Category Archives: ct state law

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt 2: Reason Harder

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote this post attempting to make sense out of the incomprehensible landscape of reasonable doubt and the different ways in which judges define – or refuse to – those terms to jurors. I wanted to make a new instruction that would be easy to follow and correct and accurate. Based on conversations in the comments and in emails I received, I decided to come up with a second new instruction. Both are reproduced below and I want to hear from you guys. Is one better than the other? Can either be further tweaked?

The Hans Gruber instruction:

The State has the burden of proving the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt1. Beyond a reasonable doubt is how convincing the evidence has to be to you in order to find an accused guilty of a crime. So what does “beyond a reasonable doubt” mean?

What it means is this: The evidence must fully and firmly convince2 you of the defendant’s guilt before you may return a verdict of guilty.The evidence must cause your state of mind to be such that you can confidently say that you are certain of the defendant’s guilt. Although the State does not have to prove the defendant’s guilt to an absolute or mathematical certainty, the State must prove his guilt to a state of near certitude3 in your own minds. In other words, while the law does not require the State to prove a defendant guilty beyond all possible doubt, it is not sufficient to prove that the defendant is possibly or probably guilty4.

After considering all of the evidence, you may be fully and firmly convinced that the defendant is guilty of the crime charged. On the other hand, based on the evidence or lack of evidence, you may think there is a realistic possibility that he is not guilty. This realistic possibility must be based on the evidence or lack of evidence and not arising from mere possibility, bare imagination, or fanciful conjecture5.

Thus, if you are fully and firmly convinced of the defendant’s guilt, you must return a verdict of guilty. If you find that there is a realistic possibility that he is not guilty, the law demands that you return a verdict of not guilty.

The Colonel Stuart6 instruction:

Remember that every person is presumed not guilty when arrested. This presumption and status of being not guilty can only be overturned if the evidence presented creates a high degree of certainty by firmly convincing you that the correct person has been arrested [has committed?] for the correct crime. The high degree of certainty is not mathematical absolute certainty but it is also not a possibility, or a probability, or a likelihood that the accused is guilty. What prevents a juror from being firmly convinced to a high degree of certainty is what we call a reasonable doubt. If you have a realistic doubt, you cannot overturn the presumption that the accused is not guilty and you must vote accordingly.A realistic doubt can form based on the evidence presented in court or evidence that could have or should have been presented by the prosecution but was not.

Thus, only if you are firmly convinced to a high degree of certainty that the accused did, in fact, commit the charged crimes, can you overturn the status of being not guilty. If you do not reach that level of certainty, you must keep that status of not guilty in place and render a verdict accordingly.

Let ‘er rip, and just because:


What’s in a word? Making ‘reasonable doubt’ understandable (updated)

[Update: See two proposed charges below, both of which are almost identical in content, but completely different in style.]
reasonable-doubt-motivational-poster

“Truth is a matter of semantics, whether we like it or not,” writes Michael Robotham in his novel ‘Suspect’. What he has done in that sentence, perhaps unknowingly, is describe in a nutshell the entire modern American criminal justice system. When it comes to jury trials, the guilt or innocence of a defendant rests in many cases upon the definition of the various elements that make up a crime, and most importantly on the definition of the standard of proof: beyond a reasonable doubt. For it is that standard governments across the country must clear in order to deprive another citizen of life and liberty.

As the Supreme Court said in In Re Winship, the reasonable doubt standard “provides concrete substance for the presumption of innocence — that bedrock axiomatic and elementary principle whose enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law.” In other words, you can only have the presumption of innocence hold value if the State is permitted to overcome it by meeting the most exacting standard possible.

The phrase “reasonable doubt”, however ingrained it is in our lexicon, is difficult to pin down and define. By its very nature it is vague – what is reasonable, for instance and reasonable to whom and in what context; what is a doubt, etc – and thus in of itself provides very little reliable guidance to judges and juries whose job it is to interpret and apply it.

Thus, there are probably more discussions devoted to the definition of reasonable doubt than any other phrase in the criminal law. Unfortunately, after more than a decade grappling with this phrase, I am no more certain of its meaning today than I was when I started practicing criminal law.

