force by police.

In, Hereford v. State the ultimate issue presented to the CCA was whether forced used by officers to recover drugs from a defendant was excessive and unreasonable. The court held that it was.

The appellant in Hereford pulled into a parking lot and got out of his car. An officer observed him and recognized him as someone he had dealt with in the past. The officer knew Hereford had outstanding warrants. The officer conducted a pat down search and arrested him for the warrants. After appellant was arrested, the officer searched his vehicle. When the officer did not find any narcotics, he called a K9 unit whose dog alerted on the car.  Despite the alert, officers again failed to find any narcotics. When the officer returned to his patrol unit, appellant had his head down and was chewing on something. The officer commanded appellant to spit it out but he refused. The officer and two others then removed appellant from the patrol unit and tased him on the leg. The officer who made initial contact with appellant then grabbed him around the throat and tried to force him to spit out the substance. The officers then ceased trying to force the appellant to spit out the substance. After discussing their options for fifteen to twenty minutes, the officers decided to take the appellant to the hospital.

At the hospital, the officers appellant over to another officer working off-duty at the hospital. Appellant still had the substance in his mouth.  The hospital tried to get him to release it by using ammonia capsules. This did not work. The off-duty officer then took appellant into an examining room and began to tase him repeatedly – three times in the upper inner thigh (the groin) and once in the right forearm. When he was being tased, appellant's mouth would open involuntarily.  While appellant's mouth was open (during the tasing of his groin) the officer was able to get the substance out of his mouth.  It turned out to be a plastic baggie of crack cocaine.

The issue presented for the CCA was whether, under the Fourth Amendment, the manner in which the evidence that was seized was reasonable. The court used the factors found in Winston v. Lee, 470 U.S. 753 (1985) to balance the intrusion to the appellant’s personal interests, the societal need for effective law enforcement, and the state’s need for evidence. Those factors include whether the police conduct:

1) threatened the suspect’s health or safety;
2) conformed to accepted medical practices;
3) was performed by a trained professional;
4) arose from the existence of probable cause to believe the suspect had evidence of a crime;
5) unduly intruded upon the suspect’s dignity interests in personal privacy; and
6) was a commonplace procedure to which individuals are often subjected.

Balancing those interests, the court found that the off-duty officer’s actions were unreasonable and violated appellant's Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The CA, however, made it a point to highlight that this ruling was not to be construed to imply that the use of a Taser in these types of instances is per se unreasonable. The Court highlighted Ellis v. Columbus City Police Dep’t, No. 1:07CV123-A-A, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 95821 (N.D.Miss. September 15, 2009), where almost the same set of circumstances happened.  In that case though, the suspect had lunged at officers and was openly chewing a plastic bag of cocaine. The Court differentiated that case from this one by explaining that in Ellis, the officers stopped after tasing appellant several times and the tasing occurred during the arrest (not long after and by another officer).

Presiding Judge Keller dissented without opinion.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Courts Should Not Apply Strict Rules of Grammar and Syntax When Reviewing Search Warrant Affidavits

“On Sunday, he advised me that he had been in Russia” is not the same as “He advised me that he had been in Russia on Sunday.”

The Court of Criminal Appeals considered a similar ambiguity in an Affidavit for a search warrant in State v. McClain. The Affiant stated in the affidavit, “In the past 72 hours, a confidential informant advised” the defendant had been seen in possession of Meth. Without more, this purports to state that the informant provided the information in the past 72 hours and DOES NOT state when the informant actually observed the behavior – a critical piece of information, indeed.

The trial court found the affidavit deficient and suppressed the evidence that was seized during the search. The 7th District Court of Appeals (Amarillo) affirmed. The CCA now reversed the Court of Appeals, holding that the search warrant based on this affidavit was proper.

The CCA cautions trial courts not to view such affidavits in a “hypertechnical” manner.

Since the Fourth Amendment strongly prefers searches to be conducted pursuant to search warrant, the United States Supreme Court has provided incentives for law-enforcement officials to obtain warrants instead of conducting warrantless searches. One incentive is a less-strict standard for reviewing the propriety of a search conducted pursuant to a warrant. In this situation, courts must give great deference to the magistrate’s probable-cause determination.
The CCA, with the exception of Judge Johnson who dissented, held that the lower courts violated the prohibition on hypertechnical review of warrant affidavits when it strictly applied rules of grammar and syntax in its analysis. The CCA further held:

Reviewing courts should only be concerned with whether the magistrate’s determination in interpreting and drawing reasonable inferences from the affidavit was done in a commonsensical and realistic manner. And reviewing courts should defer to all reasonable inferences that the magistrate could have made.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Are You Destroying Your Witness's Credibility?

by Elliott Wilcox

Facts, by themselves, aren't enough to win your case. You can't just dump a pile of unorganized facts on the jury and expect that they'll reach the right verdict. How you organize your facts will affect the jurors' views about your case and can even change the outcome of your trial.

