Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Montana Supreme Court

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The Supreme Court affirmed the order of the district court on remand issuing financial sanctions against the State for discovery abuse and denying Appellant's request for a new trial, holding that the district court did not abuse its discretion with its chosen sanction for the State's discovery abuse. During his criminal trial, Defendant moved for a mistrial as a sanction for the State's failure to provide a certain video. The district court denied the motion, ruling that the State did not have to produce the video. The jury found Defendant guilty of assault with a weapon and driving while license suspended or revoked. On appeal, the State conceded that it wrongfully withheld the video from Defendant. The Supreme Court remanded to the district court to determine the appropriate sanction. On remand, the district court found that Defendant was not prejudiced by the State's discovery abuse and that no new trial was warranted. The court then issued a financial sanction against the State. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the district court did not abuse its discretion by denying a new trial due to a lack of prejudice and issue financial sanctions against the State. View "State v. Pope" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed Defendant's conviction for aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, tampering with a witness, and misdemeanor assault, holding that Defendant failed to identify any errors in the proceedings below. Specifically, the Court held (1) the trial court did not err in admitting evidence of Defendant's prior conduct under the transaction rule; (2) the prosecution did not commit misconduct by introducing racial slurs because the statements were relevant and admissible under the transaction rule to provide necessary context for jurors; and (3) the trial court did not err in denying Defendant's motion to suppress evidence seized from Defendant's phone. View "State v. Haithcox" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed Defendant's conviction of deliberate homicide for the death of his wife, Kathryn, fifteen years earlier, holding that the district court abused its discretion in admitting a deceased forensic pathologist's opinion statements through an FBI agent who was present at the autopsy on Kathryn's body, holding that Defendant's constitutional right to confront witnesses against him was violated. Specifically, the Court held (1) Defendant was not unconstitutionally prejudiced by the fifteen-year delay between Kathryn's death and the charge; (2) the State presented sufficient evidence in his case-in-chief to overcome Defendant's motion to dismiss the case for insufficient evidence; but (3) the district court abused its discretion in admitting the deceased pathologist's statements that bruises on Kathryn's neck were "troubling" because the State used the statements as an out-of-court substitute for the trial testimony of the deceased pathologist and Defendant had no opportunity to cross-examine or confront the accusation. The Court remanded the case back to the district court for further proceedings. View "State v. Laird" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed Defendant's conviction of negligent homicide, holding that Defendant's trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to serve a subpoena upon or otherwise preserve the testimony of a crucial defense witness for trial. Defendant was convicted of negligent homicide and two counts of felony criminal endangerment. The district court sentenced Defendant to a term of imprisonment and imposed restitution to be paid to Justin Gallup and Tiffany Rowell. Defendant appealed the negligent homicide conviction and also asserted that the district court erred by failing to deduct the $50,000 paid by his insurance - $25,000 to both Gallup and Rowell - from each's restitution award. The Supreme Court reversed the negligent homicide conviction, holding (1) trial counsel was ineffective because there was no justifiable reason not to subpoena the crucial witness sufficiently in advance of trial to assure his attendance; and (2) the district court erred in failing to deduct funds paid by Defendant's insurance to Gallup and Powell from their restitution awards. View "State v. Santoro" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed a portion of the order of the district court ordering Defendant to pay $25,835.37 in restitution to his former employer after he pleaded no contest to theft of property by embezzlement, holding that Mont. Code Ann.46-18-243 did not authorize all the restitution that the district court ordered. On appeal, Defendant argued that the district court had no authority to order restitution for the cost of the wages paid to other employees to recreate Defendant's work, the reimbursement of wages paid to Defendant for time off and training, or the billable value of the hours that his employer's office administrator and president worked with law enforcement on the case. The Supreme Court remanded the case, holding that the district court (1) erred in ordering $4,326.92 in "lost wages"; (2) erred in ordering $1,788.39 in restitution to reimburse the employer for the wages it paid Defendant for training, conferences, and paid time off; and (3) erred in ordering $2,635 in restitution for the billable value of the officer administrator's time and $5,239 for the billable value of the president's time spent cooperating with law enforcement. View "State v. Lowry" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed Defendant's conviction of sexual intercourse without consent, burglary, and sexual assault, holding that the district court abused its discretion by denying Defendant's motion to strike juror M.J. for cause. After the jurors were selected in this case, the bailiff informed the court that a juror, M.J., had stated to the bailiff that "he is pretty sure the Defendant is guilty" based upon the juror's assessment of the statements used by defense counsel during voir dire. The court denied defense counsel's subsequent motion to strike M.J. for cause, and the trial resumed with M.J. being empaneled and sworn. After Defendant was convicted he appealed. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that, based on a totality of circumstances, there was a troubling pattern that should have resulted in M.J.'s removal, and the district court abused its discretion in denying Defendant's motion to dismiss M.J. for cause. View "State v. Anderson" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed Defendant's conviction of two counts of incest, holding that the district court did not abuse its discretion by denying Defendant's for-cause challenge of a prospective juror during voir dire. During voir dire, the prospective jurors were asked whether they knew the victim or any of her family members. One juror responded that he knew the victim's father. After a colloquy, Defendant moved to dismiss the juror from the jury for cause. The district court denied the for-cause challenge on the basis that the standard for removal under Mont. Code Ann. 46-16-115 had not been met. Defendant then used a preemptory challenge to remove the juror. After a trial, Defendant was convicted on both counts of incest. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that because the juror affirmatively stated that he could fairly weigh the evidence at trial without impermissible coaxing the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the challenge for cause. View "State v. Block" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the district court finding Appellant guilty of attempted sexual intercourse without consent, a felony, holding that the district court erred by applying Montana's Rape Shield Law, Mont. Code Ann. 45-5-511(2), to exclude evidence of the presence of unidentified sperm cells that remained on B.J.'s underwear. Appellant was convicted of attempted sexual intercourse without consent for pulling down B.J.'s underwear and ejaculating on them. The Montana State Crime Lab discovered sperm cell evidence and skin cells on B.J.'s underwear but concluded that the major profile of the sperm cells was from an unknown male. The crime lab further determined that the skin cells were a mixture of a major profile that matched B.J.'s DNA. The State sought to exclude the sperm cell evidence as evidence of B.J.'s prior sexual conduct pursuant to the Rape Shield Law, but Appellant sought to introduce the evidence to rebut the State's explanation that laundering accounted for the absence of Appellant's DNA on the underwear. The district court excluded the evidence. The jury subsequently found Appellant guilty. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the district court incorrectly applied the Rape Shield Law when it failed appropriately to balance B.J.'s rights with Appellant's constitutional rights. View "State v. Lake" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the district court convicting Defendant for felony aggravated kidnapping and misdemeanor partner family member assault, holding that the district court committed reversible error by allowing the jury unrestricted access to view testimonial videos during its deliberations. In this case, the jury made no requests to view testimonial materials. The videos at issue were simply given to the jury by the court for unsupervised and unrestricted review at the start of deliberations. On appeal, Defendant argued that the videos contained testimonial evidence, and therefore, the district court abused its discretion by allowing the jury unsupervised review of these videos. The Supreme Court agreed, holding that the district court erred by allowing the jury unsupervised access to view the videos during its deliberations and that the error was not harmless. View "State v. Nordholm" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the district court sentencing Defendant under the 2015 persistent felony offender (PFO) statute in effect at the time Defendant committed his offense, holding that the district court properly sentenced Defendant as a PFO pursuant to Mont. Code Ann. 46-18-501 (2015). The State charged Defendant with felony driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI) and other offenses alleged to have been committed in 2016. Based on a prior conviction for felony escape, the State filed a notice seeking designation of Defendant as a PFO under Mont. Code Ann. 46-18-501 (2015). During the 2017 sentencing hearing, Defendant's counsel acknowledged there had been a legislative revision to the PFO statute but did not argue the change applied to Defendant. The district court proceeded to sentence Defendant as a PFO under section 46-18-501 (2015). The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that because Defendant committed felony DUI before the amendments at issue were made applicable to offenses, the ameliorative effects of the revision of the PFO definition did not apply to Defendant. View "State v. Thomas" on Justia Law