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State v. Pratt

Court of Appeals of Idaho

April 2, 2015

STATE OF IDAHO, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.
BRIAN NEIL PRATT, Defendant-Appellant.

2015 Opinion No. 17

Appeal from the District Court of the Second Judicial District, State of Idaho, Nez Perce County. Hon. Jeff M. Brudie, District Judge.

Judgment of conviction for two counts of delivery of a controlled substance and one count of trafficking in methamphetamine, vacated and remanded.

Sara B. Thomas, State Appellate Public Defender; Spencer J. Hahn, Deputy Appellate Public Defender, Boise, for appellant.

Hon. Lawrence G. Wasden, Attorney General; Mark W. Olson, Deputy Attorney General, Boise, for respondent.

MELANSON, Chief Judge.

Brian Neil Pratt appeals from his judgment of conviction for two counts of delivery of a controlled substance and one count of trafficking in methamphetamine. For the reasons set forth below, we vacate and remand.

Pratt was charged with two counts of delivery of a controlled substance, I.C. § 37-2732(a)(1)(A); one count of trafficking in methamphetamine, I.C. § 37-2732B(a)(4)(C); and a persistent violator enhancement, which was later withdrawn. The matter proceeded to a jury trial. During voir dire, the district court explained that Pratt was charged with delivery of a controlled substance and trafficking in methamphetamine. During voir dire, a prospective juror indicated that he knew Pratt. When the prosecutor asked for details regarding how the prospective juror knew Pratt, the prospective juror explained, "I don't know about this case, but I got in trouble awhile back and same thing that he's in trouble kind of for. That's how I know him." Pratt moved for a mistrial on the ground that the prospective juror's comment tainted the jury pool. Pratt argued that the prospective juror's comments implied that he knew Pratt through some sort of controlled substance delivery or events that occurred in the prospective juror's legal case. The state argued that the potential juror's comments did not rise to the level of tainting the entire jury pool because the potential juror did not indicate that he dealt with Pratt in his capacity as a methamphetamine dealer, but just stated that he knew Pratt and had faced similar charges as those Pratt was facing. In response to the state's comments, the district court held:

Well, I agree. I think at this point in time there has not been sufficient information brought before the jury panel that I think we would--is something that could not be dealt with by way of a limiting instruction if necessary. I don't believe there have been adequate grounds shown at this time for the granting of a mistrial. [The prospective juror] did go far in his answer and if we could have perhaps controlled a little bit, but he indicated that he had been charged and that he knew Mr. Pratt through his prior action, but he doesn't really make direct accusations against Mr. Pratt for having been involved with delivery of controlled substance or anything of that nature.
So I think we can deal with it adequately through the limiting instructions that I'm going to be providing to the jury once sworn, and so I'm going to deny the motion for mistrial and we can proceed with jury selection . . . .

The district court did not give a curative instruction to disregard the prospective juror's comment. Jury selection was completed and Pratt was ultimately found guilty of two charges of delivery of a controlled substance and one count of trafficking in methamphetamine. Pratt appeals, challenging the district court's denial of his motion for mistrial.

A decision on a motion for new trial is reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard. State v. Egersdorf, 126 Idaho 684, 687, 889 P.2d 118, 121 (Ct. App. 1995). When a trial court's discretionary decision is reviewed on appeal, the appellate court conducts a multi-tiered inquiry to determine: (1) whether the lower court correctly perceived the issue as one of discretion; (2) whether the lower court acted within the boundaries of such discretion and consistently with any legal standards applicable to the specific choices before it; and (3) whether the lower court reached its decision by an exercise of reason. State v. Hedger, 115 Idaho 598, 600, 768 P.2d 1331, 1333 (1989).

Pratt argues his constitutional right to a fair trial with an impartial jury was violated when the district court failed to give a curative instruction and denied Pratt's motion for a mistrial following the prospective juror's comment. A criminal defendant has a constitutional right to trial by an impartial jury. U.S. Const. Amends. V, VI, and XIV; Idaho Const. art. 1, §§ 7 and 13. A juror is presumed to be impartial absent some evidence of taint. See Ross v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 81, 86 (1988); Lockhart v. McCree, 476 U.S. 162, 184 (1986).

