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Supreme Court reverses conviction: DA impermissibly vouched for officer’s veracity

People v. Rodriguez, 2020 WL 2563833 (Cal.) (Cal., 2020) Supreme Court of California; S251706; May 21,2020

Summary: The California Supreme Court held that a prosecutor impermissibly vouched for witness credibility by telling the jury in closing argument that two testifying officers would not lie because each would not put his “entire career on the line” or “at risk” and would not subject himself to “possible prosecution for perjury.” The Supreme Court found that the error was prejudicial and reversed the judgment of conviction.

Rodriguez charged with assault on a correctional officer

On October 27, 2011, David Rodriguez was an inmate at California State Prison-Corcoran where Brian Stephens and Roger Lowder worked as Correctional Officers.

Stephens testified that he had worked as a correctional officer for over 17 years. He stated that on that day he observed Rodriguez with an untucked shirt covering his waist and handcuffs on his wrists. Stephens met Rodriguez at a doorway and told him to hold on. Stephens looked over his shoulder to see if another officer could assist him and from his peripheral vision saw a shiny object and felt a “very heavy and hard” blow on the back of his head. He believed that he was only struck once. Stephens testified that he sustained neck, shoulder, and head injuries.

Lowder testified that on that day, he heard someone yell “get down” and saw Rodriguez striking Stephens from behind. Rodriguez had handcuffs on his wrists, but the chain from a waist restraint system was wrapped around his hands and another four to six inches of chain was hanging from his left fist. Lowder said he saw Rodriguez twice raise his hands with chains in them and strike downward onto the back of Stephens’s head, neck, and shoulders. Lowder testified that several correctional officers ran to assist and one sprayed Rodriguez with pepper and subdued him. Lowder testified that he had been working for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for over 22 years.

Rodriguez testified that he never struck Stephens with anything. According to Rodriguez, the waist restraints were around his waist at that time and therefore it was physically impossible to strike anyone with them.

The prosecutor then argued in closing:
“The jury instructions provided by the Judge list a number of factors for you to consider when you are evaluating the credibility of witnesses. I want to highlight one of those factors for you and that is motive to lie. Who in this trial, when they testified before you, had a motive to lie, the officers or the defendant?

“What did Officer Stephens tell you? He told you that he was attacked. He was hit from behind. Now, I ask you what motive would he have to lie? Sort of anticipating a defense like this, when Officer Stephens was on the stand, I asked him, before that day, to your knowledge, had you ever seen the defendant before? No. Did you know the defendant? No. So, you are being asked to believe by the defense that Officer Stephens, an officer, I think, with 17 years of experience with the Department of Corrections, for some reason, would put his entire career on the line. He would take the stand, subject himself to possible prosecution for perjury and lie and make up some story and tell you that this guy, who he didn’t know, attacked him and hit him on the back of the head. For what reason? What possible motive would he have to do that?
“But you add to that the testimony of Officer Lowder. Officer Lowder testified this guy, the defendant, hit Officer Stephens. So, now, we have two officers involved in this lie, apparently, according to the defendant. Another officer with a long career. His was over 20 years. So, we’re supposed to believe that, for some reason, Officer Lowder would put his entire career with the Department of Corrections at risk, subject himself to possible prosecution for perjury— ”

The jury convicted Rodriguez as charged with two counts of assault by an inmate with a deadly weapon (Pen. Code, § 4501),1 and one count each of battery by an inmate on a non-inmate (§ 4501.5), attempted battery by an inmate on a non-inmate (§§ 664/4501.5), and attempting to deter or prevent an executive officer from performing a duty (§ 69).

The trial court sentenced Rodriguez to 14 years eight months in prison, consisting of six years for assault by an inmate with a deadly weapon, doubled for the prior strike, plus a consecutive two years eight months for the other assault by an inmate with a deadly weapon conviction.

The Court of Appeal found that the prosecutor committed reversible error with respect to all counts by improperly vouching for Lowder’s and Stephens’s credibility during closing. The Attorney General petitioned for review solely on the question of whether the prosecutor’s argument constituted impermissible vouching. The Supreme Court granted the petition.

Impermissible vouching by the District Astorney

The District Attorney’s argument that the officers would not lie because each would not put his “entire career on the line” or “at risk” constituted impermissible vouching. The prosecutor’s arguments “conveyEd the impression that evidence not presented to the jury, but known to the prosecutor, supports the charges against the defendant and can thus jeopardize the defendant’s right to be tried solely on the basis of the evidence presented to the jury.” (United States v. Young (1985) 470 U.S. 1, 18, 105 S.Ct. 1038, 84 L.Ed.2d 1.)

The record here did not contain any evidence about whether the officers “would put” their “entire career on the line” or “at risk” by giving false testimony. The officers testified about the length of their careers but that is not evidence that the officer would risk being fired for testifying falsely. The prosecutor’s arguments on these topics were based upon matters outside the record that were not subject to cross-examination.

The prosecutor’s comments were  not matters of common knowledge and the validity of the claim hinges on the inner workings of the relevant disciplinary procedures, including the disciplinary rules of the relevant law enforcement agency and the applicability of any collective bargaining agreement. This kind of determination lies beyond the common knowledge of the average juror.

The error here is that the prosecutor’s arguments were based on matters outside the record.

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