One of the easiest ways to shape the jurors' views about your case is to take advantage of a theory called “primacy.” Psychology professor William D. Crano defined a primacy effect as when “the message presented first exerts a disproportionate impact on an individual's opinion.”

Basically, what you hear first colors the way you view everything else that follows. Don't believe me? To experience how big a role primacy can play in the way jurors view your case, take a look at these two different scenarios:

The first scenario involves a 37 year old man. Less than an hour ago, his wife told him that (after several years of unsuccessfully trying to start a family), she is pregnant with their first child -- a son! As the man walks past the park on his way to work, he sees a playground filled with young children playing on merry-go-rounds and swinging on the swing sets. He stops for a moment, standing just outside the perimeter of the playground. His eyes are drawn to a young boy who is climbing to the top of the slide. As the boy lands at the bottom of the slide, a large grin man breaks out on the man's face.

Now compare that to the second scenario:
This scenario also involves a 37 year old man. Six years ago, he was convicted of child molestation. As the man walks past the park on his way to work, he sees a playground filled with young children playing on merry-go-rounds and swinging on the swing sets. He stops for a moment, standing just outside the perimeter of the playground. His eyes are drawn to a young boy who is climbing to the top of the slide. As the boy lands at the bottom of the slide, a large grin man breaks out on the man's face.

Isn't it amazing how a single fact at the beginning of the story completely changes the way you view the rest of the facts? In the first scenario, you probably thought to yourself, “What a lucky man! He's thinking about the future when he'll be taking his own son to the playground.” In the second scenario, you probably thought, “Somebody call the police before that creep abducts the little boy!”

The facts didn't change -- only your perception of the facts changed. In both scenarios, the men did exactly the same things, but you ascribed completely different intentions to their actions. What you heard first had a disproportionate impact (positive or negative) on everything else that you heard.

It works the same way in the courtroom. The primacy principle affects every aspect of your trial, but its impacts can be most apparent during opening statement and direct examination. Here's an example of how organizing your presentation of facts can dramatically affect how jurors perceive your direct examination.

I remember critiquing a criminal jury trial where the prosecution was arguing that the defendant acted as the intermediary agent to facilitate a drug deal between an undercover police officer and a drug dealer. The defense's theory of the case was that the defendant's innocent actions and comments were misconstrued, and the drug dealer acted independently when he sold the cocaine to the undercover officer.

During their case-in-chief, the defense called the defendant to testify on his own behalf. Obviously, they must have felt that his testimony was critical to their case, and they wanted the jury to believe his version of events. But take a look at the first three questions his lawyer asked him:
Q. Where do you work?
A. I'm disabled -- I haven't worked in more than 10 years.
Q. Have you ever been convicted of a felony?
A. Yes.
Q. How many times?
A. Three times.
Take a moment to think about how these facts will affect everything else the jury hears. Now that they know he's a 3x convicted felon who needs money, do you think that the jurors will be more likely, or less likely, to believe what he says?

While these facts may have been important for the defense to elicit, by bringing them out at the very beginning of his testimony, the attorney corrupted the jurors' view of her client and destroyed his credibility. Rather than listening to him from a neutral (or even positive) viewpoint, now they were forced to view all of his testimony through the lens of “The Unemployed, 3x Convicted Felon.”

Rather than hearing, “I was standing on the porch,” the jury will hear, “The Unemployed, 3x Convicted Felon says he was standing on the porch.” Instead of, “Two people knocked on my door and asked if Archie was home,” they'll hear, “Two people knocked on The Unemployed, 3x Convicted Felon's home and asked if Archie was home.” The jurors won't hear, “I didn't do it!” They'll hear, “The Unemployed, 3x Convicted Felon says he didn't do it.”

How do you want jurors to view your witness? What lens do you want them to look through when they're viewing your witness's testimony? If you want jurors to view your witness's testimony in a positive light, you need to apply the principle of primacy and avoid developing negative facts at the beginning of the direct examination.

Does that mean you should completely avoid the negative parts of the witness's testimony? Of course not. If you don't present the negative facts during your direct examination, your witness will get crucified during cross-examination. But just because you need to bring out bad facts doesn't mean you need to highlight them. Ask about the negative facts somewhere in the middle of the witness's testimony, when the jurors are less likely to focus on them.

When you start your direct examination with negative facts, you run the risk of destroying your witness's credibility. Instead, apply the principle of primacy, and you'll give jurors the opportunity to view your witness's testimony in its best possible light.

