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Montana Supreme Court: Ineffective Assistance of Counsel for Failing to Object to Incorrect Jury Instruction That Lowered State’s Burden of Proof

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Court of Montana held that Kasey Lee Secrease’s trial attorneys were ineffective under both the U.S. and Montana Constitutions for failing to object to an incorrect jury instruction that lowered the State’s burden of proof.

Trooper Charles Burton arrested Secrease for DUI. Because Secrease refused to consent to a blood test, Burton obtained a telephonic search warrant for Secrease’s blood.

At St. Peter’s Hospital, Secrease again refused to have his blood drawn. Burton informed Secrease that because of the warrant, he could be handcuffed and/or physically held down to have his blood drawn. Hospital personnel then told the men to “get the hell out” because they would not perform a blood draw under those circumstances. Secrease was ultimately charged with felony DUI and misdemeanor obstructing a peace officer.

At trial, the jury was instructed in regard to the obstruction of a police officer as follows:
Instruction No. 19 “A person commits the offense of OBSTRUCTING A PEACE OFFICER if the person knowingly obstructs, impairs, or hinders the enforcement of the criminal law.”

Instruction No. 20 (in relevant part) stated the State must prove “That the Defendant 1. obstructed, hindered, or impaired; 2. the enforcement of the criminal law; AND 3. acted knowingly.”

Instruction No. 21 stated: “As to Count II (Obstructing a Peace Officer), a person acts knowingly when the person is aware of his or her conduct.”

Secrease’s attorneys did not object to these instructions.

During deliberations, the jury asked three written questions. Of importance to the Court’s review of this case is the question titled “Obstruction Question,” which asked “if the blood test & breath test are refused after a warrant is issued, is that obstructing, hindering, or impairing the law[?]” The district court told the jury: “You are instructed to refer to the instructions previously given.”

The jury convicted Secrease of both counts, and he appealed, arguing, inter alia, that his attorneys were ineffective for failing to object to the jury instructions.

The Court observed “[w]e review jury instructions in criminal cases to determine ‘whether the instructions, as a whole, fully and fairly instruct the jury on the law applicable to the case.’” State v. King, 385 P.3d 561 (Mont. 2016). A person commits the offense of obstructing a peace officer “if the person knowingly obstructs, impairs, or hinders the enforcement of the criminal law….” MCA § 45-7-302(1). Montana’s statutory definition of “knowingly” contains both a conduct-based and result-based version, and “[j]uries are to be instructed on the mental state pertinent to the crime charged.” State v. Ilk, 422 P.3d 1219 (Mont. 2018) (collecting cases). When instructing a jury on the charge of obstructing a peace officer, the results-based “knowingly” instruction is to be given, so the jury is to be instructed that defendant must be “aware that his conduct would hinder the execution of the Officers’ duties.” City of Kalispell.v. Cameron, 46 P.3d 46 (Mont. 2002). In the instant case, the trial court’s Instruction No. 21 gave the incorrect conduct-based definition of “knowingly,” the Court ruled. The State conceded that the wrong “knowingly” jury instruction was given but argued that Secrease can’t meet the demanding burden of showing ineffective assistance of counsel.

The Court noted that both the Sixth Amendment and Article II, Section 24 of the Montana Constitution “guarantee a defendant the right to effective assistance of counsel.” State v. Santoro, 446 P.3d 1141 (Mont. 2019). To prevail on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, the defendant must (1) show counsel’s performance was deficient or fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and (2) establish prejudice by demonstrating that there was a reasonable probability the outcome of the proceedings would have been different. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984).

The Court stated a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is appropriate for review on appeal only if there is “no plausible justification” for counsel’s actions or omissions. The Court concluded there was no plausible justification for failing to object to the incorrect jury instruction that resulted in lowering the State’s burden of proof.

By instructing the jury that the State only need prove that Secrease was aware of his conduct (that he was refusing the blood test), the State was relieved of its burden of proving that Secrease knew his conduct was obstructing, hindering, or impairing the enforcement of the criminal law.
Additionally, the jury’s question indicated the incorrect jury instruction created confusion on the results-based nature of the obstruction charge, and in response to the confusion, the jury was referred back to that same incorrect instruction.

The Court ruled that counsel’s failure to object was deficient performance. And if not for that error, there was a reasonable probability the results of his trial would have been different, the Court concluded. Thus, the Court held that Secrease received ineffective assistance of counsel.

Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded for a new trial. See: State v. Secrease, 493 P.3d 335 (Mont. 2021). 

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State v. Secrease



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