#6 The Court Trial Involving Puppies

Sometimes a defendant will waive their Constitutional Right to a jury trial and agree to have the case decided by a Judge. This happens for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is a complicated legal argument, or the case could involve some highly inflamatory facts and a defendant may be concerned about a jury’s reaction. Puppies and crime fall into that second category.

#6 was a court trial mainly because the case had grown so old. It had happened in 2009 and involved 30 counts of misdemeanors for animal neglect as well as 3 infractions for Butte County kennel violations. As the case trudged along the co-defendants changed attorneys and an investigating officer moved to a different State. We started the Court Trial 3 years after the incident date, and, due to Court and counsel availability, the case was heard in 3 one-half day increments.

The defendant’s were on probation from a different county in relation to a puppy mill they had run and this case was a result of a compliance check of their probation terms. When probation arrived they found 6 dogs inside the residence in violation of Butte County kennel law. A large storage container was on the property and 17 dogs were found inside without adequate heat (it was February), ventilation, water, or bedding. 13 dogs were also found in a pump house in the same condition. All the dogs were seized and it was determined that they were unkept, had feces on them, and matted hair. Several had tapeworms and giardia. Defendants’ admitted they were collecting the dogs in order to start a breeding program after they finished their existing probationary term.

In this case separate counts were filed for each puppy using the citation issued as the compliant. As a practical matter at trial it made the case a bit difficult. None of the puppies had names and we had to specifically identify where each animal was on the property and their physical condition as reported by the veterinarian. Ultimately, we used a large poster board and the puppy number assigned by the Vet. After sufficiently identifying each animal, we played video of the sad state of the animals in all three locations.

17 pairs of eyes peering out of a storage container on a cold February morning is a powerful peice of evidence. The same went for the 13 puppies piled in crates in the pump house. Defendants’ were found guilty by the Court on all counts.

When it comes to animal neglect and cruelty cases, the law requires that the defendants take a class to learn awareness on how to care for animals and requires resitutiton to the agency who provided care to the animals after they were seized. In this case over $12,000 was spent by Butte County Animal Control to get the animals in a healthy and adoptable condition. The defendants were order to repay that amount. Defendants were also required to be animal free, with the exception of a service animal for one of the defendants.

This case was a perfect example to me of the type of case a defendant may want a Judge to hear, given the inflammatory nature of unkept puppies. It helped me learn the value of organization at the outset when a case involves a lots of charges with many victims. I also learned that some evidence can be damming all on its own; puppies in peril on video is a prime example.

#3 The Jury Trial Where I Learn About Constructive Criticism

Remember when I told that DUI’s are where new criminal prosecutors often cut their teeth on jury trials?

Jury trial #3 involved a DUI where the defendant had been pulled over for speeding, he exhibited routine objective signs of intoxication, admitted to having 1 beer with dinner, and had marginal success on the field sobriety tests administered to him. His BAC (Blood Alcohol Content) was .12% approximately 15 minutes after driving.

Pretty basic fact pattern right? Well, the lesson here isn’t in the guilty verdict. In fact, it never really is. The mistrials and not guity verdicts are where I’ve learned the most. However, this particular case was an eye opener for me despite the successful outcome.

Sometimes when you see the same thing over and over again, like in an assignment like DUI’s you forget that while some of the facts are similar, every single case is different. This is because fundamentally the purpose of a jury trial is to provide the defendant with their constitutional right to have the issue of guilt decided by a jury of their peers. It’s unique because it affects them on an individual and personal level.

Victims also have a constitutional right to be present at all court hearings and have their opinions, their suffering, and their loss taken into account at sentencing. It’s the human factor that makes each trial separately important, because while it may be similar in nature to other criminal events, its important and life altering for the victims of the crime and the defendant who stands accused.

The investigating officer in this case loved DUI’s because of the formulaic structure, just like I love jury trials involving DUI because of the relatively straight forward presentation of evidence. The pattern provides guidance, but sometimes that structure can become commonplace.

After the verdict the majority of the jury held back so that they could meet with meet with me and the defense attorney. They wanted to provide specific feedback on this very issue. While it was directed at the officer who investigated the DUI, I felt that it rang true in DUI trials as well. The members of the jury felt that the words used to describe the objective signs and symptoms had simply become routine descriptors in our officer’s investigations and counseled that they would like him to pay attention to his word choice in the future. For example, the officer in this case testified to seeing “slow, thick, and slurred speech” when in reality, the body camera footage showed “slight slurring” of speech. They specifically said that the officer in this case sounded like he was talking about ANY DUI rather than this SPECIFIC DUI.

