Category Archives: criminal law principles

Prosecution by installment: the King Bruce theory

King Bruce of Scotland, you will recall, was a king driven into exile by those damn British. During the course of this, he was taking refuge in a cave, defeated, when he chanced upon a spider which was unable to spin a web, presumably having nothing to do with the fact that it was Scottish and hence drunk. So it tried and failed and tried and failed until it finally succeeded, which gave the Good King Bruce an epiphany that if you try enough times you will eventually succeed at what you want. He then promptly defeated the British and Scotland has been an independent country ever since but he doesn’t get nearly all the credit that Mel Gibson does presumably because he wasn’t wearing blue war paint.

I know what you were thinking. Pervert.

Just last week, the Connecticut Appellate Court issued an opinion [PDF] endorsing the ‘King Bruce’ theory of prosecutions: try as many times as you want. But in order to understand the opinion in State v. Brundage II, you have to start at the beginning with State v. Brundage I.

In the beginning, Brundage was a creep. Over a period of roughly 8 years, he allegedly sexually assaulted his then-girlfriend’s daughter. The girlfriend ended the relationship in 2003 and the girl finally reported the abuse in 2007.

He was charged by the prosecution with two counts of Sexual Assault in the First Degree and two counts of Risk of Injury to a Minor. Out of all the possible crimes available to them, these are the two they chose to proceed on. Brundage, on cue, got convicted and was sentenced to a long time in jail.

Except he appealed, claiming that the criminal charges were actually barred by the statute of limitations. On appeal, the prosecution and the Appellate Court agreed that all charges for all incidents occurring prior to 2003 were barred and could not be prosecuted:

Mama said knock you out

ll-cool-j

What can be more frightening to the innocent man walking down a city street, minding his own business, when a bunch of thugs comes out of nowhere, and for no apparent reason, violently strikes that innocent man causing him physical injury?

Nothing, which is why there was widespread panic last year about the emergence of a new activity that further signaled the moral decay of America’s urban youth: the knockout game.

A game in which seemingly innocent people were randomly targeted to be punched in the head for no other reason than apparent boredom on the part of the hooligans.

And so it comes as no surprise that this viral act of violence that has put fear into the minds and hearts of innocent city working folk and has caused our urban areas to become veritable fields of random assaults has brought about a strict new legislative fix: by God we’ll fix ‘em.

The new bill, proposed by legislator and Police Officer Joe Verrengia of West Hartford, CT, would make a “knockout” punch a felony punishable by up to 5 years in jail1. The bill states (and I’ve reproduced the entire section because context is relevant):

(a) A person is guilty of assault in the second degree when:

(1) With intent to cause serious physical injury to another person, he causes such injury to such person or to a third person; or

(2) with intent to cause physical injury to another person, he causes such injury to such person or to a third person by means of a deadly weapon or a dangerous instrument other than by means of the discharge of a firearm; or

(3) he recklessly causes serious physical injury to another person by means of a deadly weapon or a dangerous instrument; or

(4) for a purpose other than lawful medical or therapeutic treatment, he intentionally causes stupor, unconsciousness or other physical impairment or injury to another person by administering to such person, without his consent, a drug, substance or preparation capable of producing the same; or

(5) he is a parolee from a correctional institution and with intent to cause physical injury to an employee or member of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, he causes physical injury to such employee or member; or

(6) with intent to cause the loss of consciousness of another person, he causes such injury to such person by a single punch or kick or other singular striking motion.

As you can see from the entire statute reproduced above, (6) is redundant. We must, of course, concede that “loss of consciousness” is “serious physical injury”. Putting aside caselaw that states that a fist or shoe can indeed be a dangerous instrument (thus covering subsections 2 and/or 3), subsection (6) seeks to carve out a specific subset of subsection (1), i.e. causing of serious physical injury. Subsection (1) has no restrictions on the type of injury (loss of consciousness) or the manner in which it is caused (single punch or kick).