Elliott Wilcox publishes Trial Tips Newsletter. Sign up today for your free subscription and a copy of his special reports: “How to Successfully Make & Meet Objections” and “The Ten Critical Mistakes Trial Lawyers Make (and how to avoid them)” at www.TrialTheater.com

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Pleading a Tautology

Yesterday, the Court of Criminal Appeals handed down State v. Rodriguez, a case in which the State appealed the lower court decision setting aside the information (charging document) for failure to plead an offense.

The State charged Roman Rodriguez under section 42.12 of the Texas Penal Code for recklessly discharging a firearm inside city limits. The information alleged that the defendant
recklessly discharged a firearm by pulling the trigger on a firearm which contained ammunition and was operable.
Upholding the 4th District Court of Appeals (San Antonio), the CCA held that the charge was deficient because it failed to allege that the act was done recklessly. The CCA noted that,
The State’s information alleged that Mr. Rodriguez recklessly discharged a firearm inside [the city limits] “by pulling the trigger on an firearm which contained ammunition and was operable.” Well, of course he did. Everyone who discharges a firearm pulls the trigger, and every firearm that his discharged contains ammunition and is operable if it discharges.
The Court explained that, in essence, the State pled a tautology – “The defendant recklessly discharged a firearm because he discharged a firearm.” The Court further noted that there are many occasions where a person might discharge a firearm inside the city limits by pulling the trigger on an operable firearm containing ammunition, such as: “if a person shoots a robber or a rapist climbing into his bedroom window,” or “if he shoots a rattlesnake lying in the bushes.”

Accordingly, because the State only alleged “how” the defendant discharged the firearm and failed to alleged how he “recklessly” discharged the same, the information was deficient and should be set aside.

Judge Price concurred in the result and writes separately to express his opinion that the statute (section 42.12) is “hopelessly ambiguous” regarding the recklessness requirement.  Presiding Judge Keller joined in Judge Price’s concurrence. Judge Womack also concurs without opinion.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A Proper Voir Dire Question

When conducting voir dire of prospective jurors (the venire panel), Texas law says that a lawyer cannot ask a “commitment question.” The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals defines a “commitment question” as
a question that commits a prospective juror to resolve or to refrain from resolving an issue a certain way after learning of a particular fact. Commitment questions are impermissible unless the law requires a commitment, and the law does not require a commitment on what facts a juror will consider during sentencing.
The CCA also cautions, however, that “a trial court abuses its discretion if it disallows a proper voir dire question.”

In Davis v. State, a case decided by the CCA last month, the defense counsel asked the venire panel the follow question:
Let’s talk about factors in [assessing] the sentence in a case of aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon, what factors do y’all think are important?
Despite counsel’s fine use of the word “y’all,” and without any objection to the question by the State, the trial judge interjected, saying, “that’s a commitment question. You can’t ask that question.” On appeal, the 14th District Court of Appeal (Houston) agreed.

The CCA now reverses, holding that
appellant’s counsel asked “what factors…are important” in sentencing. This did not ask the jurors how particular facts would influence their deliberations. This was an inquiry into the jurors’ general philosophies.
There you have it. Cases regarding commitment questions are always very fact dependant, but for now, we can add one more to the list. Counsel may properly ask: "What factors are important in assessing the sentence in a [name your offense] case."

Presiding Judge Keller was the lone dissenter.  She deems the question an improper commitment question.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Court of Appeals Decides Rubin v. Islamic Republic of Iran

The matter of Rubin v. Islamic Republic of Iran continues to wind its way through the federal court system. On March 29, 2011 the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued a 41 page ruling in this complex case.

Deadly terrorist attacks in Jerusalem injured Jenny Rubin and several other Americans in 1997. Hamas carried out three bombings, receiving support from Iran. The American plaintiffs sued Iran in federal district court in Washington, DC and won a $71.5 million default judgment after Iran failed to appear in the case. Since then, there has been an effort by the plaintiffs to recover the judgment.

To retrieve the multi-million award, the plaintiffs filed legal paperwork in Illinois—through a process known as attachment—to seize two collections of antiquities located at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. The cultural property includes the Persepolis and Chogha Mish Collections. The Oriental Institute excavated these Persian artifacts during the 1930s and 1960s, and it has maintained possession of them through a long-term academic loan. The museum says that it is ready to return the Chogha Mish objects to Iran. The plaintiffs also seek to attach a collection located at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago known as the Herzfeld Collection. The Field Museum purchased the Herzfeld objects in 1945, but the plaintiffs say that these artifacts were stolen from Iran during the earlier part of the twentieth century before their sale. The Field Museum continues to assert ownership of these antiquities while Iran does not make any claim to them.