Courts have developed several definitions that they claim pass Constitutional muster, but I’m afraid that the problem is more akin to that experienced by Justice Steward in Jacobellis v. Ohio; that reasonable doubt is something you know when you see. This, of course, is utterly useless because it provides no guidance.

So what do our courts provide for? There seem to be three primary schools: those that use Massachusetts’ venerable Webster description with its phrases of “moral certainty” and “abiding conviction” [PDF]. There is the other school, notably headlined by Justice Ginsburg in Victor v. Nebraska and the Federal Judicial Center’s pattern instruction, which favors the use of the phrase “firmly convinced”. Finally there is the school that follows neither, most notably Connecticut’s own model instructions. All three schools are ripe for criticism.

While the “moral certainty” in the Webster definition is centuries old and is loosely translated to “I am as certain as I can be, based on what I have seen and heard”, the masking of that more every day definition behind the charged “moral” is a tremendous disadvantage to the accused. For requiring a conviction only upon a moral certainty seeks to bring morality – and thus subjective opinions of what is right and wrong – into the equation. An equation that most accuseds in this day and age are sure to lose. It also does nothing to clearly define the phrase ‘reasonable doubt’.

Connecticut’s instruction, which can be found on the Judicial Branch website, focuses almost entirely on what a doubt is – it is a serious doubt that you would heed, an honest doubt, a real doubt – and does little to define the certainty level required. The first sentence of the instruction – “[t]he meaning of reasonable doubt can be arrived at by emphasizing the word reasonable” – is itself a head scratcher, liable to sidetrack even the most sophisticated listener.

Finally, Justice Ginsburg’s favored requirement of being “firmly convinced” comes closest to In re Winship’s mandate that no person should be adjudged guilty with a fact finder being convinced of guilt “with the utmost certainty”. Our supreme court, in State v. Jeffrey Jackson, implicitly approved this formulation but did not require it of our trial judges and it is not routinely given in our courts.

In order to formulate a clear, succinct and accurate definition of “reasonable doubt”, I think it would help to first understand what exactly we wish to convey to jurors. To me, the essential points seem to be the following:

  1. That every person is presumed innocent when arrested;
  2. That they can be found guilty and have their liberty deprived only if the evidence presented by the prosecution creates a high degree of certainty that the correct person has been arrested for the correct crime;
  3. That the high degree is not mathematical absolute certainty;
  4. That the high degree is greater than a possibility or a probability that the accused is guilty;
  5. That any realistic doubt must lead to an acquittal;
  6. That this decision must be made based on the evidence presented in court or evidence that could have or should have been presented but was not.

If that is what we want to convey, then why do we not simply say that? Why must we muck about with terms like “moral certainty” and “abiding conviction” and “a serious doubt that reasonable men would heed”. Why are so averse to speaking in plain English?

With all of the above in mind, I propose the following, which is a variation of the “firmly convinced” formulation:

The State has the burden of proving the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt1. Beyond a reasonable doubt is how convincing the evidence has to be to you in order to find an accused guilty of a crime. So what does “beyond a reasonable doubt” mean?

What it means is this: You must be fully and firmly convinced2 of the defendant’s guilt before you may return a verdict of guilty. Your state of mind must be such that you can confidently say that you are certain of the defendant’s guilt. Although the State does not have to prove the defendant’s guilt to an absolute or mathematical certainty, the State must prove his guilt to a state of near certitude3 in your own minds. In other words, while the law does not require the State to prove a defendant guilty beyond all possible doubt, it is not sufficient to prove that the defendant is possibly or probably guilty4.

After considering all of the evidence, you may be fully and firmly convinced that the defendant is guilty of the crime charged. On the other hand, based on the evidence or lack of evidence, you may think there is a realistic possibility that he is not guilty. This realistic possibility must be based on the evidence or lack of evidence and not arising from mere possibility, bare imagination, or fanciful conjecture5.

Thus, if you are fully and firmly convinced of the defendant’s guilt, you must return a verdict of guilty. If you find that there is a realistic possibility that he is not guilty, the law demands that you return a verdict of not guilty.

I am certain that my formulation will have its critics. I invite them to send me their concerns and suggestions, so that we may open a dialogue that seeks to fix the incomprehensible legalese we throw at jurors today and ask them to make the most solemn decision they might ever have to in their lives.