The officer and I worked together after receiving the feedback to figure out ways to present future DUI’s without sounding generic. We decided that more focus on the word choice for both defendant’s physical manifestations of impairment, as well as a slower breakdown of the field sobriety tests (i.e. why they were used and what specifically the defendant did during them that caused him to pass/fail). Body cameras were relatively new in this area around the time and so we discussed using that tool to review the investigation completed when drafting the final report.

The constructive criticism the jury provided in this case has stuck with me. It is a reminder of the importance of criminal prosecution. We must balance the rights of the accused, the rights of the victim, as well as the safety of the public in every single case. And while the facts may be routine, this duty is far from it; which is why every jury trial is unique and important, no matter what the crime may be.

#2 The Jury Trial Involving The No Drive Defense

Driving under the influence is one of the most common jury trials to cut your teeth on as a new prosecutor. I got my chance my second trial in. The case essentially revolved around the discovery of an abandoned vehicle in the roadway which was had major damage to the driver’s side of the vehicle, it was missing a tire, and had been driven quite a distance on three wheels. The defendant was located approximatley 30 feet away lying down behind a hill. Defendant admitted to drinking (he was a .20% BAC) but not to driving. Gouge marks in the road showed that the vehicle had crossed double yellow lines and hit a guard rail on the opposite side of traffic; the vehicle had been driven until it no longer functioned. Witnesses put the defendant, and his vehicle, at King’s Tavern hours prior to the collision. Oh and defendant was on probation for a DUI at the time of this offense with terms that included no drinking and no driving with any amount of alcohol in the system. Sound’s solid right?

Not so much.

Defendant took the stand and claimed “his friend” was the one driving the vehicle and that “his friend” had taken off after the vehicle was disabled. Names will not be used here, but the very experienced defense attorney I was up against provided a name, and conveniently, a death certificate, showing that the friend had died approximately 2 months after the collision. Additionally, while we had witnesses from the bar telling us defendant had arrived in the vehicle alone and had been drinking, no one actually saw the defendant leave.

It was a “no drive defense” and a good one. We ended up with a hung jury in this case, and not a good split. 11 jurors for not guilty and 1 for guilt. The issue being that we just could not show beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant’s story of a friend driver was not a reasonable explanation of the facts as they were. No one observed the collision. The vehicle was discovered by law enforcement during routine patrol. And while the vehicle was associated with the defendant, no one could tell the jury he was the one driving it away from the bar that night. And let’s not forget, the claimed was dead. Lastly, the height and weight of the friend and our defendant were such that we couldn’t use the positioning of the driver’s side seat to make any kind of factual argument as to who the driver was.

One of the most frustrating things about this particular case for me is that in criminal law we have a reciprocal rule of discovery. Both sides are required to give over evidence they intend to use at trial. Prosecutors have an additional burden to turn over all exculpatory evidence. I’m certain that had the defense attorney provided information about the “friend,” driver in advance this case would have been reevaluated prior to trial to determine whether or not we should proceed. Instead, we did it after the court declared a mistrial. We determined that a second jury trial would not acheive a different result, after recontacting the bar and the patron witnesses just to make sure they didn’t have any additionaly information about the “friend” and his whereabouts that night.

One of the things we do as prosecutors when a case ends in a mistrial or a not guilty is to attempt to reach out to the jurors to find out what evidence they were looking for, to see if there were credibility issues with our witnesses, and to see which elements of a particular crime was difficult for them with our presentation of the evidence. This part of my job has helped me learn what jurors are looking for in cases such as this, where the defendant claims he wasn’t driving and in others. I have modified my presentation in future cases, as well as my charging decisions based on these difficult conversations.

Justice is sometimes served by not proceeding on a case when the outcome isn’t going to change. A significant amount of public resources go into every single jury trial, no matter the charge. We ask the public to take time out of their lives to perform one of the most basic, and important civic duties we have. Prosecutors are always balancing this public interest in every decision they make and jury trial #2 taught me that this consideration never goes away, even if you have already completed a jury trial in the matter.