The state argues that the district court's denial of Pratt's motion for a mistrial was not in error because Pratt failed to show that the prospective juror's comments had a continuing impact on the trial. A response to voir dire questioning must have a lasting impact for there to be prejudice. State v. Laymon, 140 Idaho 768, 771, 101 P.3d 712, 715 (Ct. App. 2004). The purpose of voir dire is to ascertain any knowledge or biases of venire members. This process generally communicates the potential juror's bias or knowledge to the rest of the jury. This may reflect poorly on the defendant, but removing the potential juror benefits the defendant. In Laymon, in response to the trial court's questioning, a potential juror stated: "Well, I think he's guilty already. If he's guilty last week, he'll be guilty next week." Id. at 769, 101 P.3d at 713. The potential juror was removed, and the trial court issued a curative instruction. That instruction did not merely direct the venire members to disregard the potential juror's remark or inform them that the remark was not evidence. The trial court then specifically refuted the remark, informing the venire members that, in fact, the case involving the defendant during the prior week had been dismissed so the defendant had not been convicted of anything. This Court affirmed the denial of a mistrial because "there was no continuing impact on the trial." Id. at 771, 101 P.3d at 715.

Similarly, in another case before the Idaho Supreme Court, three prospective jurors expressed their opinions that the defendant was guilty of the charged crime. State v. Ellington, 151 Idaho 53, 68-70, 253 P.3d 727, 742-44 (2011). The Court held that three potential jurors expressing opinions of the defendant's guilt was insufficient to overcome the presumption that the jury was impartial, where the potential jurors did not sit on the jury panel and the court instructed the impaneled jury to decide the case based only on the evidence presented in the courtroom. Id. The Court further explained that the presumption of impartiality was not overcome because the jurors "did not receive any specific facts" as to why the jurors believed the defendant was guilty. Id. at 69, 253 P.3d at 743. In both Laymon and Ellington, the jurors only expressed opinions regarding the defendants' guilt and, in each of these cases, a timely and specific curative instruction was given to the juror to neutralize any taint. However, this case is different because the potential juror asserted facts, rather than his opinion, from which it could be inferred that Pratt had previously been associated with the same criminal activity for which he was charged in this case and no specific curative instruction was given.

We hold that the prospective juror's assertion of personal knowledge of Pratt's past association with activity similar to that with which he was charged tainted the jury and was sufficient to overcome the presumption that each of the remaining jurors was impartial. We also agree with Pratt that (without a curative instruction from the district court) the jury remained tainted, and the prospective juror's comments had a continuing impact on the trial. Therefore, the district court should have granted Pratt's motion for a mistrial. Accordingly, we vacate Pratt's judgment of conviction for two counts of delivery of a controlled substance and one count of trafficking in methamphetamine and remand to the district court.

Judge LANSING, CONCURS.

Judge GRATTON, DISSENTING.

I respectfully dissent. I do not believe that the rather vague statement made by the prospective juror was damaging enough to overcome the presumption of juror impartiality. I do not agree with the majority bright-line delineation between so called opinion and fact statements. I do not agree with the Court's analysis of the curative or limiting instruction issue, given the manner in which the issue was addressed below. Finally, I fail to see any evidence that the prospective juror's statement had a "continuing impact on the trial."[1]

In his brief, Pratt cites to what are apparently the three principal cases in this area, State v. Ellington, 151 Idaho 53, 253 P.3d 727 (2011), State v. Laymon, 140 Idaho 768, 101 P.3d 712 (Ct. App. 2004), and State v. Kilby, 130 Idaho 747, 947 P.2d 420 (Ct. App. 1997). From his analysis of these cases, Pratt states that the key considerations "appear to be whether the jurors were provided with a cautionary instruction to disregard the prejudicial statement and whether they learned anything specific from the ...


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