Update: Based on conversations in the comments below and taking into account feedback I’ve received via email, I’ve formulated this second alternative instruction:

Remember that every person is presumed not guilty when arrested. This presumption and status of being not guilty can only be overturned if the evidence presented creates a high degree of certainty by firmly convincing you that the correct person has been arrested [has committed?] for the correct crime. The high degree of certainty is not mathematical absolute certainty but it is also not a possibility, or a probability, or a likelihood that the accused is guilty. What prevents a juror from being firmly convinced to a high degree of certainty is what we call a reasonable doubt. If you have a realistic doubt, you cannot overturn the presumption that the accused is not guilty and you must vote accordingly. A realistic doubt can form based on the evidence presented in court or evidence that could have or should have been presented by the prosecution but was not.

Thus, only if you are firmly convinced to a high degree of certainty that the accused did, in fact, commit the charged crimes, can you overturn the status of being not guilty. If you do not reach that level of certainty, you must keep that status of not guilty in place and render a verdict accordingly.

Thoughts you have are, as always, welcome.


Rewarding lying cops: America’s crisis of faith

There is a crisis of faith in America. A crisis that exposes the deep chasms that exist in our society. Traditionally a community caretaking function, and thus deserving of the highest levels of faith, trust and respect, policing in America is now a flashpoint; a litmus test through which to determine which side of the privilege aisle you rest your head on.

A Gallup poll released last week showed that while police departments were one of the institutions that Americans on average had the highest confidence in (57% overall), this was belied by deep divides among racial and political lines. Although, it should be noted, that 57% confidence in an institution whose sole function is to protect the lives and liberties of fellow citizens is truly an abysmal number.

Mathematics suggests that this overall percentage would be higher if police departments decided to make an effort to treat black individuals with the same care and respect they seem to treat white individuals. Blacks trust police at around 34% and urban blacks even less so.

Can you blame them? After the events of the last 5 months, starting with the death of Michael Brown, through to the homicides of Eric Garner, John Crawford and Tamir Rice, through to the mass demonstrations, the no-protesting zones, the “rioting”, the curfews, the non-indictments of Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo, all of this piled onto the overwhelming yoke of stop and frisk, tough-on-crime, the drug war and a lost generation, is there any reason to expect that black Americans should trust any police officer?

Is it any surprise that there is no faith in the community caretaking function of visitor-officers, who are increasingly not a part of the community they purport to keep secure? Do we have any right to demand respect for people like Cleveland Police Patrolman Union chief Jeffrey Follmer who repeatedly refer to a slain 12-year old boy as “the male” and justify the actions of a police officer who almost immediately upon arriving at the scene shoots and kills that child? Why would any level-headed, rational, liberty-loving American give any modicum of respect to a police officer who believes, like so many before him, that it is their job to give orders and civilians’ jobs to obey and get out of the way, or die.

“How about this: Listen to police officers’ commands. Listen to what we tell you, and just stop,” he said. “I think that eliminates a lot of problems.”  “I think the nation needs to realize that when we tell you to do something, do it,” he added.

This is an actual statement by an actual police officer made in 2014 in the Greatest Country in the World, with all its individual freedoms and liberties.

Is there any wonder that there is no respect for police officers, when, on the one hand our courts repeatedly remind us that there is no greater public policy interest than one that ensures the truthfulness and integrity of police officers. These are the people we pay to protect us at night as we sleep. These are the people whom we ask to step in front of bullets for us. These are the people of whom we expect honesty, compassion and a desire to “serve and protect”.

Though if you were to step into a criminal courthouse in America, you would see that there is less truthfulness and more truthiness – truth that wouldn’t stand to be held back by facts – when it comes to testimony from police officers. Is it any wonder, then, that when black Americans accused of crimes confront their Blue Uniformed accusers and listen to them twist and churn and shuffle the truth into truthiness, that they would lose all respect?

I know of no sensible, pot-smoking, drug dealing individual who, upon being approached by police officers, would roll down his windows and offer up the information that he was carrying a lot of marijuana in the car. Yet this account of spontaneous confession is among the most popular narratives to be recounted in police reports across the state and, I suspect, the country.

