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Suppression of evidence

Rohn K. Robbins/Vail Law

Specifically, what the defense sought to suppress was the use of statements and physical evidence obtained by the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office and Valley View Hospital.

First, a basic concept: What is a “motion” and what about a motion moves?

A motion is the way that lawyers maneuver through the law and through the facts of a given case. It is the way that the pertinent legal and factual grounds of a matter in dispute are explained, embellished and expostulated to the court. It is the formal mode by which an attorney on one side of a dispute or the other advances a position in support of his or her client’s case, asking the judge to make a ruling on a certain matter. A motion is an application to the court or judge for the purpose of obtaining a rule or order directing some act to be done in favor of the applicant.

What all of this distills down to is this: A motion is how lawyers get things done. Motions are the means by which the lawyer, on behalf of his or her client, appeals to the court for a ruling on a particular matter and, in this way, narrows the issues to be resolved, the scope of the dispute, and/or the procedures for prosecuting or defending the action.

OK, then, having mastered motions, what specifically is a motion to suppress?

Strangely, this is one of those rare times in law when the thing is precisely what its name implies. “Suppress” means to put a stop to something, to put down, to prevent, to subdue. To suppress evidence, then, is to keep it from being used at trial by showing that it was either gathered illegally or that it is irrelevant.

A quick cut to “relevance” and its evil mirror-imaged twin, “irrelevance”: Relevant evidence is evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence.

For example, a person’s hair color is likely irrelevant as to the proposition of whether he did, or did not, commit a rape – it being presupposed that blondes, brunettes and redheads are equally capable of rape. However, in the same circumstance, hair color could indeed be relevant where, for example, another’s hair was found upon the victim. In that instance, what otherwise may be irrelevant leaps to the head of the class, hair color now having become a matter of some consequence.

What comes next in the equation of suppression, then, is the matter of whether the evidence in question was gathered legally or illegally.

As a quick preface, in criminal matters law enforcement must abide by certain guidelines and must subscribe to certain constitutional guarantees. For example, the 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of citizens to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Via a doctrine known generally by the colorful moniker as the “fruit of the poisonous tree,” evidence which is spawned by or directly derived from an illegal search or illegal interrogation is generally inadmissible against the defendant because of the original taint. What this means is that an unlawful search taints not only the evidence obtained at the search, but also facts discovered by the process initiated by the unlawful search.

Think of an unlawful search as digging at the roots of a tree of evidence. By application of the doctrine, all that flows upward from the roots in order to nourish the tree, out to the fruit itself, is poisoned by the unlawful search.

What the Bryant defense team contends in its motion is that the statements and physical evidence were obtained in violation of Rule 41.1 of the Rules of Criminal Procedure; they violated the aforementioned 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and its state companion, Article II, Section 7 of the Colorado Constitution; and they violated the 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and its Colorado companion, Article II, Section 18 of the Colorado Constitution, both of which concern a right against self-incrimination.

Rule 41.1 of the Colorado Rules of Criminal Procedure pertains to the issuance of a warrant for collection of non-testimonial (that is, physical) evidence. It appears that the particular bugaboo offending the defense is the fact that the warrant was issued to be served at night which, while permitted if explicitly so stating, can only be so if the accused presents a reasonable risk of flight if the warrant were not served until the following day.

A suppression hearing is, perhaps predictably, a pretrial proceeding in which a defendant seeks to prevent the introduction of evidence alleged to have been seized illegally. The ruling of the court then prevails at trial. In other words, if the court rules at the hearing that the evidence was lawfully obtained, the evidence may be presented at trial. If not, then not.

This particular suppression hearing, the court has ruled, is sufficiently sensitive that it must be held “in camera” (that is, behind closed doors and not open to the public). Rightly or wrongly, the court has concluded that there is a substantial probability that the defendant’s right to a fair trial (that is, the defendant’s 6th Amendment right) would be prejudiced by disclosure of the defendant’s statements at a public hearing.

Such hearings are where the rubber of a matter hits the road. The outcome of the hearing (that is, whether the evidence in question will, or will not, be permitted at trial) frames the shape of the upcoming trial. If suppressed, the evidence in question will simply not be heard.

If not suppressed, the evidence over which this particular battle is being waged will likely be aired when, at last, the Bryant matter comes to trial.

Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. He is a member of the Colorado State Bar Association Legal Ethics Committee and is a former adjunct professor of law. He may be reached at 926-4461 or robbins@colorado.net


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