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Montana Supreme Court Holds Failure to Instruct Jury on State’s Burden of Proof is Plain Error

by Dale Chappell

It is plain error when a trial court fails to instruct the jury on the burden of proof for justifiable use of force and who carries that burden, even if the error was not preserved for review on appeal, the Supreme Court of Montana held December 19, 2017.

At his trial for misdemeanor assault, Lee Akers raised the affirmative defense that he had acted in self-defense during an altercation. A jury found Akers guilty of assault, and he appealed to the Montana Supreme Court.

On appeal, Akers raised for the first time that the trial court failed to instruct the jury that it was the State’s burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he had not acted in self-defense, after he raised the affirmative defense of self-defense at trial. The State argued that since Akers did not raise the issue before, he failed to preserve it for review on appeal.

The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that the trial court’s failure to instruct the jury on the burden of proof was plain error and reviewable even if not preserved for appeal.

Generally, an appellate court does not address issues raised for the first time on appeal; however, review for plain error is an exception to this rule. To invoke the plain error exception, the error must affect the “fairness, integrity, and public reputation of judicial proceedings,” the Supreme Court said. In order to warrant reversing a decision because of plain error, an appellant must show the error implicates a fundamental right and that failure to review the error would result in a miscarriage of justice, leave unsettled the fairness of the proceedings, or compromise the integrity of the judicial process.

Montana’s assault statute, MCA § 46-16-131, states that “when the defendant has offered evidence of justifiable use of force, the state has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant’s actions were not justified.” While Akers offered evidence of his justifiable use of force in self-defense, neither he nor the State proposed a jury instruction on the burden of proof and who has to carry that burden. Nevertheless, the Court said it did not matter.

In 2009, the State Legislature enacted legislation “to shift the burden to the State to prove the absence of justification in self-defense claims,” the Court explained. “While the district court’s discretion is broad, it is ultimately restricted by the overriding principle that jury instructions must fully and fairly instruct the jury regarding the applicable law.”

At trial, Akers argued that his actions constituted self-defense, not assault. This placed the burden on the State to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Akers’ actions were not justified as self-defense, as well as each element of the offense. The problem was that “the jury made its determination without being fully and fairly instructed of the applicable law, which was an error that implicated his fundamental rights,” the Court said. Further, the failure to properly instruct the jury on the State’s burden of proof questions whether the State even met its burden of proving Akers’ guilt, the Court noted.

The U.S. Supreme Court held in Addington v. Texas, 441 U.S. 418 (1979), that the Due Process Clause requires “that the State prove the guilt of an accused beyond a reasonable doubt.” Allowing Akers’ conviction to stand would leave unsettled the question of the fundamental fairness of his trial, the Montana Supreme Court concluded.

“Where a jury has not been properly instructed on the highest measure of proof—beyond a reasonable doubt—and who carries that burden, we cannot be assured of the fairness or have confidence in its determination of guilt,” the Court stated.

Accordingly, the Court reversed Akers’ conviction and remanded for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. See: State v. Akers, 408 P.3d 142 (Mont. 2017). 

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State v. Akers



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