Monday, June 13, 2011

DUI Appeal - Alaska Decides Corpus Delicti Issues And Grants New Trial

In Langevin v. Alaska, --- P.3d ----, 2011 WL 2177299 (Alaska App.) the defendant was found guilty of DUI. The appeal presented three questions concerning the corpus delicti rule—the doctrine that a criminal conviction can not rest solely on the defendant's confession:

The first question is an issue of law: whether, under Alaska law, the trial judge or the jury is the one who decides whether the government's evidence satisfies the corpus delicti rule.
The second question is case-specific: whether, given the evidence presented at Langevin's trial, the State satisfied the corpus delicti requirement.
The third question is again a question of law: when the State fails to satisfy the corpus delicti rule, but when the State's evidence, taken as a whole ( i.e., including the defendant's confession), is sufficient to survive a motion for a judgment of acquittal, is the defendant's remedy outright dismissal of the criminal charge, or is it a retrial?

As to the first question, the court discussed the two basic approaches to a corpus delicti rule: the implicit element approach and the “evidentiary foundation” approach to corpus delicti.

Under the "evidentiary foundation" approach, the corpus delicti rule is a rule that defines the level of supporting evidence that the government must present if the government wishes to introduce the defendant's out-of-court confession for the truth of the matters asserted. Under this approach,

"[The] decision [regarding corpus delicti is] made by the trial judge before the case is submitted to the jury. The judge [assesses] the sufficiency of the State's evidence to prove the corpus delicti, and this decision [is] one of law—similar to the judge's assessment of the sufficiency of any other evidentiary foundation under Alaska Evidence Rule 104(a)-(b). Assuming the judge [rules] that the corpus delicti had been established, then, at the end of trial, the jury [considers] all of the evidence (including the defendant's confession) and [decides] whether the State [has] established each element of the charged crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
Dodds, 997 P.2d at 540."

Under the “implicit element” approach, if the trial judge rules that corpus delicti is satisfied, the jury would hear the defendant's confession, only to later be asked to set the confession to one side and determine whether the government's remaining evidence is sufficient to establish the corpus delicti. As the appellate court stated:

"One might doubt whether jurors, having heard the defendant's confession to a heinous crime, could dispassionately discharge this duty."

The appellate court then decided that the trial judge should make the determination as to the corpus delicti rule:

"In sum, Alaska cases have historically employed the “evidentiary foundation” approach to corpus delicti, and there are good reasons to question the “implicit elements” approach. Accordingly, we now hold that Alaska law follows the “evidentiary foundation” approach to corpus delicti. Under the “evidentiary foundation” approach to corpus delicti, the decision as to whether the State has satisfied the corpus delicti rule is a decision for the trial judge, not the jury. Therefore, Langevin's trial judge correctly denied Langevin's request to have the jury decide this matter."
The appeals court then reviewed the facts to determine whether the trial court properly found that the corpus delicti had been proven. The facts and testimony were summarized as follows:
In the early morning hours of November 27, 2008, officers of the Fairbanks police went to an apartment building in response to a report of a domestic dispute. This report was made by Langevin's girlfriend, Shari Kelly. Based on what the police discovered when they arrived, Langevin was charged with driving under the influence. Here is the State's evidence, presented in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict:

When the police arrived, they found Langevin in the hallway outside his apartment. Langevin told the officers that he had been standing outside for over an hour—that Kelly had taken his keys and had locked him out of their residence. This statement was verified when the police entered the residence and interviewed Kelly; they found the keys in her possession.

Langevin was visibly intoxicated; in fact, he conceded to the officers that he was “three sheets to the wind”. However, Langevin also stated several times that he had not had anything to drink since he arrived home. Rather, Langevin said, he and Kelly had been drinking at the Manchu Bar earlier that night.

