The New Jersey Supreme Court is weighing whether a victim’s testimony in a criminal trial against a former Bloomfield police officer, in which the victim cited such high-profile police brutality cases as that of Amadou Diallo and Rodney King, swayed the jury against the officer.
In State of New Jersey v. Trinidad, attorneys for both sides made their arguments before the justices on Monday.
Ewing solo David J. Gies argued that his client’s convictions for official misconduct and tampering with evidence, among other offenses, should be reversed and remanded for a new trial.
“The trial judge abused his discretion because he didn’t undertake a Rule 403 analysis to weigh the probative value against the prejudicial effect” of the victim’s testimony, Gies said in his opening remarks.
“And secondly, the Appellate Division also erred in finding that those high-profile police cases were relevant by intertwining the two incidents—one at the scene, and later Jeter’s dialogue with the media,” Gies added.
Deputy Attorney General Kayla Rowe, representing the state, argued that the unsolicited references to the high-profile police brutality cases in this context represented Marcus Jeter’s state of mind, and that Officer Orlando Trinidad was convicted based on a considerable amount of evidence.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey appeared as amici.
The case arose from the pursuit of and eventual arrest of Jeter by Bloomfield police after a domestic disturbance call involving Jeter’s girlfriend, according to court documents.
After an internal affairs investigation, Trinidad was found to have followed all appropriate police department policies and procedures.
But a squad car video surfaced showing a far different account of events than was originally reported by Trinidad, and that reopened the internal affairs case. The video showed Trinidad and two other officers demanding Jeter to come out of his truck, which was stopped along the Garden State Parkway on a rainy night. With guns drawn on him, Jeter refused to come out of his truck. Jeter—who was arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated and eluding, resisting arrest, aggravated assault on a police officer, attempting to disarm a police officer and obstruction—complained to the Internal Affairs Division that he was physically assaulted by the officers that night, according to the documents.
Following a jury trial, Trinidad—charged with falsifying a report, among other wrongs—was convicted of second-degree conspiracy to commit official misconduct, second-degree official misconduct, third-degree tampering with public records, fourth-degree falsifying or tampering with records, fourth-degree false swearing, and fourth-degree simple assault, amended from third-degree aggravated assault. The trial judge sentenced Trinidad to a five-year prison term term with five years of parole ineligibility, according to the documents.
Trinidad contends that he was denied a fair trial due to highly prejudicial comments made by Jeter, which Trinidad alleged were designed solely to inflame the jury.
At trial, when Jeter was asked why he did media interviews after the incident, he responded, according to court documents: “I grew up in a society where, you know, you watch these, uh, these situations with police brutality—you watch the Sean Bells, the Amadou Diallos, the Rodney Kings, the Oscar [Grant] and Fruitvale Stations and … I can testify that I’m a victim of that.” All four were African American males who were victims of police brutality, making national news.
Trinidad further argued that he was denied a fair trial due to the admission of the Bloomfield Internal Affairs Division Lt. Michael J. Cofone’s lay opinion regarding his guilt. He also claimed his sentence was excessive. Finally, Trinidad argued that his motion for a judgment of acquittal notwithstanding the verdict based upon the insufficiency of the evidence should have been granted.
The Appellate Division in an unpublished decision in September 2018 rejected each of his arguments and affirmed the decisions of Essex County Superior Court Judge Michael Ravin.
The panel found no error in the admission of Jeter’s testimony in which he referenced the high-profile police brutality cases.
It also found that the admission of Cofone’s lay opinion did not exacerbate any potential prejudice resulting from its admission.
The court further found that the trial judge did not abuse his discretion in sentencing Trinidad to a five-year prison term, and that the evidence against him was overwhelming, meaning there was no error in denying his motion for a judgment of acquittal notwithstanding the verdict.
The court did agree that Trinidad’s convictions should have been merged, and remanded for resentencing to merge the counts.
The state Supreme Court granted Trinidad’s petition for certification March 26, 2019.
At Monday’s arguments, Rowe laid out for the court the evidence against Trinidad.
“The jury had the opportunity to look at two dashcam videos, look at the reports, and the reports are falsified—no utterances could conceal the fact that the officers tried to engage in a cover-up,” Rowe said.
“The jury did not convict defendant because of any passing comments made by Jeter concerning other well-known cases of police misconduct,” Rowe said. “The jury had the rare opportunity to see the crimes unfold on video, compare the video to the reports, which were themselves evidence of the cover-up crimes, and hear testimony from an officer who pleaded guilty and testified for the state.”
“Given that the evidence left no room for doubt about defendant’s guilt, and given the lack of undue prejudice, this court should affirm defendant’s convictions and sentence,” Rowe said.
Alexander Shalom, senior supervising attorney at the ACLU-NJ, said the error in allowing Cofone’s lay opinion alone requires a reversal of Trinidad’s conviction.
“But the admission of the testimony regarding other instances of police brutality is neither plain error, nor in fact, error at all,” Shalom told the justices. “Indeed, had the trial court precluded [Jeter] from explaining why, specifically, he feared getting out of the car, it would have deprived the jury of critical context animating his decision-making process.”
“The jury was entitled to understand the lens through which the victim viewed his interactions with defendant and other police officers,” Shalom added.
That brought questions from the justices on whose state of mind was really at issue—Trinidad’s or Jeter’s—and whether allowing Jeter’s testimony on police brutality amounted to plain error.
“Who’s on trial in this scenario? This is the police that seemed to be on trial,” Justice Barry Albin said to Shalom.
Chief Justice Stuart Rabner interjected and asked, “Where should the line be drawn in this case? Was Jeter not allowed to say, ‘I was scared’ and not be able to comment on certain cases?”
“What about a victim’s state of mind as a person of color? Should that be considered?” Rabner also asked.
But Justice Anne Patterson asked whether what Jeter did in listing the police brutality cases was akin to “a sexual assault victim naming all these high-profile sex assault cases,” and whether that would be allowable.
Albin said, “The point is, there has to be some mechanism for a defendant to get some relief when the court makes an error.”
Justice Jaynee LaVecchia asked, “Was it plain error for the court to allow mention of those [police brutality] cases? Should it have kept the names of those other cases from the jury? The fact the court never nipped in the bud the mentioning of these other cases” is an issue, LaVecchia said.
Gies argued that what Jeter testified in court about his actions at the scene of his arrest—that he was afraid of police—was separate from what he told media—that he was a victim just like those victims in the police brutality cases.
“The jury is not looking at whether Trinidad is a good or bad cop. But the jury is now being guided or influenced by Jeter’s testimony that he is a victim just like the high-profile cases, and that Trinidad is now a bad cop just like the bad cops in those high profile cases,” Gies said. “And that prejudiced the trial against Trinidad.”
Pashman Stein Walder Hayden of Hackensack represented the Civil Rights Protection Project of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey as an amicus. The organization is contending that people of color need to be able to testify about their interactions with police, and past experiences.
“CRPP believes that barring such testimony would undermine the witness’s credibility with the jury, perhaps causing the jury to give more credit to the police officer’s testimony,” said Dillon McGuire, who presented the brief on behalf of colleague CJ Griffin, who authored it.
“Simply put, a person of color must be permitted to testify about their state of mind during an encounter with a police officer in order to hold that law enforcement officer accountable when they engage in the type of misconduct that occurred in this case,” McGuire said.
Published at Tue, 05 Nov 2019 10:04:00 +0000