Articles Posted in Evidentiary Issues

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In a recent DUI case in Massachusetts, the state sought to prove that the defendant was impaired from marijuana while driving, thereby rendering him guilty of driving under the influence under that state’s DUI laws.  At the trial, the prosecutor had the arresting police officer testify that based on his observations of the defendant and the field sobriety exercises, the defendant was high on marijuana.  The defendant was convicted of DUI, and the criminal defense lawyer appealed.

The appeal was successful, and the DUI conviction was reversed.  The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a police officer cannot legally testify that a defendant was high on marijuana based on observations and a field sobriety test.  The court noted that marijuana can have different effects on different people.  Also, the police officer was not an expert on marijuana and its varying effects on people (very few, if any, are; most seem to think they are).  As a result, the police officer’s testimony on that issue was improper to support a DUI conviction.

In just about every DUI case, the police officer is going to ask the suspect to submit to field sobriety exercises.  These are difficult balancing and related exercises performed under adverse circumstances.  The directions for each test can be confusing, and if a suspect says he/she does not understand them or needs for them to be repeated, the police officer will likely suggest that is evidence of impairment rather than the officer’s poor communication or explanation.  The tests are completely subjective, and the judge is a police officer who likely already believes the suspect is impaired, otherwise that judge would not have asked the suspect to perform them in the first place.  Sometimes the suspect’s performance is recorded on a police officer’s camera in his/her vehicle, but often it is not because many police officers do not have video cameras in their vehicles.  If the arrest is not recorded, whether the defendant did well on the field sobriety exercises or completely failed them is a matter of the police officer’s word against the defendant’s word.  However, because the effects of excessive alcohol intake are well known and fairly consistent among different people, police officers are allowed to testify that a defendant who allegedly failed the field sobriety tests was too impaired from alcohol to drive.  That is not the case with regard to marijuana, according to this recent Massachusetts case.

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In Florida, we have a law commonly known as the accident report privilege.  In all crashes that involve an injury or significant property damage, the police officer responding to the crash must prepare a crash report that documents information about the crash and the people involved.  When a person is involved in an auto accident in Florida, that person must remain at the scene and provide certain information to the responding officer.  One can see how a duty to remain at the scene of the crash and provide information to the police might conflict with a person’s right to remain silent if there might be criminal implications to the crash.  Some crashes obviously involve criminal activity, such as driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, hit and run and/or driving with a suspended license.  People have a right to remain silent rather than make incriminating statements to the police.

In order to reconcile this conflict, the Florida accident report privilege provides that the state cannot use in court as evidence a person’s statement made to the police for the purpose of completing the crash report.  In other words, if a driver makes an incriminating statement to the police officer while he/she is conducting a crash investigation, the state cannot call the police officer to repeat that statement in court in the state’s case.

However, there are exceptions.  First, the state might be able to use a statement made by the driver for the purpose of completing the crash report as impeachment.  If at trial the defendant waives his/her right to remain silent and testifies in court about the crash, the state or the opposing party may use the statement made to the police at the time of the crash against the driver if it is inconsistent with what the driver is saying in court.  Another exception to the Florida accident report privilege exists where the driver does not follow the law after the crash.  For instance, if the driver is involved in a crash and the flees the scene, he/she loses the benefit of the accident report privilege.  Florida cases have ruled that where a driver is involved in an accident that results in a death and then leaves the scene of the crash (which is a serious felony crime in Florida), the driver loses the benefit of the accident report privilege if he/she gives a statement to the police once they locate the driver.

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The Constitution provides that no person can be compelled to make any incriminating statements against him/herself.  This means that when the police believe a person was involved in a crime and want to ask him/her questions about it, that person has a right to refuse to talk to the police.  Usually, that is the smart thing to do.  If that person is later arrested and charged with a crime, the state cannot use the fact that the person decided to remain silent against him/her in court.

This Fifth Amendment right to remain silent also means that a defendant does not have any obligation to testify at a criminal trial.  The defendant can always remain silent at the trial, and the state cannot make any negative comment about the defendant failing to provide his/her side of the story in court.

The Fifth Amendment does not protect a defendant in all situations when it comes to a person’s silence or comments about a potential crime.  For instances, the state can comment about a defendant’s silence after the defendant has waived his/her right to remain silent.

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In Florida, most people know that their Fifth Amendment right to remain silent means that the state cannot normally use a person’s silence in response to police questioning against them in court. However, does this same principle extend to a refusal to provide DNA?

In a recent murder case south of Jacksonville, Florida, the police responded to an apartment where they saw signs that the victim had been attacked. The police were able to collect DNA from the apartment which they believed came from the attacker. They went to question the defendant who was the ex-boyfriend of the victim. The police asked if they could take a DNA sample from the defendant (now done with a simple swab inside a person’s mouth) to compare it to what they found in the apartment. The defendant refused to give a DNA sample.

