Articles Posted in Trial Tactics

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Can prosecutors strike minorities from a jury simply because of their race?

Since 1978 criminal attorneys in California have not been allowed to remove potential jurors from a jury simply because of their race. During voir dire, or jury selection, counsel on both sides have preemptory challenges and can remove jurors for basically any reason, from being too young, too old, too mean looking, you name it. But minorities are a protected class and a person can’t be excluded from a jury simply because of their racial profile.

But even with this so-called Batson/Wheeler protection, minorities have been getting kicked off of juries for decades. Attorneys who thought having a certain race on the jury panel would disadvantage their case would just kick them off and give other excuses, even if those excuses were flimsy. People v. Gutierrez, 2017 DJDAR 5100 (June 1, 2017), a new case from the California Supreme Court, has recently put some teeth back into Batson/Wheeler challenges.

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The DA has the right to charge a DUI where injury is claimed, with either a felony or a misdemeanor. What makes it a felony charge or a less severe misdemeanor is the extent of the injury suffered by the victim. Sometimes it’s obvious that a case is a felony. A clear example of this is a DUI driver who runs a red light and injures another driver, cutting off his leg in the collision. The law is clear that, if as a result of a DUI, there’s a collision that is the fault of the DUI driver and there is injury caused by the DUI driver then the DUI driver could e charged with a DUI With Injury (CVC 23153).

The issue of fault is really important because if, for example, a DUI driver is stopped at a stop sign and another driver rear ends him and is injured, the DUI driver can’t be charged with DUI With Injury because the fact he was DUI has nothing to do with the injury.

I recently tried a case with a DUI driver who had a .33 blood alcohol level, who rear ended another driver on the freeway. There was no doubt who was a fault. But, the driver who was hit claimed soft tissue injury. She treated at a chiropractor who she was referred to by her lawyer. The DA bought the “victim’s” story that she was injured and charged my client with a misdemeanor DUI With Injury. I wouldn’t accept the idea that she was guilty of a DUI With Injury and offered to plead her to a straight DUI. We want to trial. There was only one issue; did my client, who was obviously DUI, cause this “victim” injury?

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Secret-Bail-Hearing.jpgThink secret bail hearings only exist in fiction? Unfortunately the answer is no, even though the 6th amendment to the constitution guarantees everyone the right to a public trial if they’re accused of a criminal act. The United States Supreme Court has long held that this right extends to pre-trial hearings and motions. (Waller v. Georgia)

Bail hearings are no different, as the outcome of a bail hearing directly decides whether or not defendants must remain in custody while they await trial! (United States v. Abuhamra). That’s what makes the recent decision in In Re Carrillo so unsettling. (In Re Carrillo 219 Cal.App.4th 572). Mr. Carrillo was arrested on charges of committing assault with a deadly weapon. At his initial bail hearing, Mr. Carrillo’s bail was set at $90,000. Then, without any notice to Mr. Carrillo, and without giving him a chance to contest, the Judge and Prosecutors held a second, closed door bail hearing. At this bail hearing Prosecutors presented “confidential” evidence indicating they believed Mr. Carrillo was a threat to the community and should post a larger bail. The Judge took the Prosecution at its word, and set Mr. Carrillo’s bail at $1,000,000.

Mr. Carrillo had no chance to contest the information presented to the Judge. He didn’t even know what was presented to the Judge. He just knew that without his knowledge a warrant was issued for his arrest, even though as far as he knew he had posted bail. The Court in his case found this to be a violation of his rights, but in doing so laid out a perfect plan for any Prosecutor wishing to repeat this feat without getting in trouble. What are the magic steps? Well, the Prosecutor has to give notice, but the defendant still doesn’t have the right to be present! As long as he knows the “gist” of what is being presented at this hearing, and as long as the Judge makes an independent determination that the information being presented is reliable, well then it’s just fine to raise a defendant’s bail to $1,000,000! It’s now possible to have secret search warrants (People v. Hobbs 7 Cal.4th 948), anonymous juries (People v. Thomas 53 Cal.4th 771), and secret witnesses (US v. Jesus-Casteneda 705 Fed.3d 1117). With this new attack on the fundamental concept of presumption of innocence, it’s no wonder the average defendant thinks he faces a presumption of guilt regardless of what the Constitution says.

