Tuesday, December 17, 2019
California Supreme Court:
Opinion Rejects View of C.A.’s Majority That Alleged Victim of Sexual Abuse as a Child Was Terrified of Being Seen by Defendant; Chin Says Crying by Witness Insufficient to Invoke Special Protections
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A man’s conviction on three counts of sex offenses against his step-daughter, while she was a minor, was reversed by the California Supreme Court yesterday because when the alleged victim testified, at age 18, she was concealed from the view of the defendant through a reconfiguration of the witness box.
“To find that an accommodation was constitutionally permissible merely because F.R.—a young adult—started crying the first time she entered the courtroom and the court took a short recess to allow her to compose herself, would give courts license to abridge the right of face-to-face confrontation almost any time a witness breaks down on the stand,” Justice Ming Chin wrote for a unanimous court.
Defendant Jason Arredondo remains convicted on 11 other counts of sex offenses against minors, two of whom are, like “F.R.,” stepdaughters, and one of whom was a friend of F.R. Arredondo was initially sentenced to 33 years, plus 275 years to life, in state prison.
Div. Two of the Fourth District Court of Appeal on July 27, 2017 ordered resentencing on three of the counts, and the Supreme Court yesterday reimposed that order. When all of the recalculations are completed, Arredondo is not apt to be benefitted by yesterday’s reversal and remand.
Chin’s opinion reverses the Court of Appeal’s majority in finding that there was no right-to-confrontation violation. Justice Richard Fields wrote the opinion, joined by Presiding Justice Manuel A. Ramirez.
“The record supports the court’s finding that raising the computer monitor in order to block FR.’s view of defendant while FR. testified—which also blocked defendant’s view of F.R.—was necessary in order to protect FR from severe emotional trauma from having to testify with defendant looking at her.”
He pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Maryland v. Craig in which the 5-4 majority held that the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause did not bar use testimony via one-way closed-circuit television of a child who was an sex abuse victim. Fields quoted the high court case as saying that while “the Confrontation Clause reflects a preference for face-to-face confrontation at trial,” that preference “must occasionally give way to considerations of public policy and the necessities of the case.”
Justice Marsha G. Slough dissented. Her view won out yesterday.
The fact that a witness breaks out in tears upon taking the stand, Chin said, “does not appear to be what the high court in Craig had in mind” in saying that a face-to-face confrontation at trial may bow to necessity.
“In terms of establishing that necessity,” he wrote, “the evidence in the record here falls short.”
Elaborating, Chin said:
“The relevant evidence before us is quite sparse: After entering the courtroom, being directed to the witness stand, and being advised to ‘step up here,’ ‘follow the instructions of’ the bailiff, ‘watch your step as you take the stand,’ ‘[s]tay standing’ and ‘raise your right hand’ while ‘the clerk...swear[s] you in,’ F.R. started crying. When the court asked if she ‘need[ed] a moment,’ she replied, ‘I think so.’ These are the only facts in the record that underlie the court’s subsequent statement that F.R. was ‘unable to proceed at that time.’ Assuming F.R.’s act of crying and her equivocal response support the court’s statement, they provide little support for a finding that the trauma F.R. would have suffered upon testifying in defendant’s presence was such that an accommodation abridging defendant’s right of face-to-face confrontation was necessary. Indeed, the court also stated for the record that F.R. was able to ‘get her emotions back in order; after a relatively short break.
“Consistent with this observation, as far as the record shows, after the break, F.R. reentered the courtroom, walked to the stand, and took the oath, all with an unobstructed view of defendant and without any apparent emotional difficulty. She also identified defendant during her testimony—stating that she saw him in the courtroom and describing where he was sitting and what he was wearing—again, as far as the record shows, without any apparent emotional difficulty.
“Other aspects of the record on which the People rely do little, if anything, to establish the requisite necessity.”
The case is People v. Arredondo, 2019 S.O.S. 4233.
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