I am sad to report that courts accept this ludicrous version of events. Is it because they willingly turn a blind eye to a dubious report of an encounter with an eye to a greater good – getting the drugs off the street – or is it because they truly have no experience in the world that is the subject of these prosecutions that they must believe that all Americans are Police fearing first and God second. For it is true that the police “serve” and “protect” the demographic that has up to very recently been the one that overwhelmingly populates our judicial benches.

Malice is not required to discriminate against others and I am certainly not implying that such malice exists. The injustice is a product of the way the system is set up and has been for decades.

Yet how do we ask our fellow citizens to trust and respect the police, especially when dishonest behavior on their part is not only not punished by our courts, but rewarded.

Earlier this week, our supreme court reinstated the employment of a police officer who had been terminated for lying while on the job. In a 3-2 opinion [PDF], the majority concluded that while there existed a strong public policy in requiring police officers to be honest, because this particular officer’s lies weren’t frequent or under oath, it wasn’t worth him getting fired. They cite to Brady v. Maryland as an example of the police’s duty to be honest and seek justice, which is ironic, because a prosecutor in Texas has just filed suit against his office for firing him for disclosing exculpatory information. But back to this case.

Officer Justin Loschiavo, of Stratford, CT, was suffering from epilepsy but had them under control. One day, in 2009, he suffered a seizure, lost control of his patrol car and struck two other vehicles. While no one was injured, he was removed from patrol duty. Over the course of the next 6-9 months, he sought to be reinstated. To that end he got clearance from his personal physician and then met with someone the town had hired to evaluate him.

Turns out, he removed documents pertaining to his seizures and his alcohol use from the file that he turned over to the town’s doctor. It was for this lie that the town sought to terminate him.

The majority makes a big deal of the fact that he didn’t lie to other officers or in the performance of his duties, but as the dissent from Justice Palmer points out [PDF], these are absurd statements: he lied and he lied to remain a police officer. He lied about his medical condition which could put others at risk. If that doesn’t strike at the very heart of what a police officer is supposed to do: be honest, be sincere and help others, then I don’t know what would. It makes no difference that he didn’t lie under oath. How are we to trust that when he does take the stand, with someone else’s liberty at stake – that what comes out of his mouth will be the truth and not some self-serving statement?

Justice Palmer concludes:

In sum, the town had no choice but to terminate Loschiavo’s employment as a police officer because his intentional and serious dishonesty has grievously compromised his credibility and integrity, and he has been rendered unfit to serve as a sworn officer.

I think the same can be said of black Americans’ view of police departments as a whole.

[This is my latest at the CT Law Tribune.]

Yet another example of unsanctioned prosecutorial misconduct

I wrote last week about the double standard in sanctioning defense attorneys while scores of prosecutors nationwide engage in deliberate and willful misconduct that deprives individuals of their Constitutional rights without any consequences whatsoever.

A helpful reader sent me a link to this CT Supreme Court opinion from 2012 that I’d missed, as a further example. In this case, the defense argued that in order to convict him of aggravated sexual assault and aggravated kidnapping (both require the use of a firearm), the jury must be instructed that he actually possessed such firearm. The operative language of both statutes is similar and it is this:

(1) such person uses or is armed with and threatens the use of or displays or represents by such person’s words or conduct that such person possesses a deadly weapon

The reason for this argument is that it is an affirmative defense that the weapon was inoperable. Thus, it would make no sense for the affirmative defense to be applied to someone who had an inoperable gun, but unavailable to someone who had no gun at all.

The Court agreed with the prosecution that the defense had not preserved this argument and thus declined to consider it. And then it dropped this footnote:

[W]e feel compelled to note that in the section of her appellate brief addressing this issue the state’s appellate counsel, Assistant State’s Attorney Melissa L. Streeto, purported to provide quotations of §§ 53a-70a (a)(1) and 53a-92a but inserted commas supporting her statutory construction without any indication that alterations had been made.

In response to questions at oral argument regarding the accuracy of these quotations, she explained, in justification of the improper insertions, that “I put those there because that is how the statute should be read.

