Monday, April 6, 2015

Police Officers May Not Testify That They They Believe the Defendant is Guilty

Evidence as to what was said by an interrogating police officer during the interrogation, including testimony that officer told the suspect/defendant that he thought he was lying in denying committing the crime is arguably admissible as it tended to explain to the jury the circumstances of the alleged statements, thereby countering a claim that the statement was not voluntarily obtained (People v Walden, 148 AD2d 971 [4th Dept 1989]). However, in People v Pabon (--- AD3d ----, 2015 WL 1380113 [4th Dept 3/27/15]), the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, citing People v Kozlowski (11 NY3d 223 [2008]) has recently held that it is error for the prosecutor to elicit that, in fact, it was the officer’s opinion that the defendant lied during the interrogation when he denied committing the charged crimes or to explain why he believed that the defendant way lying.

In  Kozlowski, the Court of Appeals explained what a witness may and may not say with respect to an opinion as to whether the defendant’s version of events is credible. (People v Kozlowski, 11 NY3d 223 [2008]). Witnesses are permitted to testify about facts, but not as to their opinion as to whether the defendant’s version of events was believable:
The line is crossed not when a witness relates facts that may be prejudicial, but when he or she conveys-either directly or indirectly-a personal opinion regarding the defendant's criminal guilt (citations omitted).... What was impermissible about the testimony was that its sole purpose was to bolster the testimony of another witness by explaining that his version of the events was more “believable” (citation omitted). It was thus the equivalent of an opinion that the defendant was guilty, which is impermissible.
(People v Kozlowski, 11 NY3d 223, 240 [2008].)

Police officer testimony that they believed that defendant lying in denying guilt is precisely of the type that the Court of Appeals described as improper. This is not a recent or novel rule. Previously, the Court held that where, as here, a prosecutor seeks testimony that the defendant’s version of events was not believable, the witness’s  “. . . testimony is equivalent to an opinion that the defendant is guilty, and the receipt of such testimony may not be condoned (People v Williams, 6 NY2d 18, 23 [1959]; People v Higgins, 5 NY2d 607, 627-628 [1959]; People v Gradon, 43 AD2d 842 [2d Dept 1984]).” (People v Ciaccio, 47 NY2d 431, 439 [1979].)

In People v Glover (195 AD2d 999 [4th Dept 1993]), the Court held that it was not improper for a police officer to describe what he had told the suspect prior to the suspect making a statement. The Court held that the officer’s statement to the suspect of the evidence of guilt “. . . was not hearsay because the testimony was not offered for its truth, but to establish the circumstances in which the statement was obtained, and to rebut defendant’s argument that the officer coerced or fabricated defendant’s statement.” People v Glover, 195 AD2d 999 (4th Dept 1993). By contrast, what is prohibited is for a prosecutor to elicit from the officer the officer’s opinion that the defendant was lying when he denied responsibility. That is the very type of testimony which this Court implied in Glover would be improper and should be precluded as it tends to usurp the factfinder’s function (People v Jennings, 33 AD3d 378 [1st Dept 2006]).

This rule parallels the rule which prohibits a prosecutor from expressing her personal belief to the jury that the defendant is a liar. (People v Grice, 100 AD2d 419, 421 [4th Dept. 1984] [prosecutor’s remarks improperly placed before the jury the prosecutor's personal belief that the defendant was lying]; People v Shanis, 36 NY2d 697, 699 [1975]).

Just as a  prosecutor exceeds the bounds of legitimate advocacy by expressing, as the prosecutor did in this case, a personal opinion on a defendant’s truthfulness (see People v Wlasiuk, 32 AD3d 674 [2006], lv dismissed 7 NY3d 871[2006]), she may not elicit the police officer’s opinions on a defendant’s truthfulness or guilt.

1 comment:

  1. About time that the 4AD rejected "human lie detector" testimony!
    Good win!