Justia Civil Rights Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Montana Supreme Court
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The Supreme Court affirmed the district court's denial of Appellant's petition for postconviction relief and the court's order granting partial summary judgment in favor of the State, holding that the district court did not err. Defendant was convicted of vehicular homicide while under the influence, failure to stop immediately at the scene of an accident involving an injured person, and driving without a valid driver's license. Defendant later filed a petition for postconviction relief, alleging ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC), Brady violations, and newly discovered evidence of her innocence. The district court granted summary judgment on Defendant's newly discovered evidence claims and Brady claim and then denied the remainder of the claims after a hearing. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the district court did not err by (1) denying Defendant's postconviction petition based on her claim of ineffective assistance of counsel; (2) concluding that the State did not violate Defendant's due process rights by failing to disclose certain non-exculpatory photographs; and (3) dismissing Defendant's newly discovered evidence claim. View "Garding v. State" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed Defendant's conviction for attempted deliberate homicide and evidence tampering, both felonies, holding that the district court did not commit plain error in the proceedings below. Specifically, the Supreme Court held (1) the district court did not commit plain error by not intervening sua sponte to limit or cure the State's closing argument that Defendant's failure to retreat or summon police prior to using deadly force was unreasonable; (2) the district court did not commit plain error by not intervening sua sponte to limit or cure the State's closing and rebuttal argument references to Defendant's post-Miranda silence; and (3) the State's closing argument regarding an alternative factual basis for the evidence tampering charge did not effect an improper de facto amendment of the substance of the charging information. View "State v. Trujillo" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed Defendant's conviction and sentence for criminal possession of dangerous drugs, a felony, holding that the district court did not err by denying Defendant's motion to suppress evidence obtained from a warrantless search. On appeal, Defendant conceded that probable cause existed for law enforcement's entry into his hotel room but argued that the agents' warrantless entry was not justified because no exigent circumstances existed. The district court relied on specific and articulable facts from the agents that prompt action was necessary to prevent the probable destruction of drug evidence. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the district court did not err in determining that exigent circumstances existed justifying the agents' warrantless entry into Defendant's hotel rooms. View "State v. Vegas" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed Defendant's conviction for sexual assault, holding that the municipal court erred when it instructed the jury on a definition of "consent" from the 2017 sexual assault statute and not the applicable 2015 statute, and the erroneous jury instruction prejudicially affected Defendant's substantial rights. At trial, the court instructed the jury, over Defendant's objection, on the definition of consent contained in recent amendments to the sexual assault statute. On appeal, Defendant argued that the municipal court failed to apply the correct law when instructing the jury on the elements of the claimed offense. The district court denied the appeal. The Supreme Court reversed, holding (1) the instructions, as a whole, did not fully and fairly instruct the jury on the law applicable to the case; and (2) Defendant's substantial due process right was prejudiced by the erroneous jury instruction. View "City of Missoula v. Zerbst" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed Defendant's conviction of felony DUI, disorderly conduct, and driving with a suspended license, holding that Defendant was not entitled to relief on his unpreserved claim that the district court violated his fundamental right to be present when it discuss with counsel in his absence the potential substitution of an alternate juror. During trial, the trial was continued and the jury was excused. Several days later when the trial resumed a juror failed to appear. The court met with counsel to discuss the juror's absence, but counsel did not object to Defendant's absence. The court decided not to substitute an alternate juror, and the trial resumed that day after the juror arrived. The jury subsequently found Defendant guilty. On appeal, Defendant argued that by holding the conversations regarding the absent juror in his absence the district court violated his right to be present. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the violation of Defendant's right to be present did not result in a miscarriage of justice or call the fundamental fairness of his trial into question. View "State v. George" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed Defendant's conviction of partner family member assault (PFMA), holding that Defendant's claim that he received ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) was not susceptible to review on direct appeal and that Defendant failed to establish that the district court allowed testimonial material into the jury room during deliberations. On appeal, Defendant argued that he received ineffective assistance of counsel when his trial counsel failed to object to witnesses' and the State's references to his probation status and, further, referenced Defendant's probation status herself. Defendant also argued that the district court abused its discretion by sending testimonial materials into the jury room during deliberations. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding (1) this Court will not address Defendant's IAC claim on direct appeal because the record was silent as to why defense counsel did not object to the probation references and testimony; and (2) the record did not establish that testimonial material was provided to the jury during its deliberations. View "State v. Ward" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the district court holding that Montana law precluded a jury trial on Plaintiff's federal discrimination claims even though federal law allows a jury trial for federal claims, holding that the district court erred when it concluded that Montana procedural law applied under the Montana Human Rights Act (MHRA) and denied Plaintiff a jury trial on his federal claims. Plaintiff, who has a visual disability, brought claims alleging that the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services engaged in intentional employment discrimination on the basis of his sex and/or disability, in violation of state and federal anti discrimination statutes. The district court concluded that state law precluded a jury trial on Plaintiff's federal discrimination claims because Montana's antidiscrimination statutes do not provide for a trial by jury and because state procedural rules govern procedures in state courts. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that Plaintiff's claims were separate and distinct from his state law claims and that Plaintiff had a right to a jury trial on his federal claims in state district court. View "Spillers v. Third Judicial District Court" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the order of the district court reversing an order entered by the municipal court granting Appellant's motion to suppress and dismiss, holding that the district court erred in determining that the police officer possessed particularized suspicion to stop Appellant's vehicle based solely on the discrepancy between the vehicle's color and the color listed on the registration. The officer in this case conducted a traffic stop to investigate the color discrepancy between the vehicle and that listed on the registration. Appellant was charged with criminal possession of dangerous drugs and criminal possession of drug paraphernalia. Appellant filed a motion to suppress and dismiss, arguing that the officer lacked particularized suspicion that Appellant was engaged in car theft or other criminal activity necessary to justify the vehicle stop. The municipal court granted the motion and dismissed the case with prejudice. The district court reversed. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that, standing alone, the color discrepancy between Appellant's vehicle and that listed on the vehicle's registration was too thin to constitute particularized suspicion. View "State v. Rodriguez" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the district court terminating Father's parental rights to his two children, holding that Father's due process rights were infringed by ineffective assistance of counsel, and because of counsel's ineffective assistance, Father was prejudiced and his parental rights were terminated. In arguing that he received ineffective assistance of counsel as it related to placement of the children and his stipulation to a treatment plan, Father pointed out that he was the non-offending, non-custodial parent and that there were no allegations of abuse or neglect ever brought in this case against him. Father asserted that but forms counsel's failure to correct legal misunderstandings, failure to object to an unnecessary treatment plan, and failure to request a placement hearing, his parental rights would not have been terminated. The Supreme Court agreed, holding (1) the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, Child and Family Services Division did not prove the existence of good cause to deny immediate placement with Father; and (2) Father's fundamental rights were prejudiced by ineffective assistance of counsel. View "In re B.H." on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed Defendant's convictions of assault with a weapon and aggravated assault, holding that the district court did not err or abuse its discretion. Specifically, the Court held that the district court (1) did not violate Defendant's constitutional right to self-representation by refusing his request to represent himself at an omnibus hearing but otherwise allowing Defendant to represent himself for the duration of his case; and (2) correctly applied the law and did not abuse its discretion in denying Defendant a new trial after the court considered the victim's post-trial recantations and the evidence of Defendant's guilt produced at trial. View "State v. Jones" on Justia Law