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Wittness-Cant-Appear.jpgThe justice system has to be able to conduct lengthy criminal trials even when important witnesses can’t be there. For example, a typical murder trial will last at least two to three weeks, and may require the testimony of dozens of witnesses. Because of the backlog in our court system, it can be fairly unpredictable as to exactly when a trial will start. For instance, even after all the formal delays in starting a trial (known as asking for a “continuance”), the state still has 10 days to “trail” the case as they wait for a courtroom to become available. And none of this takes into account the time between when an alleged crime occurs and when a case actually goes to trial. In fact, a trial can be years in the making.

So what happens if a witness who has important testimony simply won’t be available when a case finally goes to trial? Sometimes an important witness for either the prosecutor or the defendant will fall ill, move out of the country, or any other number of things happen which would make them unavailable to appear at the trial. The solution to this dilemma is what is known as a “conditional examination.” The procedure to be used in such an examination is carefully crafted to protect the prosecution and the defense and the ability of both to have a fair trial when that time comes.

California Penal Code Sections 1335 through 1345 set forth the circumstances when a conditional examination may be conducted. A conditional examination is appropriate when a witness is: 1) About to leave the state, 2) So sick or disabled that their ability to testify is in doubt, 3) Sixty-five years of age or older, or 4) A dependent adult. For purposes of the “conditional examination” the witness’ testimony is taken in a normal courtroom setting. The Judge, Prosecutor, Defendant and his counsel are all present. While a jury is not present, the testimony is audio and video recorded. If the witness is truly unavailable for trial the tape recording can be played for the jury during the trial. The testimony given at a conditional examination has the same force and effect as if the testimony were conducted live and in person in front of the jury.

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One of the bedrocks of our justice system is the right to have a fair trial. Part and parcel of this is your right to have a jury of your peers impartially weigh the facts of your case and decide whether they believe you broke the law or not. Sometimes the only way to know whether or not you received a fair trial from a jury is to make sure you get out there and talk to them right after a verdict. A defense attorney or defendant is allowed to interview jurors if they are willing to talk, and this is an invaluable tool in making sure your trial was fair.

Recently I found out through an interview with a juror that my client very likely did not receive a fair trial. This juror was horrified at the behavior of her fellow colleagues. She informed me that some of the other jurors were improperly acting as if they had expert knowledge on certain technical subjects, and were openly persuading their fellow juror members that the experts who testified at this trial were wrong! Not only that, but they were belligerent and forceful! In the end this juror felt horrible for voting the way she did because she felt like she gave in to pressure and someone was wrongly found guilty because of it. She couldn’t believe the bias of her fellow jurors and their willingness to convict someone based on their “intuition” when so much evidence pointed to a different outcome.

Since I’ve been doing this for a long time, I knew instantly that I needed to file a “Motion for New Trial”, and let the judge know that the verdict against my client was improper. But I worry that less experienced or dedicated attorneys would never have caught this huge issue. It takes time and effort and a strong resolve to calmly meet and try to talk with a jury after a verdict, but it’s absolutely necessary to insuring a client received a fair trial by impartial, honest jurors. A good attorney knows that their obligation to a client is a full one, and it continues even after a trial.

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Everyone has heard the term “hung jury”, but what exactly does it mean? In a criminal case in California, the jury verdict must be unanimous. All 12 jurors must agree that either the defendant is either guilty or not guilty. A hung jury happens when the jurors simply can’t reach a unanimous verdict. It doesn’t matter what the split is. It could be 6 jurors for guilty and 6 jurors for not guilty or 11 jurors for one side and only one lone “holdout” juror for the other. Sometimes the jury will come back in and inform the judge that they can’t reach a verdict and the judge will send them back to deliberate further and give them a suggestion as to how to break the deadlock, such as the people who are voting for not guilty argue the other side, and the jurors who want to acquit argue for guilty. In any case, once the judge determines that the jury is not ever going to reach a unanimous verdict a mistrial is declared.

According to The Encyclopedia Britannica, a mistrial is “a trial that has been terminated and declared void before the tribunal can hand down a decision or render a verdict. The termination of a trial prematurely nullifies the preceding proceedings as if they had not taken place. Therefore, should another trial on the same charges, with the same defendants, be ordered, that trial would start from the beginning, with the previous testimony or other findings not necessarily relevant in the new court proceedings.

I recently had a driving under the influence trial that resulted in a mistrial. In the end, the jury split was 10 jurors for guilty and 2 for not guilty. To show you how influential fellow jurors can be on each other, when the jury took their first vote, it was 9 jurors for NOT guilty and 3 for guilty. Clearly there were some very persuasive jurors in the room who argued their case with enough passion to change the minds of 7 jurors who initially thought the defendant was not guilty. This is what trial lawyers hope or fear depending on which side they happen to be on.