No matter how a statute should be read, it is for the legislature—and not counsel—to determine how the statute should be written. We strongly disapprove of the tactic employed here, which was at the very least misleading, and we remind counsel that they are obligated to indicate, through the use of brackets or explanatory parentheticals or otherwise, any modification to quoted materials.

Contrary to Assistant State’s Attorney Streeto’s suggestion at oral argument, and notwithstanding her apology for misleading the court, this obligation is not met by including unmodified copies of the relevant texts in an appendix.

A prosecutor, in reproducing something as basic as the text of a statute – something that everyone has free access to – which she must’ve known the parties would be familiar with, decided to pass off as accurate her own interpretation of the statute.

Then, upon being questioned, had the hubris to state “that’s how the statute should be read”.

This is what happens when prosecutors are allowed to run rampant without any oversight. Once again, I’m fairly certain, despite the Supreme Court’s concern and strong disapproval of this “tactic” that was “at the very least misleading”, she was not punished or reprimanded, let alone referred to the grievance committee.

When prosecutors apologize, everything is okay, because they didn’t really mean to deprive you of your Constitutional rights. After all, they’re in it for justice.

A double standard in prosecutorial misconduct

Last week, in a Connecticut courtroom, something unprecedented happened: after a jury returned a guilty verdict in a trial, the judge, from the bench, suspended the defense lawyer for 20 days from the practice of law, for twice-violating a court order.

The lawyer is long-time New Haven attorney John Williams, who is a former law partner of Norm Pattis, so I’ll refer you to Norm for a defense of Attorney Williams.

Apparently, Williams’ client was tried in Federal court for the same offense and acquitted and then returned to State court for another trial. The judge ruled that the acquittal could not be entered into evidence and the jury could not be told about it.

Twice, Williams slipped up and mentioned the acquittal – once during cross-examination and once during closing arguments. After the verdict the judge announced his: a suspension for 20 days1.

Black men are exigent circumstances

Pursuant to the protections of the Fourth Amendment granted to every resident of this country, police cannot enter a residence or a closed bedroom without a warrant. This would violate the Fourth Amendment. There are certain exceptions to that warrant requirement, such as the existence of “exigent circumstances”.

[t]he term, exigent circumstances, does not lend itself to a precise definition but generally refers to those situations in which law enforcement agents will be unable or unlikely to effectuate an arrest, search or seizure, for which probable cause exists, unless they act swiftly and, without seeking prior judicial authorization.

There are three categories of circumstances that are exigent: those that present a risk of danger to human life; the destruction of evidence; or the flight of a suspect.

The exigent circumstances doctrine, however, is limited to instances in which the police initially have probable cause either to arrest or to search.

So, when one day police officers knocked on the door of the third floor apartment at 239 Knickerbocker Avenue, Stamford, CT, the following was known to them:

  1. GPS data from a third-party’s cell phone, which was believed to be in the suspect’s possession, suggested that the suspect had been in the general vicinity of that address (not that apartment) for some unknown period of time in the past 41 hours, and

  2. That the resident of the third floor apartment had recently been keeping company with two black men in her apartment. The suspect, naturally, was black.

Since the police were searching for a murder suspect from New Jersey, who they believed to be armed and dangerous, they thought it permissible to enter the bedroom without obtaining a warrant, because of “exigent circumstances”. But that’s just sophistry.

As Justice McDonald’s blistering dissent [PDF] states:

Thus, at the time the police knocked on Valvo’s apartment door, all they reasonably believed was that [the murder suspect] Singer possibly was in possession of a cell phone, that this cell phone had been in the vicinity of 239 Knickerbocker Avenue at some moment in the preceding forty-one hours, and that a man who has the same skin color as Singer had been staying in the third  floor apartment of 239 Knickerbocker Avenue for an unspecified period of time.

You’d think, now, that the name of the case is State v. Singer. It isn’t. It is State v. Kendrick [PDF]. Mr. Kendrick is one of those unfortunate black men who happened to be in the apartment at that time and in whose possession a gun was found after this warrantless search.

Mr. Singer was arrested in New Jersey, where the crime of murder had been committed. Further, the cell phone used to ping the general vicinity of Knickerbocker Avenue in Stamford? Never found in Stamford.

