ANALYSIS OF AUGUST 2, 2016 CAV OPINIONS
[Posted August 2, 2016] The Court of Appeals announces two significant rulings this morning, both in the field of criminal law.
In Edmond v. Commonwealth, ruling on an issue of first impression, the court adopts the collective-knowledge doctrine in appraising a motion to suppress. This doctrine permits one officer to initiate a stop based on knowledge that is possessed by another officer, and that is communicated to the arresting officer.
The facts here are quite complex, so I’ll describe them briefly and then focus mainly on describing the holdings. In an investigation of a robbery and murder at a Richmond jewelry store, a detective obtained information about the likely perpetrators’ suspicious – though not criminal – activity at a Henrico bank earlier in the day. A Henrico officer had investigated the suspicious activity and had found that the SUV involved was a rental, and was equipped with a GPS system.
The clinching information came later in the day: a surveillance video from a nearby building showed Edmond and an accomplice moving things from the jewelry store into the SUV, then driving off. The detective learned from the GPS system that the SUV had moved to North Carolina, so he involved the US Marshals Service; a marshal contacted a local policeman in North Carolina and secured a stop of the vehicle.
Edmond moved to suppress the warrantless arrest, claiming that the arresting North Carolina officer didn’t have a valid reason to stop him. In rejecting this challenge and affirming Edmond’s conviction, the Court of Appeals expressly adopts the collective-knowledge doctrine and holds that the detective here in Virginia had the requisite knowledge to justify the stop. Since he communicated sufficient information to the arresting officer, that legitimized the arrest, even without a warrant.
Today’s second decision, Bell v. Commonwealth, is a challenge to a trial court’s refusal to give a jury instruction.
Appellate lawyers realize that one of the toughest appellate tasks is trying to uncork a jury verdict. The appellate courts are very deferential when it comes to jury determinations, and the standard of review is daunting.
When I’m hired in a situation like that, the first place I usually look is the jury instructions. That’s because the usual appellate-court perspective – evidence viewed in a light most favorable to the appellee – is reversed. When an appellant argues that the court wrongly refused one of his instructions, the appellate court views the evidence in the opposite light: most favorable to the losing party.
This appeal involves convictions for attempted murder, aggravated malicious wounding, and a companion firearm charge. The victim testified that Bell shot him while he was unarmed and not threatening Bell in any way; a witness corroborated that. Bell took the stand and stated that the victim had repeatedly threatened him, and on this occasion pulled a gun and pointed it, so he shot in self-defense. Bell’s fiancée and other witnesses corroborated that story.
With the evidence in, the prosecution offered a jury instruction on self-defense with fault (that is, where the defendant plays some role in creating the situation). Bell offered one on self-defense without fault and asked that both be given. The trial court decided that reading both would foreseeably be confusing, so it gave only the prosecution’s instruction.
The Court of Appeals reverses this ruling and sends the case back for another trial, assuming the Commonwealth wants another chance at Bell. The court finds that both of the offered instructions were correct statements of law, but Bell’s, on what’s called justifiable self-defense, was both more favorable to him and supported by more than a scintilla of evidence. The prosecution’s instruction on excusable self-defense would have required Bell to establish that he retreated as far as possible before shooting, a factor that wasn’t present in Bell’s instruction.
This ruling is major news in at least one respect: this is just the third time all year in which the Court of Appeals has reversed a criminal conviction in a published opinion. (And one of the other two was a very minor reversal — a remand for resentencing.) Bell has achieved a victory that we just don’t see anymore.