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Protecting You Health & Safety Litigation Guide

California Supreme Court: Positioning Computer Monitor to Obstruct Defendant’s View of Complaining Witness Violates Confrontation Clause

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Court of California ruled that repositioning a computer monitor so that it blocked the defendant’s view of the witness testifying against him violated the Confrontation Clause.

Jason Arron Arredondo was tried by a jury on several sexual offense charges against F.R., Ar.R, An.R, and M.C. At the time of trial, F.R. was 18 years old. When she entered the courtroom to take the witness stand, she began crying. After the court asked her if she needed a moment, F.R. answered, “I think so.”

The court took a 30-minute recess to allow her to regain her composure. After the jury returned to the courtroom, F.R. reentered and gave her testimony. About 45 minutes later the court took another recess. Outside the jury’s presence, the court stated that during the previous recess, the monitor had been repositioned to block some of F.R.’s view of Arredondo. Defense counsel objected because the monitor blocked Arredondo’s entire view of the witness. The court observed that it was a very small computer monitor, and it was repositioned so the witness didn’t have to look at the defendant.

The prosecution then stated that the defendant had “looked at her for the first time when she came in” — implying that was the reason F.R. became upset and began crying. The court replied, “And whether that happened or it didn’t, I think it’s appropriate.”

Defense counsel then interjected, “For the record, Your Honor, when the witness first came in, she began crying before she was even able to see [defendant’s] face. So [defendant] made no effort to look at her, intimidate her, or make any kind of eye contact or suggestive contact with her.” The court answered, “I understand. I’m not casting any aspersions at this point. But it clearly affected her, and I think it’s appropriate for the court to take whatever small efforts it can to make the witness more comfortable without infringing on any of [defendant’s] constitutional rights, and I don’t believe that his rights have been infringed at this point.” The court overruled the objection. The jury convicted Arredondo on all counts, including the three counts involving F.R.

Arredondo appealed, alleging, inter alia, that repositioning the monitor violated his constitutional right to confrontation. The Court of Appeal affirmed, and the California Supreme Court granted Arredondo’s petition for review.

The Court observed that in Coy v. Iowa, 487 U.S. 1012 (1988), the Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) “considered whether the trial court had violated a defendant’s right to confrontation by placing ... a large screen between him and the witness stand while two complaining witnesses testified that he had sexually assaulted them.” The witnesses could be dimly seen by the defendant while they couldn’t see him at all. SCOTUS explained that the Confrontation Clause guarantees a face-to-face meeting with witnesses in the presence of the trier of fact. Id. This serves the truth-finding process because it is more difficult for a witness to lie about a person to his face than it is to lie behind his back. Id.

While it is true that a face-to-face confrontation may upset a truthful rape victim, it is equally true it may confound and undo a false accuser. Id. SCOTUS ruled that the screen violated Coy’s constitutional right to confront his accusers. But in Maryland v. Craig, 497 U.S. 836 (1990), SCOTUS stated that the right to face-to-face confrontation is not absolute, and it may be dispensed with when “necessary to further an important public policy and only where the reliability of the testimony is assured.” Id. 

In Craig, the alleged child abuse victim testified in a room separate from the courtroom, in the physical presence of the prosecutor and defense counsel, while the judge, the jury, and the defendant remained in the courtroom and observed the testimony by one-way closed-circuit television. This procedure was undertaken because an expert testified that the child witnesses would be traumatized and unable to communicate if they were required to testify in the courtroom in the presence of the defendant. SCOTUS reasoned that the Maryland procedure provided sufficient assurances of reliability because the witnesses were deemed competent, they testified under oath, the defendant could cross-examine them, and the jury could observe their demeanor. Id. Further, the procedure served the important public policy of protecting minor victims of sex crimes from being further traumatized. Id. 

But SCOTUS cautioned that before a court may undertake such a procedure, there must be evidence the witness will suffer trauma that was more than nervous excitement or intimidation from being in the courtroom — and the trauma must be caused by the presence of the defendant. Id.

The California Supreme Court determined that in the instant case the trial court had no evidence that 18-year-old F.R. would be traumatized by testifying in the courtroom in the presence of Arredondo. Further, from the statements of the judge, prosecutor, and defense counsel, it wasn’t clear that F.R.’s emotional disturbance was caused by Arredondo’s presence. The trial court made no finding that Arredondo had looked at F.R. or had caused her to cry and only stated “it clearly affected her” without defining the “it.” Her emotional disturbance may have been caused by having to testify in court. The Court concluded Arredondo’s right to confrontation was denied, and the error wasn’t harmless. 

Accordingly, the Court reversed the three convictions involving F.R. and remanded for further proceedings consistent with the Court’s opinion. See: People v. Arredondo, 454 P.3d 949 (Cal. 2019). 

Related legal case

People v. Arredondo

 

 

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