But this is all the information relied upon by the prosecution to convince a judge that exigent circumstances existed: the possibility that a black suspect had been in the vicinity of an apartment building and the knowledge that one of the apartments therein had a few black men in them.

That, the majority opinion states, is enough to lead officers to believe that there exists “a risk of danger to human life”.

Can you every imagine any court saying that about white people? The suspect is white, and armed, and that apartment building there has white people in it, so go ahead and burst into any room you want because officer safety!

Of course not. This stands only because being black carries with it the subtext of being a criminal. And, as this Court is wont to do, the result justifies the means: there was a gun, after all. So he was a criminal and he was dangerous.

The dissent makes the point that the police and prosecution may have had further evidence to tie those residents in that apartment to the cell-phone and the murder suspect, but chose not to present it. If that’s the case, this opinion is even more troubling.

What this signals, in that event, is that all the police and prosecution have to proffer to a trial judge in order to circumvent the Constitution is that the suspects are black. That, alone, is sufficient to justify an officer’s fear that the suspect is a danger.

We already know that in Connecticut minorities cannot freely walk the streets anymore without being suspected of criminal activity. Now minorities can’t sleep in their apartments at night without fear of cops busting in without any probable cause. Because our Court has affirmed that being black is the same as being armed and dangerous.

Some lawyers in CT are also mandated reporters

That's your constitution in the middle, getting fucked over.

That’s your constitution in the middle, getting screwed over.

I wrote yesterday about the CT legislature failing to enact an exemption to the mandatory reporting statute for social workers employed by defense attorneys and the problems attendant to that.

In that post, I glibly noted that the legislature hasn’t yet made lawyers mandated reporters – and I was wrong.

In the public act that was just enacted, PA 14-186, the definitions of mandated reporters were “clarified” and some others were added to the list. This, surprisingly, now includes the following:

(14) any paid administrator, faculty, staff, athletic director, athletic coach or athletic trainer employed by a public or private institution of higher education who is eighteen years of age or older, excluding student employees.

The bold portion is the relevant portion. This would, generally speaking, include every professor or adjunct professor at a college, university or graduate school.

What is a graduate school? A law school. So faculty at a law school – also called law professors – are thereby included on this list. But that doesn’t seem to be the end of it. Any paid faculty encompasses the myriad adjunct professors who are full-time lawyers, but also dabble in teaching students on the side.

What makes it worse is that every law school in Connecticut has several clinical programs that deal exclusively with the representation of poor and disenfranchised people: the criminal trial clinic at UCONN, the appellate clinics at UCONN and Quinnipiac, the immigration and prisoner rights clinic at Yale, among many others1.

All of these clinics employ lawyers as professors who are responsible for representing these clients in real, actual courts and they supervise students for whom they are also responsible. They also employ full-time public defenders as adjunct faculty. Some also employ judges.

Law school clinics are a great teaching environment for lawyers of tomorrow, but they are also a tremendous cost-effective way to provide much needed legal services to poor citizens of this state and refugees from other countries.

But now, these law professors – the faculty members and the part-time paid adjunct faculty of these clinical programs who are most frequently public defenders – are also mandated reporters.

Worse, it doesn’t matter if the information they gleaned was during the course of their full-time employment as a public defender. By virtue of their being adjunct faculty members, they have to report their own clients, thus vitiating any attorney-client confidentiality and utterly destroying the Sixth Amendment guarantee of conflict-free representation.

This is utterly ridiculous. While there are many ethical opinions out there that state [PDF] conclusively that attorney-client privilege trumps [PDF] any mandatory reporting statute, the reality is that the legislatures are making failure to report suspected child abuse a very serious crime with incarceration as the penalty.

Of course, one might assume that the same protections apply to social workers or mitigation specialists who are part of the defense team – and there is some appellate authority to support that – but we aren’t going to know either for sure until a lawyer or social worker fails to report and gets arrested. While there are some who will put their liberty on the line and challenge the statute as being unconstitutional, that cannot be asked of anyone – no one should have to be the guinea pig.

Whether knowingly or otherwise, this legislature has taken steps to completely shred the 6th Amendment in Connecticut. This must be rectified immediately.