The defendant was ultimately arrested for murder. The state tried to admit the evidence that the defendant refused to provide a DNA sample. They argued that the defendant’s refusal was evidence of his consciousness of guilt. The trial court let the state admit the evidence. However, the case was reversed on appeal. The appellate court found it was particularly important that the police did not tell the defendant that if he refused to provide a DNA sample, that could be used against him in court, similar to Miranda warnings that are given. The defendant was given the impression that giving the DNA sample was optional, and if he refused, there would be no adverse consequences. Had the police made the proper disclosure to the defendant and he still refused, then the state would likely have been able to admit evidence of his refusal at the trial.

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States have different laws dealing with whether you can record a person’s oral communications and disclose it to the police or use it as evidence in court. Some states allow such a recording as long as just one party to the discussion agrees, even if the consenting party is also the party recording the conversation. In Florida, it is illegal to record an oral communication unless the people communicating know of the recording and consent. Therefore, in Florida, you cannot secretly record a private conversation with another person and then disclose it or use it in court.

There are exceptions to this rule. As discussed, consent is one of them. It is not uncommon to have a phone conversation with a business and be told that they are recording the conversation. In that case, the recording is legal, and the conversation could be used later in court. The rule about recording private communications would seem to be more important these days as just about every cell phone now can also be used as a recording device. People need to be aware that the things they say could be recorded and later used against them. Of course, this Florida law is supposed to offer some protection by requiring someone who wants to record a conversation to notify the other person and get the proper consent.

However, not all oral communications are subject to this legal protection. Under Florida law, an “oral communication” is considered a communication that is made with the expectation that it would remain private and not be recorded or heard publicly. In other words, if you are having a conversation on a crowded bus, it can be recorded without your knowledge and consent because it is obviously not a private conversation. On the other hand, if you are having a conversation with another person in your home or office, without other people around, it would likely be considered private and could not be recorded without your consent.

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With cell phones that have the capability to record audio and video, people record other people’s communications all of the time. However, that may not be legal in Florida. There is a statute that addresses this issue, but its interpretation is not clear. The Florida statute basically says it is illegal to record another person’s conversation without that other person’s knowledge and consent. This means you cannot call someone on the phone and record the conversation without telling the other person you are recording the conversation and getting his/her agreement. There are exceptions to the rule, and it is not exactly clear how the exceptions apply.

Of course, as indicated, knowledge and consent of the other party makes recording legal. Also, there is a legal exception for law enforcement officers to intercept an oral communication when the officer is a party to the conversation and for law enforcement to record a conversation involving other people if one of the parties agrees and it is for the purpose of obtaining evidence for a criminal case.

Based on this, it is clear that the police are permitted to record a conversation between Person A and Person B if Person A knows about the recording and agrees to it and the purpose is to discover evidence for a criminal case. This is what is commonly known as a controlled call. The police often use this technique to have a trusted friend or family member who is working with the police call a suspect and try to get the suspect to make incriminating statements while they record the call. As long as the suspect’s friend agrees to the recording, it is legal even though the suspect obviously will not be told of the recording or the police involvement.

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Most people in Florida enjoy the Constitutional protections that prevent the police from searching a person’s home, vehicle or other belongings without probable cause, a search warrant and/or consent. In other words, police cannot just go and enter a person’s home or search something that belongs to a person without respecting certain Constitutional safeguards, which generally require a search warrant or an agreement from the owner of what is being searched.

However, people on probation in Florida do not necessarily get the full protection of these Constitutional provisions. When a defendant pleads guilty or no contest to a criminal charge or is found guilty after a trial, the judge will sentence the defendant. That sentence often includes probation, either by itself or after a term of incarceration. When a defendant goes on probation, there are certain conditions that must be followed. There may be specific conditions in certain cases, such as paying a certain amount for restitution in a fraud case, and general conditions that apply to most or all cases. One of the general conditions of probation that is often ordered in Florida is one that allows a probation officer to enter the probationer’s home to search it for drugs, weapons or other indicia of criminal activity. While a probation officer or law enforcement officer would not normally be allowed to enter a person’s home and look around without a search warrant or permission in advance, a person on probation does not have that same protection if a random search was included as a condition of probation. If the probation officer randomly searches a probationer’s home and finds anything illegal, that probationer could face new charges and a violation of probation charge without being able to successfully challenge the search and get the evidence thrown out.

In a recent case near Jacksonville, Florida, a defendant was sentenced to probation after being convicted of a violent crime. A general condition of probation allowed the probation officer to enter his home any time to search it. These general conditions of probation are often not disclosed to the defendant in court during the sentencing hearing. A defendant may have to carefully read his/her sentencing paperwork to see that the condition exists. Many do not bother to do that.

