I was in court the other day on several criminal cases. One involved a dispute between neighbors. Both people were charged by the police. My client received a favorable plea offer of a deferred judgment and was there to take responsibility for an unfortunate event. The case will be dismissed in a year if he jumps through a few hoops. He simply wants to move on with his life and was happy with the plea bargain.
In contrast, the other neighbor refused to accept the same plea offer and set his case for trial. He happened to be at court on the same day with his criminal defense lawyer and stood up during the sentencing hearing to rant about how my client had gotten off easy. He thought my client was completely at fault for the incident. His decision to address the Court offers a lesson in what statements can or cannot be used at trial.
We have all heard the Miranda warning a hundred times on television: “Anything you say or do may be used against you in a court of law.” As a former prosecutor for 2.5 years in Eagle County, I can safely say that “may” is better read as “will.” Generally, anything a suspect says or does that suggests guilt will be repeated over and over again by the prosecutor. Statements by suspects are often the biggest issue in criminal trials. Prosecutors love them; criminal defense attorneys try to spin them. Going back to an earlier post, admissions are almost always the “boogers” or “warts” in a case for a person accused of a crime. George Zimmerman’s recent trial is a case in point.
Aren’t statements made by a defendant hearsay? No. Pursuant to Colorado Rule of Evidence 801(d)(2), a statement made by a defendant is not hearsay when it is used against him by the prosecution. For example, when a guy is pulled over in Aspen for a DUI and says, “I was at the Belly Up for a concert and had a few drinks,” his admission that he drank will most definitely be used against him at trial. The caveat to the rule is that the admission will not be admitted as evidence if the statement was illegally obtained by the police officer. That is because of the doctrine known as the “fruit of the poisonous tree,” which is a whole subject unto itself.
However, statements made while negotiating a plea bargain are generally inadmissible under Rule of Evidence 408. If a Vail criminal defense attorney is discussing a case of domestic violence with the Eagle County prosecutor and admits that his client hit the victim, it is extremely unlikely that statement will come in at trial.
There are exceptions to that rule on settlement discussions. A 2007 amendment to Rule 408 allows statements in a criminal case made by a defendant negotiating with a public officer in a separate civil case. A prime example would be a defendant admitting he had been drinking in Aspen during his DMV revocation hearing. That admission would likely be used against him if he later went to trial with his Aspen DUI lawyer. But the general policy of the Colorado law is to encourage people to discuss settlement — whether it be in a criminal case, civil lawsuit or a divorce — openly and candidly. The same principle applies to discussions in mediation.
How do Rules 810(d)(2) and 408 apply to the neighbor case above? Easy. The neighbor admitted a number of things happened. He admitted that he damaged my client’s property. That may open him up to a new charge of criminal mischief. Whoops. He also said that he grabbed my client. That supports the existing charge of third degree assault. Whoops again. He essentially boxed himself into a very specific and detailed story about what happened. If he takes the stand at his own trial, the prosecutor will hold him to that story.
Furthermore, court proceedings are recorded. The prosecutor will undoubtedly get a transcript of exactly what the neighbor said and have it ready in his back pocket for trial. If the neighbor strays at all from his earlier statements, the prosecutor will question his credibility through impeachment. Those inconsistencies can add up with a jury, especially in Aspen and Vail.
There was little to be gained from the neighbor’s rant in court. He could have simply told the judge that he disagreed with the favorable plea bargain and sat down. A lot was lost. If he follows through with his plan to go to trial, he may learn the hard way what you can and cannot say in a Colorado court.