Friday, September 20, 2013

Shackled and drawn, among other trial court errors

The Court of Appeals has vacated a drug conviction because the trial court committed a series of errors that denied the defendant a fair trial. One of those errors involved shackling the defendant during trial without a good reason. That error raises questions about trial court practices in the Northern District of New York.

The case is United States v. Haynes, decided on September 5. Haynes was arrested after the police found a ton of drugs in the gas tank of her rental car. The police said she was a drug courier. She argued at trial that she was an unwitting drug mule who rented the car without knowledge of the drug stash. The trial court ordered defendant shacked during trial.

The highlight of the decision is that the government told the Court of Appeals during oral argument that Northern District courts routinely shackle defendants at trial. This violates settled Supreme Court and Second Circuit law, so the Court asked the government to explain this practice further. In its post-argument submissions, the government clarified that shackling is not routine, but that the U.S. Marshalls recommend to the judges whether to shackle defendants and that the judge has the final say. But the judge does not make a record on this decision unless the defendant objects. As the Second Circuit (Koeltl [D.J.], Sack and Lohier) says, "no physical restraints may be imposed on a criminal defendant during trial unless the District Court finds on the record that they are a necessary last resort. Where the District Court finds that shackles are necessary for the safety of the defendant or any persons in the courtroom, the Court must ensure that the restraints are no greater than necessary to ensure safety during trial, and the Court must take steps to minimize any prejudice to the defendant from being tried in physical restraints."

The shackling was one of many errors at trial. As this was a close case where the jury had difficulty reaching a verdict, the defendant gets a new trial based on the cumulative nature of these trial court errors. There was an allegation of juror misconduct. The defense lawyer told the judge that an alternate juror told him that some jurors presumed that defendant was guilty. The judge did not conduct an inquiry into this allegation, i.e., speaking to the jurors and gaining an assurance that they could be fair. This was an abuse of discretion. It was also an abuse of discretion for the court to give the jurors a modified Allen charge at the end of the first day of deliberations, after they had already told the court they were deadlocked. This charge may have led the jury to believe that the court was coercing them to reach a verdict. All the court can do is to encourage the jury to continue to deliberate and to hear each other out with an open mind.

The Court of Appeals also focuses on two evidentiary errors. One error has to do with lay witness testimony about how the gas tanks work and why it was unreasonable for defendant to say that she did not notice until the end of her long trip that that the gas gauge was on empty. (The witness suggested that drugs in the gas tank will put the gas gauge on empty the whole time). As it was based on specialized knowledge, this testimony looked like expert testimony, but since the witness was not an expert, the defense did not have the opportunity to put on a rebuttal expert. The jury should not have heard this testimony. It was also error for a law enforcement officer to testify about the defendant's state of mind, that she "realized" there were drugs in the car.

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