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Most people are aware that the United States Constitution affords people the right to remain silent. This means that a person does not have to give any statement to police that might be incriminating, and a defendant cannot be compelled to testify at his/her own trial. If a person chooses not to speak with police and/or chooses not to testify at trial, the state cannot use that choice against the person. For instance, a prosecutor could never tell the jury to infer that the defendant is guilty because he/she did not testify and defend him/herself at trial.

When a person is arrested in Florida, he/she should be read Miranda warnings. The Miranda warnings inform a person of certain rights, including the right to remain silent and the warning that if the suspect does make a statement, it can be used against him/her in court. That is fairly well known at this point. If a person is arrested and decides not to make a statement, he/she is exercising his/her constitutional rights, and the state cannot mention that silence at the defendant’s trial to try and use it against him.

However, there are times when a police officer is investigating a crime and is not sure whether a person is a suspect. In those early stages, before any arrest, if the police officer asks a person questions and the person remains silent, can that silence be used against him/her at trial? Technically, before an arrest or a detention where the person is not free to leave, Miranda warnings and the constitutional right to remain silent are not implicated. What if a police officer arrives at a crime scene, has no idea who the suspect might be, asks a person some questions, that person remains silent and then is later developed as a suspect? Can the state use that silence against him/her?

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When a defendant in Florida is arrested and charged with a crime and then decides to enter a guilty or no contest plea, or has a trial and is found guilty, he/she will be sentenced by the judge. The judge will likely have a few options when sentencing the defendant. The judge can sentence the defendant to incarceration, probation, both or neither (time served). If the defendant is sentenced to a term of probation, there will be certain conditions that the defendant must follow. If the defendant fails to comply with one or more of the conditions of his/her probation, the judge may issue an arrest warrant for a violation of probation. If it is determined that the probationer violated his/her probation, the judge will likely sentence him/her again to incarceration and/or more time on probation.

There are a few conditions that are fairly standard for anyone on probation. For instance, a person on probation will likely be required to avoid possessing or using any drugs, except those prescribed by a doctor. If the original charge was a drug related charge, the probationer might have to have to take random drug tests. If the probationer is found with an illegal drug like cocaine or marijuana in his/her system, a violation of probation warrant is likely. If the probationer is found with a drug like Hydrocodone or Xanax in his/her system, the probationer should be safe as long as he/she can show that he/she has a valid prescription for the drug. Normally, the probationer will inform the probation officer of all of his/her prescription drugs at the beginning of the probation. However, if the probationer cannot produce a valid prescription, it will likely be treated as if the probationer is using any other illegal drug.

In a recent case near Jacksonville, Florida, a defendant received a probationary sentence and was required to avoid possessing or using any drugs, except a prescription drug with the appropriate prescription from a doctor. After a random drug test, the probationer’s sample tested positive for opiates and Oxycodone, according to his probation officer. A warrant for a violation of probation was issued. At the probation violation hearing, the state’s only witness was the probation officer. He testified that he performed an informal field test on the probationer’s urine sample that resulted in the positive results. The sample was then sent off to a drug testing lab for more formal testing. At the hearing, the probation officer brought the more thorough lab test result document that also indicated the probationer provided a urine sample positive for opiates. Finally, he testified that he received an anonymous call indicated he should drug test the probationer because he was using drugs he bought off the street.

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In Florida, defendants in criminal cases have certain Constitutional rights that stay with them from the time they are arrested until their trial, if they choose to have one. One of those rights is the right to be considered innocent unless and until the state proves the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Many people are familiar with that right as it is one of the few things the TV shows get right, and it is a primary right that most people hear about along the way. But what does it mean?

When a person is charged with a crime in Florida, that person is entitled to a trial whereby a jury or judge decides whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. At that trial, the defendant is presumed innocent. Only after the state presents sufficient evidence of the defendant’s guilt, if the state ever does, does that presumption of innocent disappear. Because a defendant is presumed innocent and the state has the burden of proving the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant and the criminal defense lawyer do not have have to present any evidence or provide any testimony to ensure a not guilty verdict. Of course the criminal defense attorney can put on as much evidence and testimony as he/she wants to support the defense, but he/she does not have to. If the defense puts on no evidence and merely decides to attack the state’s evidence, the defendant must be found not guilty if the state never meets its burden of proof.

In conjunction with these rights and procedures, the state cannot state or imply to a jury that the defendant is supposed to present evidence proving he/she is not guilty. The state cannot make any comments about a defendant who either did not testify in court or refused to talk to police before the trial. The state cannot argue to the jury that the criminal defense lawyer failed to present evidence showing the defendant is not guilty.