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Garland v. State

Supreme Court of Wyoming

September 7, 2017

WILLIAM ALLAN GARLAND, Appellant (Defendant),
v.
THE STATE OF WYOMING, Appellee (Plaintiff).

         Appeal from the District Court of Natrona County The Honorable Daniel L. Forgey, Judge

          Representing Appellant: Office of the Public Defender: Diane M. Lozano, State Public Defender; Tina N. Olson, Chief Appellate Counsel; David E. Westling, Senior Assistant Appellate Counsel. Argument by Mr. Westling.

          Representing Appellee: Peter K. Michael, Wyoming Attorney General; David L. Delicath, Deputy Attorney General; Joshua C. Eames, Assistant Attorney General; Darrell D. Jackson, Faculty Director, K.T. Farrelly, Student Director, and Kristine A. Kennedy, Student Intern, Prosecution Assistance Program. Argument by Ms. Kennedy.

          Before BURKE, C.J., and HILL, DAVIS, FOX, and KAUTZ, JJ.

          KAUTZ, Justice.

         [¶1] A jury found William Allan Garland guilty of one count of domestic battery and one count of strangulation of a household member for attacking his girlfriend (hereinafter referred to as "the victim"). He claims the district court violated his constitutional right of confrontation when it refused testimony about the victim's prior relationship from the sister of the victim's former boyfriend. We conclude that the district court correctly excluded the testimony and, therefore, affirm.

         ISSUE

         [¶2] Mr. Garland presents the following issue on appeal:

Was William Garland denied due process of law when the trial court denied him the opportunity to effectively confront the complaining witness as to previously filing false reports of domestic abuse?

         The State phrases the issue as:

The Wyoming Rules of Evidence generally exclude testimony regarding a witness's character, other wrongs, or acts absent specific circumstances. [Mr.] Garland sought to introduce testimony that his victim previously had violent quarrels with a different boyfriend and had falsely accused that previous boyfriend of physical abuse. Did the trial court commit plain error when it granted the State's motion to exclude that testimony?

         FACTS

         [¶3] Mr. Garland and the victim were involved in an on-and-off relationship for several years. On September 28, 2015, the victim's father reported to the Casper Police Department that Mr. Garland had assaulted his daughter the previous night. In response, Casper Police Officer Jeremiah Tipton contacted the victim at the apartment she shared with Mr. Garland. The officer noticed a toppled chair and other physical damage to the apartment. The victim told Officer Tipton that she and Mr. Garland had argued the night before and he had attacked her. She ran into a bedroom and locked the door, but Mr. Garland kicked it open. The victim said that she tried to sit down at the kitchen table to calm down, but Mr. Garland pushed her over. He straddled her and squeezed her neck with both hands until she passed out. Officer Tipton documented injuries to the victim's lips, a scratch on the right side of her neck and an abrasion on the back of her neck.

         [¶4] The victim telephoned Officer Tipton the next day and "wanted to take her story back." She claimed the injuries to her neck were from consensual "erotica asphyxiation during rough sex" and she had damaged the apartment herself because she was jealous. The State charged Mr. Garland with domestic battery in violation of Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-2-511(a) (LexisNexis 2017) and strangulation of a household member in violation of Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-2-509(a)(i) (LexisNexis 2017).[1] At trial, the victim testified consistent with her original report to Officer Tipton and stated that her recantation was untrue.

         [¶5] Prior to the trial, Mr. Garland gave notice that he intended to call Mary Allen, the sister of the victim's former boyfriend, as a witness. The State filed a motion in limine to preclude Ms. Allen's testimony, claiming it was irrelevant to the case and inadmissible character evidence under Wyoming Rule of Evidence 404. The motion stated that the defense had produced a disc with a recording of Ms. Allen's proposed testimony. The victim had apparently lived with the boyfriend, Ms. Allen, and other relatives in California several years before. The motion in limine stated, "[i]t appears that the defense intends to call Ms. Allen to show that the alleged victim was temperamental with her brother, and she yelled at him and on three occasions attempted to hit her brother, but the blows were blocked, and that she might have thrown things or knocked things over."

         [¶6] The district court did not hold a pretrial hearing on the State's motion. Instead, it heard arguments on the admissibility of Ms. Allen's proposed testimony on the second day of trial, just prior to presentation of the defense's case. Defense counsel argued that Ms. Allen's testimony was admissible under W.R.E. 404(a)(2) as evidence of a pertinent character trait of the victim offered by the accused because it demonstrated "she can be temperamental, " and under Rule 404(b) to show absence of mistake or accident, intent, opportunity, and/or motive.

         [¶7] The district court stated that it did not have "much of an idea of what we're talking about here" and asked Mr. Garland's counsel for an offer of proof of Ms. Allen's testimony.[2] Defense counsel stated that, around 2009, the victim lived with Ms. Allen and her family for about a year while she was dating Ms. Allen's brother. The defense stated that Ms. Allen would testify she had witnessed arguments between her brother and the victim, including details about "whether there was anything physical that happened during the arguments, who basically started the arguments, and . . . whether any objects were thrown or flying." Defense counsel added: "I believe [the victim] had also made claims that her boyfriend at the time was physically abusive to her."

         [¶8] The district court granted the State's motion in limine. It found that the evidence did not fall under either W.R.E. 404(a) or (b). The district court also ruled that the probative value "would seem to be substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice and other concerns listed under Rule 403." It said the defense was free to renew the request to present Ms. Allen's testimony if evidence developed in the defense's case warranting reconsideration of the issue.

         [¶9] Although the defense did not ask for reconsideration of its ruling, the district court sua sponte added to its rationale for granting the motion in limine later in the trial. It noted that the proffered testimony did not pertain to the relationship between the victim and Mr. Garland and the time period Ms. Allen would testify about was "pretty remote" from the incident at issue. The court concluded that "[t]he proponent of the evidence, the defense, has not convinced me at this time that the proposed testimony of the witness Allen would be admissible under the rule cited, including Rule 404(a), Rule 404(b), or Rule 403."

         [¶10] The jury found Mr. Garland guilty on both counts. The district court sentenced him, and he filed a timely notice of appeal to this Court.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         [¶11] Mr. Garland argues that the district court violated his right to confrontation when it granted the State's motion in limine, denying him the opportunity to present Ms. Allen's testimony. When an issue regarding the admissibility of evidence is presented to the district court, we generally review its decision for abuse of discretion. Broussard v. State, 2017 WY 73, ¶ 8, 396 P.3d 1016, 1020 (Wyo. 2017); Griggs v. State, 2016 WY 16, ¶ 129, 367 P.3d 1108, 1143 (Wyo. 2016).

         [¶12] However, the State argues that we should apply the plain error standard of review because the district court's decision was not definitive, and Mr. Garland did not preserve the error by renewing his request for admission of Ms. Allen's testimony. The district court granted the State's motion in limine stating that, based on the offer of proof, the evidence was not admissible under Rule 404 or 403. It continued by saying:

[I]f Mr. Garland testifies . . . [t]hat proposed testimony could become more relevant depending on what he testifies to . . . .
And so what I'll tell you is that we can revisit that issue if you feel that other evidence that is developed in the defense's case warrants a reconsideration of that proposed evidence from Ms. Allen, and I'll take another look at it. But as we sit here now at the end of the State's case, I'm struggling to find a way that it would be very probative of . . . the things . . . that have been argued to me and the rules that have been ...

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