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Feel like you’re being tried in a kangaroo court? Has someone falsely accused you of committing a serious crime and then disappeared before you have a chance to defend yourself in court? It happens more often than you think. You get accused by someone in a “he said she said” situation of committing a serious crime. That person gives a statement to the police or provides testimony in a preliminary hearing against you. Then they disappear! And the District Attorney suddenly says your accuser is “unavailable” for trial.

An inexperienced defense attorney might not know that you have a Constitutional right to confront your accusers in court. Without a chance to have a jury evaluate your accuser’s statements for themselves you might find yourself in jail for a long time. An experienced defense attorney however would know that a District Attorney has to try a little harder than simply saying “they’re gone!” For instance, a District Attorney is required to subpoena witnesses, and even put out warrants for their arrest if they refuse to testify and instead try to disappear. Even if they flee to another country like Mexico, a District Attorney has a duty to use things like U-Visas to get those witnesses back! A U-Visa is a temporary visa that a state or federal official can grant to a witness who has vital knowledge of a crime being prosecuted in the USA.

Before you get railroaded in court by a system that seems stacked against you, make sure you have an experienced attorney on your side to hold the government accountable!

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Recently I visited the ongoing trial of a man accused of murder. The defendant was a Hispanic man in his twenties and was an admitted member of a Hispanic gang in Santa Ana. I walked into the courtroom, sat down and took a look at the jury. I almost laughed out loud. Here was this rough and tumble Hispanic gang member and the jury judging him was totally made up of white people. The jury members looked about as far removed from the life the defendant had lived as was possible.

The sixth amendment of the United States Constitution provides in part, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed…” It is commonly thought that a defendant is entitled to a “jury of his peers” but that is not what the Constitution guarantees. The Constitution only guarantees an impartial jury, not one that in reality has anything in common with the defendant other than they are all human.

However, the Supreme Court noted over a century ago in Strauder v. West Virginia, the jury should be drawn from a group “composed of the peers or equals [of the defendant]; that is, of his neighbors, fellows, associates, persons having the same legal status in society as he holds.” This case involved an African American defendant and a jury in which other African Americans were excluded as a matter of law. This was held to be unconstitutional.

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What happens when just one of twelve refuses to vote for guilty? That juror becomes the Hold Out Juror. It takes twelve guilty votes to convict. A jury has twelve members. All twelve have to agree and vote for guilt before a guilty verdict can be returned.

The Hold Out Juror is the one who won’t go along with the other eleven jurors voting to convict. All kinds of pressure is applied. Shouting at the juror often occurs. Finger pointing in an angry manner is directed at the Hold Out Juror. When this abusive conduct doesn’t succeed in swaying the Hold Out Juror irrefutable logic is attempted. The other jurors usually appoint one of their brethren to explain how it just couldn’t have happened the way the Hold Out Juror sees the evidence. Of course, he will say, logic dictates that the Defendant’s story is full of holes. How could you believe his testimony when it flies in the face of what makes sense to all eleven of us? What is it about you that you don’t get it?

When logic fails to bring the Hold Out Juror into the unanimous fold, it becomes a case of, if we don’t reach a verdict then all of our time, the taxpayers’ money, and all of our effort has been wasted. You, the Hold Out Juror don’t want that do you?

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Recently an 18 year old appeared by way of a video arraignment. She was in jail and the judge was in the courtroom. The original charge was pretty simple. However, she was in jail having just been arrested the night before. The Defendant was standing at the podium in the jail looking at the camera. The judge was Hispanic and spoke with an accent. An older gentleman he had a “no nonsense” approach to his court calendar.

The Defendant giggled and played with her hair. She laughed and was practically twirling when she spoke to the judge. He was set to handle her case very promptly and would have released her from jail in all likelihood had she played her cards right. Instead, after laughing and twirling her hair throughout the process the judge didn’t see anything funny about her attitude and set her bail at $20,000.00. She turned and said “adios” to the judge. After turning away, she realized that her bail had been set at an amount she couldn’t make she protested and told the judge “F….You”. Now this, obviously, didn’t sit well with the judge.

The judge demanded to know if he had heard her correctly. The Defendant not being smart enough to leave well enough alone repeated her unfortunate comment and gave the judge “the finger”. This gesture is universally known to be one exhibiting an extreme amount of contempt towards the recipient. Since the judge was the recipient he took offense. Having taken offense, he found her in direct criminal contempt of court and promptly sentenced her to 30 days in jail. The Defendant was last seen walking out of view still saluting the judge.