The case triggered a dispute about how the federal Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act (FSIA) works. That law declares that a foreign state’s property located in the United States is immune from attachment. However, proving a statutory exception can defeat this immunity. If immunity is lifted, then a plaintiff can attach a foreign state’s property to satisfy a court judgment. The FSIA’s passage in 1976 was both a codification of and limitation on the longstanding legal principle that foreign nations are generally immune from court actions.

The plaintiffs litigated the case in the federal district court of the Northern District of Illinois, and Iran remained absent from the proceedings. When the magistrate judge ruled that only a foreign nation can claim sovereign immunity to its property under the FSIA--not a museum--Iran entered the case as a party to claim immunity. Together the Oriental Institute, the Field Museum, and Iran argued that the plaintiffs could not attach the cultural property contained in the three collections because of the immunity protections afforded by the FSIA.

After Iran entered the case as a party, the plaintiffs filed a motion for discovery to compel Iran to detail all its assets held in the United States, not just the cultural property located in Illinois. Iran objected to this request, but the district court magistrate judge sided with the plaintiffs. Iran filed an appeal with the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals as a result, prompting the United States government to enter the case as a friend of the court (amicus curiae) in support of Iran’s position.

The Seventh Circuit considered the following questions.
1. Was the foreign state absolutely required to appear in federal court to activate the immunity protections given by the FSIA?

2. Does the FSIA protect a foreign state from broad discovery requests requiring it to give an accounting of all its foreign assets in the United States?

The district court answered yes to the first question and no to the second question. But the federal appeals court strongly criticized the lower court’s decision, calling its ruling “seriously flawed.” The Seventh Circuit wrote:

“The district court’s approach to this case cannot be reconciled with the text, structure, and history of the FSIA. Section 1609 of the Act provides that 'the property in the United States of a foreign state shall be immune from attachment' unless an enumerated exception applies. (Emphasis added.) This section codifies the longstanding common-law principle that a foreign state’s property in the United States is presumed immune from attachment. This presumptive immunity, when read with other provisions of the FSIA, requires the plaintiff to identify the specific property he seeks to attach; the court cannot compel a foreign state to submit to general discovery about all its assets in the United States. The presumption of immunity also requires the court to determine—sua sponte if necessary—whether an exception to immunity applies; the court must make this determination regardless of whether the foreign state appears.”

The case has been sent back to the district court, and the lower court must now handle the case consistent with the decision by the court of appeals.

The complete opinion can be found at http://www.ca7.uscourts.gov/fdocs/docs.fwx?caseno=08-2805&submit=showdkt

Friday, April 1, 2011

What's in a Name?

Last year I wrote about Byrd v. State, a case out of the 4th District Court of Appeals (San Antonio). In Byrd, the state charged appellant with theft of certain property from owner “Mike Morales.” At trial, however, the State did not prove, in any way whatsoever, that the property belonged to Mike Morales. The overwhelming proof showed that the property, in fact, belonged to Wal-Mart. On appeal, appellant argued the the evidence was insufficient because the State did not prove that the property belonged to Mike Morales. The 4th Court disagreed, holding that the name of the owner was not required, as it was simply a variance of proof.

This week, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals. In a unanimous opinion written by Judge Cochran, the CCA held that:
Although the name of the owner is not a substantive element of theft, the State is required to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the person (or entity) alleged in the indictment is the owner is the same person (or entity) – regardless of the name – as shown by the evidence.
The CCA explained that a conviction would still stand if an indictment alleged an incorrect name, such as Buddy Smith, when the proof at trial revealed that the victim’s name was, in fact, John Smith (Buddy was simply a nickname). In that instance, there would be sufficient evidence showing that the person alleged in the indictment is the same person from whom the property was stolen.

In this case:
Not only did the State fail to offer any evidence that "Mike Morales" - the person alleged in the theft indictment - has any ownership interest in or relationship to the property appellant shoplifted, but the jury, without any apparent concern the missing "Mile Morales," convicted her nevertheless.  According to the State, the "only explanation for this exceptional circumstance seems to be that it was so clear to all the parties involved - and possibly to the jury as well - that the real victim (both alleged and proven) was Wal-Mart that the discrepancy seemed not to matter."  An alternate, less generous explanation, is that everyone was asleep at the wheel.

As a rule for future theft cases, the majority opinion states:
The parties, the court, and the jury must know the identity of the owner [of the stolen property] regardless of how the State names him.
It is worth noting that the CCA did not foreclose the option of the State reindicting the appellant for theft from “Wal-Mart,” as jeopardy has not attached to that specific offense. But as far as theft from Mike Morales goes, the appellant stands acquitted.