Despite Prosecutorial Impropriety, Closing Argument Comment Did Not Deprive Defendant of a Fair Trial

In the previous article, I discussed how the Appellate Court of Connecticut rejected a defendant’s claim that the trial court improperly admitted allegedly prejudicial evidence. This article focuses on the defendant’s second claim on review: prosecutorial impropriety.

As previously noted, the defendant was charged with operating a motor vehicle while under the influence (OMVUI) of alcohol and operating a motor vehicle with a suspended license. At trial, the State admitted into evidence an A-44 form, which is used by police when they report an arrest related to OMVUI. This form indicated that the defendant “refused to perform” two field sobriety tests, but on direct examination, the officer who filled out this form stated that no field sobriety tests were performed because the defendant appeared too intoxicated to safely perform them. On cross-examination, defense counsel questioned the disparity, and during closing arguments repeatedly highlighted the discrepancy to call into question the witness’s credibility. In its rebuttal argument, the prosecutor stated that the A-44 form was a standardized form voted on by the Connecticut legislature. However, this cited evidence that was never entered into the record, though defense counsel did not object when the statement was made.

When the defendant appealed his conviction, his second ground for appeal was that the prosecutor’s statement during closing arguments constituted an impropriety that deprived him of a fair trial. He argued that “the state impermissibly bolstered [the officer’s] testimony by improperly referring to evidence that was not in the record during closing argument.”

A reviewing court applies a two-step process when assessing a claim of prosecutorial impropriety. First, the court must determine whether an impropriety even occurred. Although counsel are generally allowed “generous latitude” with respect to their arguments, a prosecutor may forcefully argue his case so long as it is done so fairly based on facts within the evidence and attendant inferences. In this case, the Appellate Court concluded that the prosecutor’s statement amounted to an impropriety. He made reference to evidence that was not admitted, and because “the comment amounts to unsworn testimony… [it was] not proper in closing argument.”

However, the inquiry does not stop at a mere finding of impropriety. In the second step, the court must consider “whether that impropriety, or the cumulative effect of multiple improprieties, deprived the defendant of his due process right to a fair trial.” The court will consider the following six factors in the context of the entire trial:

[T]he extent to which the impropriety was invited by defense conduct, the severity of the impropriety, the frequency of the impropriety, the centrality of the impropriety to the critical issues in the case, the effectiveness of the curative measures adopted and the strength of the state’s case.

State v. Jordan, 117 Conn. App. 160, 164 (2009). In this case, the Appellate Court only found the first factor in the defendant’s favor. It noted that the comment was not sufficiently egregious and only occurred once. In addition, attribution to the legislature is not a central issue in an OMVUI case, and the court instructed the jury that counsel’s arguments were not evidence and thus could not be considered. The defendant provided no evidence that the jury disregarded this instruction. Finally, the State’s OMVUI case was sufficiently strong with ample supporting evidence. Therefore, the Appellate Court found that despite the impropriety, the comment did not deprive the defendant of a fair trial.

When faced with a charge of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated (a.k.a. driving under the influence) or license suspension, an individual is best served by consulting with an experienced criminal law practitioner. Should you have any questions regarding criminal defense, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya in the firm’s Westport office in Fairfield County at 203-221-3100 or at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.