So, simply put, (6) is useless. But that’s not all. The bill would make a conviction of subsection (6) have a mandatory prison sentence of at least 2 years.

The persecution of justice (updated)

i-dont-want-to-live-farnsworth

One of the more important things I write about here at ‘a public defender’ is the notion that “Justice” is a complicated concept. It is not limited to what you are fed through your televisions and it is certainly not a government-centric idea.

Justice takes many obvious forms, such as the apprehension and conviction of a criminal. But limiting the definition of justice to something as simplistic as “good guys vs. bad guys” leaves you with a very narrow worldview and an over-inflated sense of morality.

Justice can mean that the right person was punished and that the punishment was just. Justice can mean standing up for unpopular causes, maybe sometimes precisely because they are unpopular.

The persecution of this nuanced meaning of justice, however, has never been more fervent than in this day of “speak by shouting at others” discourse and base politics that pander to ever-extreme hysterical idiots who have found a sure-fire method of whipping up political points and ire by removing any semblance of complexity from American politics and intellectual discussion.

I speak, of course, of the shameful defeat of the president’s nomination of Debo Adegbile to head the civil rights division at the Department of Justice. Joined by 7 democrats, Republicans torpedoed this highly qualified, lifelong public servant from running the civil rights division because a long time ago, he spent some part of his career working for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, during which time he worked on a brief seeking to overturn the conviction of “noted cop-killer” Mumia Abu-Jamal.

What if they gave a prosecution and the prosecution took its ball and went home?

lucy

From the ‘don’t-try-this-at-home-kids‘ department, a truly flabbergasting story out of Illinois of hubris, hissy-fits and the Double Jeopardy Clause.

Today, the United States Supreme Court will meet to decide whether to hear the case of Esteban Martinez. Martinez is in an unusual position, however. He isn’t convicted of anything. In fact, he was acquitted of an assault. But the State of Illinois wants to get a second crack at him. They want to try him again. Because the first time around, they did absolutely nothing.

No, that’s not hyperbole or “insider-talk”. They literally did nothing. From the Illinois Supreme Court opinion:

According to the report of proceedings, “the jurors were duly sworn by the clerk.” The court then provided the jurors with general, preliminary instructions. Thereafter, the court indicated to the State that it could proceed in presenting its case in chief. The following exchange then occurred:

“[The Prosecutor]: Your Honor, respectfully, the State is not participating in this case.

THE COURT: Defense?

[Defense Counsel]: Judge, we would waive opening statement.

T

HE COURT: The People may call their first witness.

[The Prosecutor]: Respectfully, your Honor, the State is not participating in this matter.

THE COURT: Does the defense wish to be heard?

[Defense Counsel]: I do, Judge.

THE COURT: Ladies and Gentlemen, we’ll take a ten-minute break.”

¶ 8 Upon the jurors leaving the courtroom, the following exchange occurred:

“[Defense Counsel]: Judge, the jury has been sworn. The State has not presented any evidence. I believe they’ve indicated their intention not to present any evidence or witnesses. Based on that, Judge, I would ask the Court to enter directed findings of not guilty to both counts, aggravated battery and mob action.

THE COURT: Do the People wish to reply?

[The Prosecutor]: No, your Honor. Respectfully, the State is not participating.

THE COURT: The Court will grant a motion for a directed finding and dismiss the charges.”

Here, let me help you with your jaw.

Fernandez v. California: remove the objector, won’t be no objection

What problem is?

What problem is?