According to Langevin, he and Kelly stayed at the bar until closing time (which, under Fairbanks law, would have been 3:00 a.m.), and then he started driving them home. In his statements to the police, Langevin gave two accounts of how his driving ended. At one point in the interview, Langevin indicated that he drove all the way home, at which point he stopped and said, “I'm not driving no more, period. I'm throwing the keys away.” But at another point in the interview, Langevin said that Kelly grabbed the keys while he was driving ( i.e., while the keys were in the ignition) and turned the truck off.

*2 Langevin pointed out the truck that he had driven. However, the police did not check the truck to see if the engine was warm or to see if there was any other indication that the truck had been recently driven.

Langevin's statement that he had not been drinking since he came home was corroborated by the fact that the officers could not see any containers of alcoholic beverages in Langevin's vicinity.

At Langevin's trial, the State did not call Kelly as a witness, nor did the State present any other witnesses who had actually seen Langevin driving the truck, or who had seen Langevin and Kelly at the Manchu Bar earlier that morning.

The appellate court found that these facts failed to prove the corpus delicti of the offense:

"Apart from the inferences that might be drawn from Langevin's admissions to the police, there was no independent evidence to establish why Langevin and Kelly had quarreled, or when she had taken his keys. While the independent evidence was consistent with Langevin's claim that Kelly took his keys after he drove home under the influence, the independent evidence was just as consistent with the supposition that Kelly took the keys from Langevin as they were leaving the Manchu Bar, to prevent Langevin from assuming physical control of the vehicle while he was under the influence. Indeed, the independent evidence was also just as consistent with the supposition that Langevin and Kelly had not been to the Manchu Bar, but rather had been drinking at home, and then Kelly quarreled with Langevin and threw him out of the apartment—but kept his keys so that he would not be able to drive."
The court then had to decide whether the appropriate remedy was an acquittal or a new trial. In finding that a new trial, rather than acquittal, was appropriate, the court wrote:
"[U]nder Alaska's “evidentiary foundation” approach to corpus delicti, the corroborating evidence is not an element of the State's proof; rather, it is the foundation that must be laid to make the defendant's confession admissible in evidence.

The defendant may raise a corpus delicti objection when the government first offers the confession in evidence, or the defendant may wait until the government concludes its case-in-chief. But either way, the objection is of the same nature. A corpus delicti objection is not the same as an assertion that the government's evidence is legally insufficient to support a verdict in the government's favor. Rather, a corpus delicti objection is an assertion that the government should not be allowed, or should not have been allowed, to introduce the defendant's confession as part of its case.

Because a corpus delicti objection does not challenge the sufficiency of the State's proof, but rather the admissibility of a portion of the State's evidence, when a defendant loses a corpus delicti objection at trial and then successfully pursues the issue on appeal, the defendant's remedy is not a judgement of acquittal. Instead, the defendant's remedy is a new trial. As the United States Supreme Court held in Lockhart v. Nelson, 488 U.S. 33, 40–42; 109 S.Ct. 285, 290–92; 102 L.Ed.2d 265 (1988), and as this Court held in Houston–Hult v. State, 843 P.2d 1262, 1265 n. 2 (Alaska App.1992), a defendant who successfully contends on appeal that the trial judge should have excluded a portion of the government's evidence can not then argue that the government's remaining evidence was insufficient to withstand a motion for judgement of acquittal. Rather, the sufficiency of the evidence is assessed in light of all the evidence presented at the defendant's trial—even the evidence that was wrongfully admitted. See LaFave, Israel, and King, Criminal Procedure, § 25.4(c), Vol. 6, pp. 651–52.
As we noted earlier, had the trial judge sustained Langevin's corpus delicti objection, the judge would have had the discretion to allow the State to re-open its case to cure this deficiency. And we can not know what additional evidence the State might have presented to corroborate Langevin's confession if the trial judge had ruled that the State's existing evidence was not sufficient for this purpose. See Houston–Hult, 843 P.2d at 1265 n. 2"
Therefore, the judgment was vacated and the cause was remanded for a new trial.

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