Posts tagged with "coconspirators"

Stolen Dealer Plates Found Relevant and Probative in Vehicle Retagging Scheme

In a recent criminal law matter, the Appellate Court of Connecticut affirmed a defendant’s conspiracy and larceny convictions, finding that evidence of stolen dealer plates was properly admitted.

This case arose from an incident that occurred on February 4, 2008. Months before, state police began investigating an operation where vehicles stolen in New York were “retagged” and sold in Connecticut. A detective went undercover posing as a buyer and agreed to purchase two stolen vehicles for $20,500. The defendant was present when dealer plates belonging to his previous employer were attached to one car, and he drove the second vehicle to the exchange point in Fairfield. Police moved in and arrested the defendant and several other individuals involved. Troopers observed materials used in the retagging process on the defendant’s person, as well as inside nearby vehicles driven by coconspirators.

The defendant was charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit larceny in the first degree and two counts of larceny in the first degree. Prior to trial, the defendant filed a motion seeking to exclude evidence of the stolen dealer plates. He argued that it was irrelevant, and the probative value, if any, was far outweighed by the prejudicial effect it would have on the jury. The State countered that such evidence went to intent and to show the defendant was a knowing participant in the conspiracy rather than an unwitting passenger.

The court allowed the evidence and attendant testimony, noting it was relevant to a material fact in the case. Thus, for example, a detective “opined that, based on her training and experience, a former employee would have better access than a stranger to the dealer plates because of his familiarity with the dealership and the knowledge of its layout.” The defendant was subsequently found guilty on all counts and appealed his convictions, arguing that evidence of the dealer plates was improperly admitted because it was not relevant, and alternatively that it was unfairly prejudicial.

To convict a defendant of conspiracy under Connecticut General Statutes § 53a-48, the State must show that an agreement to commit a crime was made between two or more people, one of whom acts overtly to further the conspiracy. This is a specific intent crime, and the State must prove that the conspirators “intended to agree and that they intended to commit the elements of the underlying offense.” Because it is difficult to ascertain a person’s subjective intent, it is often inferred from circumstantial evidence and rational inferences. Evidence is relevant so long as it has a “logical tendency to aid [the judge or jury] in the determination of an issue” to even the slightest degree, so long as it is not unduly prejudicial or merely cumulative.

In this case, the Appellate Court found that the dealer plates “had a logical tendency to show a connection between the defendant and the larcenous scheme,” as well as the requisite intent to commit conspiracy to commit larceny. Indeed, this evidence countered the defendant’s assertion that he was an innocent bystander. While the evidence itself might have been weak, this was an issue of its weight, not its relevance. Therefore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by allowing it.

There are many grounds for excluding relevant evidence, such as the risk of unfair prejudice. Naturally, all evidence against the defendant is damaging and thus prejudicial, so the appropriate inquiry is whether the proffered evidence will “improperly arouse the emotions of the jury.” In this case, the defendant argued that the jury may have concluded that the dealer plates, which belonged to his previous employer, were stolen, a fact which they would then impermissibly use to infer he committed the presently charged offenses. The Appellate Court stated that while such impermissible inferences may have been drawn, the trial court has broad discretion in weighing the probative value versus prejudicial impact, a decision reversible only upon showing an abuse of discretion or manifest injustice. Based on the facts of this case, the Court could not conclude that the trial court abused its discretion; therefore, the defendant’s claims on appeal failed.

When faced with a charge of larceny, burglary, conspiracy, or attempt, 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.

Coconspirator’s Opinion Was Properly Admitted, As It Did Not Involve “Ultimate Issue”

In the article “Stolen Dealer Plates Found Relevant and Probative in Vehicle Retagging Scheme,” the defendant did not prevail on his arguments that the trial court improperly allowed dealer plates belonging to his previous employer into evidence. In his appeal, he also argued that the trial court abused its discretion when it allowed another member of the conspiracy to give “impermissible opinion testimony regarding an ultimate issue of fact.”

One of the coconspirators testified for the State, and the prosecutor asked this individual a series of questions about whether the defendant was “part of the group” of those arrested in Fairfield on February 4, 2008. Defense counsel objected, arguing that this involved an ultimate issue of fact, but the State countered, “I believe I asked him if he was part of this group. Whether he’s part of the conspiracy, I didn’t ask him that.” The court overruled the objection and allowed the questioning.

In essence, the coconspirator testified that if the defendant was not “part of the group,” he would not have been present while the vehicle plates were being changed or at the exchange point. The coconspirator further answered, “I imagine that if he wasn’t part of the group, he wouldn’t drive the car.” On appeal, the defendant characterized this testimony as impermissible lay opinion regarding an ultimate issue of fact, and the trial court erred by permitting it.

The Connecticut Code of Evidence § 7-1 is relevant to the Appellate Court’s conclusion in this matter. Pursuant to this section:

If a witness is not testifying as an expert, the witness may not testify in the form of an opinion, unless the opinion is rationally based on the perception of the witness and is helpful to a clear understanding of the testimony of the witness or the determination of a fact in issue.

Opinions are improper if they “embrace an ultimate issue to be decided by the trier of fact.” This includes legal opinions about whether or not the defendant is guilty.

In this case, the Appellate Court concluded that the coconspirator’s testimony was proper lay opinion. It was “rationally based on his perception of the circumstances as he perceived them on the night of February 4, 2008, and when he observed prior conduct in New York.” Such testimony was helpful to the jury in determining whether the defendant had the requisite intent for committing conspiracy. In addition:

Although it is true that evidence of association is relevant to proving participation in a conspiracy… association, by itself, does not necessarily constitute intentional participation in a conspiracy. One can be “with” a group without being a conspirator, even if others in the group are, in fact, conspirators.

The nature of the coconspirator’s testimony was not the same as giving an opinion about whether the defendant “intended to agree to engage in a larceny or whether he intended to actually commit the larceny,” which are ultimate issues in this case. Because the testimony did not encompass opinions of guilt, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by allowing it.

When faced with a charge of larceny, burglary, conspiracy, or attempt, 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.