I know that a majority of my readers are lawyers, but there are a fair number of you who aren’t and so from time to time I like to reproduce stirring pieces of legal opinions that explain so eloquently the protections that we have and the reasons we have them. The opening of Justice Ginsburg’s dissent yesterday in Fernandez v. California [PDF – pg 23 onwards] provides such an opportunity, so I reproduce a large quote from it:

The Fourth Amendment guarantees to the people “[t]he right … to be secure in their . . . houses . . . against unreasonable searches and seizures.” Warrants to search premises, the Amendment further instructs, shall issue only when authorized by a neutral magistrate upon a showing of “probable cause” to believe criminal activity has occurred or is afoot. This Court has read these complementary provisions to convey that, “whenever practicable, [the police must] obtain advance judicial approval of searches and seizures through the warrant procedure.” Terry v. Ohio, 392 U. S. 1, 20 (1968). The warrant requirement, Justice Jackson observed, ranks among the “fundamental distinctions between our form of government, where officers are under the law, and the police state where they are the law.” Johnson v. United States, 333 U. S. 10, 17 (1948)1. The Court has accordingly declared warrantless searches, in the main, “per se unreasonable.” Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U. S. 385, 390 (1978).

In its zeal to diminish Randolph, today’s decision overlooks the warrant requirement’s venerable role as the “bulwark of Fourth Amendment protection.” Franks v. Delaware, 438 U. S. 154, 164 (1978). Reducing Randolph to a “narrow exception,” the Court declares the main rule to be that “consent by one resident of jointly occupied  premises is generally sufficient to justify a warrantless  search.” Ante, at 7. That declaration has it backwards, for consent searches themselves are a “‘jealously and carefully drawn’ exception” to “the Fourth Amendment rule  ordinarily prohibiting the warrantless entry of a person’s  house as unreasonable per se.” Randolph, 547 U. S., at 109 (quoting Jones v. United States, 357 U. S. 493, 499 (1958)). See also Jardines, 569 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 4)  (“[W]hen it comes to the Fourth Amendment, the home is  first among equals. At the Amendment’s ‘very core’ stands   ‘the right of a man to retreat into his own home and there  be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion.’”); Payton v. New York, 445 U. S. 573, 585 (1980)(“[T]he physical entry of the home is the chief evil against which  . . . the Fourth Amendment is directed.”

That should explain to you that in our country, under our system of laws, there is nothing more sacred than the right to be left alone in one’s home and that there is an almost absolute prohibition on the police entering your home without a warrant. One of the exceptions to that rule is if you consent. If you give the police permission to enter, then they don’t need a warrant.

Defining the role of appellate courts

Dan Klau points, rather diplomatically, to a Connecticut Supreme Court opinion issued today [PDF] which he lost. It’s a civil case, but what sucked me in was his description of the issues in the case, which fits right in with the theme of complaints that I have with this present Supreme Court:

In particular, it will tell us whether a majority of the Court believes that the proper role of an appellate court is to decide the issues that the parties have raised and argued–and only those issues–or, alternatively, whether the Court believes that it is appropriate to decide cases based on issues that appellate judges raise on their own initiative. In short, can and should appellate courts raise and decide unpreserved issues sua sponte?

Today, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that yes, it could very well decide appeals based on issues that it raised on its own and that no one thought of at the trial level and that weren’t preserved or properly briefed or that the trial judge had no opportunity to consider.

Okay, that’ll be the last of the snark for today, because it actually is a really interesting and important opinion written by Justice Palmer.

The issues were divided up by the Court as follows:

Friendly reminder to law enforcement: stop listening to attorney-client conversations

It is, of course, an undeniable fundamental right that communications between a criminal defendant and his or her attorney should be utterly confidential1 and that, under no circumstances, should the prosecution get access to the content of those conversations.

Having said that, what is to be done if a prosecutor gets hold of confidential communications or learns of the substance of these conversations? Must there be an automatic reversal? Or this “fundamental right” to be rendered meaningless yet again, subjected to the legal fiction of harmlessness.

That is the question confronted by the Supreme Court of Washington in State v. Fuentes. In Fuentes, after the defendant was convicted by a jury, but during the pendency of post-trial motions, the prosecutor asked the investigating detective to listen to the defendant’s phone calls from jail to determine if there was any witness tampering going on2: