Valpo Law Blog

Analysis of current legal issues and cases in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals

Category: Evidence Law (page 1 of 2)

Seventh Circuit’s Decision Discourages the Code of Silence

By: Duke Truong
J.D. Candidate, 2017
Valparaiso University School of Law

Who can serve as witnesses in police brutality cases? On January 28, 2016, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals provided an answer with its decision in United States v. Smith, Nos. 14-3744, 14-3721.

In September 2012, Putnam County Officer Terry Joe Smith punched a handcuffed Cletis Warren in the face. The ambulance took Warren to the hospital to stop the profuse bleeding. Fellow officers at the scene heard Smith say, “I guarantee I broke that mother fucker’s nose.”

Several months later, Smith arrested Jeffrey Land for domestic violence. After Smith handcuffed Land, he lifted Land in the air, dropped him, and drove his knee into Land’s sternum, causing Land to defecate on himself. Smith bragged about the incident to a fellow officer and took pride that it was not the first time.

These two incidents of police brutality are but a small sample of the ills of police misconduct plaguing our society.

A jury found that Smith violated 18 U.S.C. § 242 by subjecting Warren and Land to the intentional use of unreasonable and excessive force in violation of their constitutional rights. Smith was sentenced to 14 months in prison and two years of supervised release.

Both Smith and the government appealed to the Seventh Circuit: Smith appealed his conviction, and the government appealed the lenient sentencing. The panel ruled for the government, upholding the conviction and requiring the district judge to resentence Smith based on the guidelines.

Officers who witnessed Smith’s assaults testified that his use of force was unjustified because neither Warren nor Land were resisting. In the court’s words, the officers testified to Smith’s “violent, gratuitous, and sadistic batteries of Warren and Land.”

Smith’s lawyer objected to the officer’s testimony by asserting that they were unqualified expert witnesses under Federal Rule of Evidence 702. Writing for the panel, Judge Posner upheld the trial court’s rejection of that objection under Rule 701. Under Rule 701, a non-expert witness can give an opinion based on the witness’s perception to help determine the fact in issue that isn’t based on scientific, technical, or specialized knowledge.

Police use of excessive force has been nothing short of controversial. In a 2010 annual report by the Cato Institute, excessive force complaints made up 56.9 percent of cases that involved the physical use of force by peace officers. On July 17, 2014, a plainclothes police officer applied a chokehold to Eric Garner while a swarm of officers tried to pin him to the ground. Garner gasped for air and uttered his final words, “I can’t breathe.” Mr. Garner’s death serves as a prime example of excessive force and many Americans’ worst fears when they have face-to-face contact with the police.

With this decision, the Seventh Circuit discourages the code of silence that exists within the police community. The officers stood up despite the misconception that they were turning their backs on one of their own.

Homicide By Strangulation… During Sex

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By: Macey Albert
J.D. Candidate, 2017
Valparaiso University School of Law

For one man, a seemingly great night turned into a long journey through the judicial system. In Thomas v. Clements, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed a man’s conviction where he killed his wife after applying too much pressure on her during sex.

Joyce Oliver-Thomas and Oscar Thomas were married. After nine years of marriage, the two divorced; however, Oliver allowed Thomas to continue living in her apartment where the two continued a sexual relationship. On the night of the incident in question, the police received a call from Thomas saying that Oliver was unconscious. When the police arrived Oliver was unresponsive, eyes open, and without any pulse. She was announced dead at the hospital.

Thomas gave two inconstant statements. He first stated that he left the apartment and came back and found Oliver grabbing her neck in a choking manner. He later stated that he left the apartment and began watching a pornographic movie. When he returned he and Oliver had sex, during which they fell off the bed and continued to have sex. He mentioned that at one point while engaging in sexual activity he had his arm around her neck. Thomas was found guilty by the trial court for unintentionally causing Oliver’s death by putting pressure on her neck for too long during sex. The trial court ruled under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) and Thomas appealed, alleging that the wrong standard was applied.

To prevail on his claim, Thomas had to first show that his counsel’s performance was deficient, meaning it fell below the objective standard of reasonableness. Thomas argued the defense counsel was deficient in failing to consider and consult with a pathologist who would have reviewed the autopsy report and testified. Dr. Mainland’s (the plaintiff’s expert) pretrial testimony showed that Thomas acted intentionally. This corroborated with the testimony of the plaintiff in which he admitted having his arm around her neck before she died, as well as the counsel choosing not to argue the issue of causation. The combination of these factors gave what seemed to be a reasonable inference of intent. There were no signs of fight or struggle between Thomas and Oliver, however. Therefore,  counsel should have known there was reason to question a finding of intentional homicide. A responsible counsel would have at least contacted an expert to check if the medical findings could be reconciled.

Next, Thomas had to show that there was a reasonable probability that, but for the counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. The expert mention that strangulation would likely result after four minutes of pressure, meaning there were roughly fifty-five minutes in which Oliver was not being choked to death. All parties admit there was no evidence of external marks on either Thomas or Oliver. Dr. Teas’s testimony in the post-conviction hearing stated that because there were no external bruising on the neck or bone, the necessary injuries of strangulation were missing.

Dr. Teas’s testimony provided that even if Thomas did cause Oliver’s death, it was not intentional. The facts were consistent with an accidental death and sufficient to raise a reasonable doubt; therefore, there was evidence of prejudice for ineffective assistance of counsel purposes. The Seven Circuit  ruled that after reviewing the case de novo the counsel’s performance in relation to a pathologist expert was deficient and that Oliver was prejudiced by counsel’s deficient performance.

The Unlawful Inquisition

By: Jonathan Joseph,  MBA, CPA
J.D. Candidate, 2016
Valparaiso University School of Law

How much information may a judge solicit from a telephonic interview? When does an oral interview become an unlawful interrogation? A recent case decided by the Seventh Circuit attempts to answer these very questions.

After serving a term in an Illinois state prison for a sex crime, the plaintiff was committed to a Treatment and Detention Facility, pursuant to the civil Sexually Violent Persons Commitment Act. He had a job in the facility’s dietary services department, but was fired. He filed suit against four dietary department staff members under 42 U.S.C. 1983. The plaintiff alleged that he was fired in retaliation for previous lawsuits he had brought against staff members. As required by 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2), the district judge screened the complaint at the outset of the case to determine whether it “fail[ed] to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.” The judge found that the lawsuit “contained only conclusory allegations [in which] the plaintiff simply stated he had filed previous lawsuits and assumed people knew about it.” He ruled that the complaint did, indeed, fail to state a claim, and dismissed the suit with prejudice.

The judge had interviewed the plaintiff by telephone. During the interview, which the judge characterized as a “merit review,” no transcript or audio recording was kept. One could characterize the interview as inquisitional in its nature. The term “inquisition” has ominous overtones to those familiar with European medieval religious history, but today, an inquisitorial hearing is defined as “a hearing in open court in which the judge examines the parties to the suit rather than leaving examination to the lawyers, which is adversarial rather than inquisitorial.” In this case, the district judge went beyond the inquisitorial in its modern sense, because he examined the plaintiff in “secrecy being secured by the absence of a transcript, or even a judge’s or reporter’s notes.”

The Seventh Circuit reversed the district judge’s decision, noting that it previously rejected ex parte telephonic interrogation as a method of screening complaints to determine whether they state a claim. The court recognized that there are circumstances that merit telephonic interviews. These  can involve parties who are incarcerated and are done in order to save the time and expense of transporting a prisoner to court. However, these circumstances do not allow for questioning regarding the validity of the case. It is permissible for the judge to interview a pro se detainee plaintiff to determine what the facts of the case are, but not whether the plaintiff’s case is meritorious.

When a judge conducts any questioning of a witness, plaintiff, or defendant, that interview must be recorded and entered into the record. The judge must ensure that a transcript or recording of the interview be made to allow appellate review and prevent a reversal of a case that even the Seventh Circuit felt was weak: “barebones—maybe so thin that it could have been dismissed without further ado.” The court was obligated to take the judge’s error as grounds for reversal.

Citing Williams v. Wahner, the Court did not “mince words” when declaring that the use of ex parte telephonic interrogation as a method of screening complaints to determine whether they state a claim is unlawful. The court said that 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a), a screening provision similar to § 1915(e)(2), does not contemplate an oral examination of a party by the judge designed to elicit answers that will enable the judge to resolve contestable factual issues. “If the validity of a claim depends on the accuracy of the plaintiff’s factual allegations, and their accuracy can’t be resolved without an oral hearing, it is a matter to be resolved at trial, in conformity with the procedures that govern trials. . . We expect that when this court declares a procedure employed by a district judge, or district judges, of this circuit unlawful, the procedure will be abandoned. Regrettably, not all the district judges have abandoned it.”

If a judge needs additional information from a detainee to determine the merits of a lawsuit going forward, the judge can make a limited appointment of counsel specifically for the purpose of fact-finding and release the attorney after sufficient information has been gathered. That may only involve a single interview or even a telephone call, which would satisfy the judge’s need for information and uphold the lawfulness of the manner in which it was obtained. Inquisitions, however, are unlawful and viewed with prejudice by the Seventh Circuit.

7th Circuit Attempts to Define Due Process

By: Macey Albert
J.D. Candidate, 2017
Valparaiso University School of Law

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeal issued a ruling that helps outline the definition of a “search and seizure” in United States v. Smith. The Court reviewed a case where a Milwaukee citizen alleged that two officers violated his Fourth Amendment rights during a routine stop. Judge Williams wrote the Opinion for a two-judge panel.

Officers Michael Michalski and Michael Flannery were on bicycle duty on the night in question. Around 10:00 at night, the officers heard three to four gunshots. Neither of the officers called dispatch to report the shots fired; Instead, the officers rode their bikes to a near street where they talked to witnesses. One witness reported that the gunshots were coming from the west of his location, to which the officers made no inquires or asked if the witness himself possessed a weapon.

The officers, responding to the given information, rode one block over where Dontray Smith–a resident of the neighborhood–was spotted. Smith was not running nor manifested suspicious behavior. Smith was leaving from the east side headed toward the west, making it unlikely that he was the person discharging a weapon. Nonetheless, the officers proceeded into the alley ahead of Smith.

Once Smith and the two officers were in the alley, the officers turned around and stopped five feet in front of Smith. Officer Michalski got off his bike and approached Smith with his hand on his gun. Neither officer identified himself as an officer, made an introduction, or asked Smith for identification. The officer began by asking Smith if he had a weapon, to which Smith responded “Yes.” Smith did not have a permit for his firearm and was arrested for being a felon in possession of a firearm. In Court, Smith filed a motion to suppress, alleging his statement to the officers (as well as the gun uncovered as a result of the questioning) were obtained through an unreasonable search and seizure in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights.

The Seven Circuit ruled that Smith’s Fourth Amendment rights were, indeed, violated. The Court’s holding relied on five factors: (1) the location of encounter; (2) the threatening presence of multiple officers; (3) the aggressive nature of the questioning; (4) the obstruction of Smith’s freedom of movement which was physically obstructed by the positioning of the officers in the alley; and (5) their presence on bicycles rather than a marked squad car. Therefore, the encounter between the two officers and Smith constituted an unlawful search as a result of the police following proper procedure during their stop.

This case illustrate’s an officer’s duty to protect citizens, particularly through following the proper protocols and procedures that officers are to abide by. This case illustrates that the protocols are most of the time not a black and white issue. Of course, police are human beings capable of making mistakes; however this case emphasizes the importance of an officer using his best judgment in situations like Smith’s. Issues involving black males have become more and more prevalent in the news—especially over the past year. With this being said, there is a greater need for officers to guarantee that proper steps were followed. This seems to be the very concept that the Seventh Circuit is trying to address by asserting Smith’s rights in their decision.

The Risk that the Tax Man Cometh

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By: Jonathan E. Joseph, MBA, CPA
Juris Doctor Candidate, 2016
Valparaiso University School of Law

Appellate rulings can be instructive road maps assisting attorneys in avoiding legal errors of judgment. The overzealous prosecutor in charge of the fraud case against Evangel Capital principal Jamal Lawson in U.S. v. Jamal Lawson, Sr. narrowly avoided losing an “airtight” case when he created a “needless risk” by introducing the defendant’s tax returns as evidence of fraudulent intent.

In this case, the defendant admitted defrauding churches and other religious institutions of over $270,000 in fees that were supposed to secure financing for multi-million dollar projects. Instead, Lawson pocketed the money for personal use; not a single project was successfully financed. Furthermore, Lawson admitted this to federal investigators, creating sufficient evidence to secure a successful prosecution.

Unfortunately, the prosecuting attorney over-reached. He gained the court’s permission to demonstrate that the defendant had not reported the fees as income, hoping to show the jury that this omission further demonstrated Lawson’s fraudulent intent. Interestingly, neither the judge nor the prosecutor adequately enlightened the jury about this intent. Instead, the defendant argued on appeal that the jury used the tax information for the “forbidden purpose” of “treating Lawson as having a propensity to commit crimes.”

On appeal, the state argued that the tax information negated Lawson’s intent to extend loans and indicated there was no legitimate business being conducted. Unfortunately, its instructions to the jury were unclear and created the excessive (and completely unnecessary) risk of the jury’s drawing the improper propensity inference. On appeal, the Court also admonished the district court judge for failing to instruct the jury regarding the specific proper use of the tax information. In its finding, the Appellate Court characterized both the prosecutor and district court judge’s performances during jury instruction as “disappointing.” Although these prosecutorial errors were insufficient to overturn the airtight conviction, this decision illustrates the importance of avoiding unnecessary complication in cases where the facts are sufficient to obtain the desired outcome.

There is another lesson to be learned from this decision. Neither the prosecutor nor the judge gave Federal. Rule of Evidence 403 adequate attention. United States v. Gomez states that judges must exclude evidence that may cause juries to draw the forbidden propensity inference or that lacks a proper use. This underscores the risk of giving too much leeway to a jury if final instructions are vague or imprecise. In Lawson, the prosecutor almost turned an easy decision into a miscarriage of justice.

In The Interest of Justice

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By: John Acosta
Valparaiso University School of Law
J.D. Candidate, 2016

“In the interest of justice” is the theme of the opinion in U.S. v. Jordan, issued by the Seventh Circuit earlier this month.

Jordan’s nearly 30 pounds of marijuana was hearsay, according to his lawyers. In Jordan’s first revocation hearing, the key piece of evidence against him was a police report prepared by a Texas State Trooper, who arrested Jordan in Texas after a traffic stop. The trooper did not testify and the court admitted the hearsay report over Jordan’s objection, and relied upon it to find a violation to return Jordan to prison.

The appeals court reversed in the interest of justice under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 32.1(b) (2) (C) for failure to allow the defendant to cross-examine the trooper. Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 32.1(b) (2) (C), as interpreted by the court in U.S. v. Thompson, was only violated when the presiding judge appeared by video conference.

The appeals court went on to say that the appearance requirement only applied to the parties and the presiding judge – not witnesses. The rule that came out of Thompson was that the use of video conferencing is an exception to the rule, but not a default. Thompson explains that some hearing participants under specific exceptions can use video conferencing to attend a revocation hearing. Those exceptions are located in Federal Rule of Criminal Procedures 43, Rule 5, and Rule 10.

Here, the State Trooper was unable to attend the revocation hearing but the court allowed him to authenticate his report and lab results for the marijuana by video conference. The court found that the testimony of the trooper did not violate Rule 32.1(b) (2). The court makes it clear, “in the interest of justice,” defendants must be afforded the opportunity to confront their accusers, especially when the testimony is being offered to place them back in prison.

This ruling puts those involved in revocation hearings on notice that “in the interest of justice,” witnesses must be produced. It outlines certain exceptions, but generally gives revocation judges two-way video conferencing as a cost effective alternative.

Can you whisper when you are excited?


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By: Andrew Kitchel
J.D. Candidate, 2016

On Thursday September 11th, 2014, the Seventh Circuit reviewed the excited utterance exception and Circuit Judge Williams held that a whisper could be an excited utterance.. An excited utterance usually stems from a spontaneous reaction to a startling event. It does not seem like a whisper could constitute an excited utterance. However, in Zuniga’s case the court found the statement did meet the requirements despite the fact it was not stated in the manner typical of excited utterances.

Mario Zuniga is a convicted felon. A convicted felon cannot possess a fire arm pursuant to 18 U.S.C. §§922(g)(1) and 924(e)(1). On November 2, 2009, Zuniga was at a bar with some friends when an altercation ensued involving his former girlfriend. Zuniga and his former girlfriend took the altercation outside. Kente Johnson-Taylor let his curiosity get the best of him and followed the two outside. When Johnson-Taylor opened the back door to the bar, he noticed Zuniga pointing a gun at the woman’s face. Johnson-Taylor returned to the bar and whispered to his friend that Zuniga had a gun and told her to call the police.

Zuniga was arrested and charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. At trial, the district court allowed the government to use Johnson-Taylor’s statement pursuant to the excited utterance exception of hearsay. The jury convicted him. Zuniga appealed claiming the district court erred in allowing the statement.

Zuniga made two arguments. First, he argued the event was neither startling nor exciting to Johnson-Taylor. Zuniga believed that if the event had startled and excited Johnson-Taylor he would have blurted out the statement rather than whisper. The Court found Zuniga’s argument curious if not ludicrous. The Court stated that seeing a person holding a gun to another person’s face is a startling situation in almost every scenario. The Court further stated that whispering opposed to yelling does not exclude a statement from being an excited utterance. In this situation, Johnson-Taylor was trying to avoid panic in the bar and trying to avoid unnecessary injury.

Secondly, Zuniga argued that, even if Johnson-Taylor was startled, he did not make the statement under stress or excitement; the fact Johnson-Taylor had time to find a way to avoid a dangerous situation indicated that Johnson-Taylor was not under stress. The court disagreed with this argument as well. Judge Williams opined that the situation did not have to incapacitate the witness, rendering him incapable of deliberate thought. Courts have previously held that the excited utterance exception only requires that the statement be made within a reasonable time after the event that caused the excitement. Johnson-Taylor made his statement within minutes of seeing Zuniga with the gun; therefore the court held that the statement was an excited utterance.

“Propensities for Prejudice: A Clarification on the Admissibility of Prior Convictions as a Means of Showing Knowledge and Intent”

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By: Andrea Lamontagne
Valparaiso University Law School
J.D. Candidate, 2016

In United States v. Chapman, which was decided on August 28, 2014, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reinforced and clarified the decision made earlier this month in United States v. Gomez. It held that “evidence of other bad acts is inadmissible to show character or propensity, but may be admitted for another purpose provided the evidence is relevant under a theory that does not rely on an inference about the actor’s propensity.”

The clarifications made in Chapman are important because they further assist in determining what pieces of evidence from an individual’s past should or should not be used in the courtroom; the use of certain details may create prejudice in the jury.

The details of United States v. Chapman are as follows: Chicago police spotted an individual, later identified as Marvin Chapman, in the evening as they were patrolling the city. According to police officers, Chapman was allegedly carrying a bag which appeared to contain a rifle. When the officers approached Chapman, he entered into a nearby abandoned duplex.

Another officer caught Chapman as he attempted to escape through a window. The officer took possession of the bag Chapman appeared to be carrying. It contained both an assault rifle and a quantity of heroin sufficient for distribution. However, Chapman claimed the bag was not his and never had possessed the bag in question, rather, the police must have been mistaken, or, in the alternative, the police were lying and planted the drugs and gun.

Subsequently, Chapman was charged and found guilty of possessing heroin with the intent to distribute, possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime, and possessing a firearm as a felon.

Chapman appealed to the Seventh Circuit based on three claims. The trial court judge made an error under Rule 404(b) of the Federal Rules of Evidence in admitting details of prior convictions (also for heroin trafficking); the judge “erroneously precluded him from explaining” his prior felony convictions; and finally, the judge failed to compel the testimony of someone who, if compelled, had the potential to corroborate Chapman’s story. The Court agreed that the first and second claims were decided in error at the trial court.

The trial court explained its reasoning for allowing the details of Chapman’s previous convictions “for the purpose of proving that he knew how heroin [was] packaged and intended to distribute the drugs found in the bag.” This information was used for the purpose of proving that the defendant possessed the requisite knowledge and intent to have committed the crime under 404(b) of the Federal Rules of Evidence, which states “…evidence may be admissible for another purpose such as proving motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake, or lack of accident.”

However, proving that the defendant possessed the requisite knowledge and intent was not relevant in this case. Chapman’s main argument was that he never possessed the bag. According to the opinion, “The prosecution’s evidence was essentially the same across the drug and gun charges, with the notable exception of the erroneously admitted other-act evidence, which had a bearing on the count on which the jury convicted- but not on the gun counts on which Chapman was acquitted.”

By ruling that the the Prosecution’s usage of evidence to prove Chapman possessed prior knowledge and intent was incorrect, the Court made a notable step towards insuring future juries are not prejudiced by irrelevant information, and making sure that actual justice is achieved.

 

 

To Exclude or Not Exclude (Expert Testimony)

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By: Jonathan Joseph, MBA, CPA
J.D. Candidate, 2016
Valparaiso University School of Law

In 2009, Shannon Brown, a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company (“BNSF”) employee, sued his employer under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (“FELA”) for causing negligent cumulative trauma by requiring him to use vibrating tools and work excessive hours during the course of his employment.

During discovery, Mr. Brown retained Dr. Fletcher, a well-known and well-respected physician with FELA case experience, as his expert witness. After two examinations, Dr. Fletcher indicated to the court that Mr. Brown’s wrist, elbow, and shoulder injuries were a result of his work at BNSF. After more closely examining Mr. Brown on February 2012, Dr. Fletcher concluded that Mr. Brown suffered from a “cumulative trauma disorder” caused by the railroad company. He arrived to this conclusion by a process of differential etiology – a process in which the doctor rules in all the potential causes of the ailment and then systematically eliminates the causes which do not apply, thereby arriving to the likely cause of the ailment. Dr. Fletcher stated in his third report that to perform his method of differential etiology, he employs a “job site analysis” consisting of a thorough examination in the worksite of the patient, and his duties.

However, once BNSF deposed Dr. Fletcher, it was apparent that Dr. Fletcher skipped significant steps required to successfully employ the “job site analysis.” Moreover, the deposition uncovered that he also ignored relevant information surrounding potential alternative causes to Mr. Brown’s condition, such as his volunteer work as a firefighter, a family history of cumulative trauma disorder, and his motorcycle riding habits. Due to these facts, the district court excluded Dr. Fletcher’s reports and testimony under Federal Rules of Evidence 702 and 703.

Rule 702 requires that “an expert’s testimony be the product of reliable principles and methods.” Rule 703 requires the “expert to rely on facts or data, as opposed to subjective impressions.” The Supreme Court has laid out four factors by which courts can evaluate the reliability of expert testimony: (1) whether the expert’s conclusions are falsifiable; (2) whether the expert’s method has been subjected to peer review; (3) whether there is a known error rate associated with the technique; and (4) whether the method is generally accepted in the relevant scientific community.

After applying these four steps, the Court found that the district court was correct in excluding Dr. Fletcher’s testimony because he failed to follow a reliable method per Rule 702 and 703 of the Federal Rules of Evidence. Dr. Fletcher deviated from his own description of  “job site analysis” and differential etiology: (1) he failed to personally observe Mr. Brown’s working conditions; and (2) he failed to investigate several possible causes for Mr. Brown’s health problems. Therefore, the Court had no choice but to disallow the expert testimony.

This case illustrates the importance of producing reliable expert testimony. An expert must do more than just state he/she is applying a respected methodology. He/she must follow through with the methodology until the results pass Rule 702 and 703 muster.

 

Spontaneous Utterances Have Family Ties

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By: John M. Acosta
J.D. Candidate, 2016
Valparaiso University Law School

On May 16, 2014, the Seventh Circuit ruled in U.S. v. Wallace that voluntary statements, more commonly known as spontaneous utterances, are admissible evidence.

The Defendant was a drug dealer; there was bad blood between him and his nephew, a paid DEA informant. On two different occasions the DEA conducted “controlled buys” using the nephew to buy crack cocaine from his uncle. After the controlled buys, they executed a search warrant on the uncle’s house where they found large quantities of illegal drugs. During a raid, standard procedure is to have the occupants of the house contained in a neutral area of the house previously searched. The officer in charge of containing the uncle and his nephew overheard the defendant tell the other detainees, “don’t worry, everything in that room is mine.” The officer reported this to the agent in charge, who then took the Defendant out of the room to talk to him about the illegal drugs. The Defendant again stated, “I don’t want to waste your time, everything in there is mine.”

At trial, the Defendant moved to suppress his statements citing he was not read his Miranda rights, and his responses were given during a “custodial interrogation.” The Court held that the agent was merely asking the Defendant if he wanted to make a statement, to which he expected a proper answer of yes or no. The fact that the Defendant blurted out incriminating statements was not the fault of the agent or the context in which the statements were made. Secondly, the Court held that even if theDefendant did not make the above statements, the agent who overheard the Defendant talking to the other detainees could have testified to what he heard during the execution of the search warrant.

Why is this important? Day-in day-out law enforcement hit the streets to fight crime, but they cannot control what the suspects in any case say. Law enforcement cannot be expected to read Miranda to each suspect before asking him or her questions, or as in this case, the suspect makes incriminating statements voluntarily. If the courts stop allowing suspects’ spontaneous utterances as evidence, it could undermine the adversarial criminal justice system. It also means that defendant’s right to cross-examine witnesses is still very much fundamental and that will not be changing any time soon.

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