Court of Appeals Criminal Evidence Case – Rock Hill Criminal Defense Attorneys

The South Carolina Court of Appeals revisited a three common criminal issues in the recent case State v. Mitchell.  In this interesting case involving charges of first-degree burglary, possession of burglary tools, and petit larcency, Mitchell allegedly broke into a house.  There were no eye-witnesses, and the only evidence linking Mitchell to the scene was (oddly) footage from a deer camera (you know, like you put by deer corn, for hunting) that the victim homeowner had installed on top of the refrigerator out of fear of burglars, showing the face and body of the person who broke into the house.  Before trial Mitchell argued that:

  • The photos from the deer camera was inadmissible under rules 1001, 1002, and 1003 SCRE.  The photos were not original, and the photos had a shady chain of custody, couldn’t be read by police computers, and came not directly from the camera, but from a disk on to which it was copied by victim homeowner’s computer.
  • The police officer’s lay testimony identifying the person in the photos as the defendant, Mitchell, should be inadmissible under rules 403 and 701 SCRE.

The trial court did not allow either of these motions in limine or during the trial.  Mitchell moved for a post-trial motion for a new trial.  The trial court denied. Mitchell appealed on all issues, but abandoned, perhaps accidentally, the chain of custody issue.

Police Officer’s Testimony Identifying Defendant in the Photos

The part of this ruling that may most affect future defendants is the court’s endorsement of allowing police officers to give lay testimony identifying a defendant in photos.  The relevant rules:

Rule 701, SCRE: If the witness is not testifying as an expert, the witness’ testimony in the form of opinions or inferences is limited to those opinions or inferences which (a) are rationally based on the perception of the witness, (b) are helpful to a clear understanding of the witness’ testimony or the determination of a fact in issue, and (c) do not require special knowledge, skill, experience or training.

Rule 704, SCRE: Testimony in the form of an opinion or inference otherwise admissible is not objectionable because it embraces an ultimate issue to be decided by the trier of fact.

Rule 403, SCRE: Although relevant, evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury, or by considerations of undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence.

The ruling is not altogether surprising, but when photos are grainy and unclear, a police officer’s relatively uninformed, and often biased, opinion as to who is in the photos could mean the difference between a guilty and not guilty verdict.  Generally, allowing witnesses to identify individuals in photos and videos is justified by the increased knowledge of a person’s appearance, but no such justification is available for this case.  For this reason, one expects that a judge concerned about the lack of identifying evidence (given that the video is of poor quality, that the police officer has no special knowledge of the appearance of the defendant, and the jury should be as capable of identifying the person in the video as the police officer) might rule that the evidence is excludable under Rule 403, since the police officer’s authority may prejudice the issue more than actually prove the issue.

Authentication of the Disk Containing the Photos from the Deer Camera

Since the court did not really examine the chain of custody problem, and the standard of review (abuse of discretion), the court’s position on the issue boils down to a straightforward reading and application of the rule: “If data are stored in a computer or similar device, any printout or other output readable by sight, shown to reflect the data accurately, is an ‘original’.”  The originals were admitted because they were merely print-outs of computer data that was copied from the victim’s camera to the victim’s computer to the victim’s disk given to the police.  Since the proper foundation was laid as to the disk, they were admissible under this standard of review.

Motion for New Trial

Mitchell contended that since the jury found him not guilty of petit larcency an element of first-degree burglary, intent to steal, was not met.

The court recites that the standard for granting a new trial relies on an abuse of discretion, which the South Carolina Supreme Court has held to mean that no new trial will be granted by an appellate court unless no competent evidence supports the conviction.

Mitchell’s contention that the petit larceny verdict was inconsistent with the first-degree burglary verdict was bound to fail because the South Carolina Supreme Court abandoned the inconsistent verdict theory in State v. Alexander, 303 S.C. 377, 383,  401 S.E.2d 146, 150 (1991).

The Criminal Defense Attorneys of Reeves, Aiken & Hightower

If you or someone you know has been charged with any crime, call the experienced South Carolina criminal defense attorneys of Reeves, Aiken & Hightower at 877-374-5999, or use this form, for a free consultation with an attorney.  We’ll help you evaluate your options and develop your best defense to get you the best results possible.

Charlotte Criminal Lawyer – 2012 CMPD Annual Report – Crime Up 12%

CMPD Report: Crime up in 2012

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police on Wednesday released first-quarter crime statistics for 2012. And in a sharp contrast from the past three years, the crime index is up by 12 percent.

Among the highlights:

— There were 1,208 reported violent crimes from January to March, an increase of 23 percent over the first three months of 2011.
— Property crimes also were up in the first quarter, with 7,427 reported incidents versus 6,727 for the same period a year ago.
— Homicides doubled in the opening quarter, with 12 this year versus 6 this time last year. By comparison, there were 15 homicides in the final quarter of 2011, according to the report.
— Vehicle thefts are down nearly 12 percent. Through March, 397 of the thefts had been reported compared to 450 for this time last year

Whether the trend will continue for the rest of the year is left to be seen. Police said preliminary figures from the first three weeks of April has dropped the 2012 crime rate to some 7.8 percent.

This article sadly shows a rather significant increase in overall crime in our area. Such trends invariably result in greater numbers of arrests in an effort to improve our city’s safety. However, with those increased arrests, people who are not guilty can be falsely charged. The criminal attorneys at Reeves, Aiken & Hightower LLP stand ready to defend your rights if you are wrongfully accused. For more information about our firm, please visit our website at www.rjrlaw.com or call us directly at 704-499-9000. We welcome the opportunity to make sure you receive fairness and justice.