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State v. Skok

Supreme Court of Connecticut

September 15, 2015

STATE OF CONNECTICUT
v.
JOANNE A. SKOK

Argued February 11, 2015

Page 609

Substitute information charging the defendant with the crimes of larceny in the first degree and conspiracy to commit larceny in the first degree, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of New London and tried to the jury before A. Hadden, J.; verdict and judgment of guilty, from which the defendant appealed.

SYLLABUS

The defendant, who had been convicted, following a jury trial, of larceny in the first degree and conspiracy to commit larceny in the first degree, appealed, claiming that the warrantless recordings of telephone conversations between the defendant and B, without the defendant's consent to the recording, violated the prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures under article first, § 7, of the Connecticut constitution, and that she was denied due process because the trial court failed to conduct an independent inquiry regarding her competence to stand trial pursuant to Pate v. Robinson (383 U.S. 375, 86 S.Ct. 836, 15 L.Ed.2d 815). The defendant and B had a close friendship, and B told the defendant and the defendant's husband that a legal action had been brought against B after her grandson had been involved in a car accident and the car was repossessed. B discovered at the time of the accident that her signature had been forged in the process of purchasing and registering the vehicle. The defendant offered to help B with this legal problem and developed an elaborate ruse aimed at defrauding B of her savings in which she told B that she would hire individuals to investigate the matter and to bring a legal action on B's behalf against the owner of the car dealership. The defendant claimed that she would serve as the conduit for all information between B and the other individuals, and also for all payments to those individuals for their services. As a result, B gave the defendant more than $40,000 to cover the alleged expenses, and that money was deposited into a joint bank account belonging to the defendant and her husband. In an effort to conceal her scheme, the defendant insisted that B not allow her family to overhear their conversations and admonished B not to tell her family about the defendant's involvement in the legal action. When B's granddaughter became suspicious of the defendant's activities after overhearing a telephone conversation between B and the defendant, B's family members contacted the police and, at that time, B allowed the officers to install recording equipment on her telephone in order to record conversations with the defendant discussing the ruse. B was coached by police on the types of questions to ask during the telephone conversations with the defendant, and the recordings were admitted as full exhibits at trial and were played for the jury without objection by the defendant. On the defendant's appeal, held :

1. The defendant could not prevail on her claim that the recorded telephone conversations between her and B, without her consent, violated her right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, this court having determined that recording a telephone conversation with the consent of one party to that conversation does not violate article first, § 7, of the state constitution; an application of the constitutional analysis set forth in State v. Geisler (222 Conn. 672, 610 A.2d 1225) supported the conclusion that the defendant did not have an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy in her telephone conversations recorded with B's consent.

2. There was no merit to the defendant's claim that she was denied due process because the trial court failed to conduct, sua sponte, an inquiry regarding her competence to stand trial after she alleged that her physical condition prevented her from sitting for trial; the defendant did not raise a claim on appeal that a continuance should have been granted, and, moreover, there was no evidence in the record indicating how her physical ailments, including her drowsiness during jury selection, rendered her incapable of understanding the proceedings against her or assisting in her defense.

John L. Cordani, Jr., with whom was Damian K. Gunningsmith, for the appellant (defendant).

Lawrence J. Tytla, supervisory assistant state's attorney, with whom, on the brief, was Michael L. Regan, state's attorney, for the appellee (state).

Rogers, C. J., and Palmer, Zarella, McDonald, Espinosa and Robinson, Js. McDONALD, J. In this opinion ROGERS, C. J., and PALMER, ESPINOSA and ROBINSON, Js., concurred.

OPINION

Page 610

[318 Conn. 701] McDONALD, J.

After a jury trial, the defendant, Joanne A. Skok, was convicted of larceny in the first degree in violation of General Statutes § 53a-122,[1] and conspiracy to commit larceny in the first degree in violation of General Statutes § § 53a-48 and 53a-122. The convictions were based in part on evidence that included warrantless recordings of telephone conversations between the defendant and Jacqueline Becker, which were recorded with Becker's, but not the defendant's, consent. The principal issue on appeal[2] is whether the recording of those telephone conversations without a warrant or the defendant's consent violates the prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures under article first, § 7, of the Connecticut constitution. The defendant also argues that she was denied due process because the trial court failed to conduct an independent inquiry regarding her competence to stand trial pursuant to Pate v. Robinson, 383 U.S. 375, 386, 86 S.Ct. 836, 15 L.Ed.2d 815 (1966), after she alleged that her physical condition prevented her from sitting for trial for an extended period of time.[3] We conclude [318 Conn. 702] that recording a telephone conversation with the consent of one party to that conversation does not violate article first, § 7, of the state constitution, and that the trial court's failure to inquire into the defendant's competency was not improper. We therefore affirm the judgment of the trial court.

The jury reasonably could have found that the defendant defrauded Becker, an

Page 611

elderly widow, of tens of thousands of dollars when, after befriending Becker, she devised and developed a story designed to make Becker believe that the defendant was helping her resolve a legal dispute and that a supposed mob boss was involved in that dispute. The jury reasonably could have found the following facts in support of its verdict with respect to the crimes of which the defendant was convicted.

The defendant and Becker developed a close friendship after they worked together to organize a town fair. They talked on the telephone daily, visited each other's houses, and occasionally spent a holiday together. The two frequently discussed the happenings of their respective families, the town fair, financial and health problems, and other topics of common discussion among friends. As close friends are wont to do, Becker and the defendant shared confidences between themselves. When the defendant shared with Becker that she was unable to pay some of her medical bills related to various health problems she was suffering, Becker loaned her money to cover those expenses. Becker, too, at one point confided in the defendant and the defendant's husband, John Skok, regarding a legal problem she was facing. It was that revelation by Becker [318 Conn. 703] that provided the catalyst for the defendant's elaborate ruse aimed at defrauding Becker out of her retirement savings.

Becker's legal issue first arose after she agreed to cosign a loan for her grandson to purchase a car. Becker submitted the application paperwork, but when she did not hear back from the automobile dealership and her grandson later came to her house with the car, Becker assumed that someone else had cosigned the loan because she never " sign[ed] the deed." Becker's grandson was later involved in a car accident and a legal action was brought against Becker after the car was repossessed. Though Becker claimed that the car was not hers, she later learned that the loan and the car's registration were in her name alone, and that her signature had been forged.

When Becker relayed these problems to the defendant, the defendant offered to help. She told Becker that John Skok's nephew, Stuart Skok, was employed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and could " quietly check" into what had happened with the car's registration. The defendant told Becker not to discuss Stuart Skok's involvement in the matter with anyone because he could get in trouble with the FBI if they knew he was working on a private case. The defendant later informed Becker that Stuart Skok's investigation had uncovered that a mob boss owned the dealership where the car was purchased. The defendant advised Becker that she needed to hire a private investigator and an attorney, and later informed her that a legal action would be filed on Becker's behalf against the mob boss. Becker never personally met or spoke with anyone named Stuart Skok, the purported private investigator, or the purported attorney. Rather, the defendant claimed that she would serve as the conduit for all of the necessary information between Becker and those individuals.

[318 Conn. 704] The defendant also claimed to serve as the conduit for the purported payments that Stuart Skok, the private investigator, and the attorney required for their services. The defendant periodically told Becker how much was supposedly owed and requested that a check for that amount be paid from Becker directly to the defendant and John Skok or that Becker deliver to the defendant or John Skok the requested amount in cash. Additionally, instead of repaying Becker for the loans she had made to the defendant to cover the defendant's medical costs, the

Page 612

defendant offered to reduce the amount Becker owed in litigation costs by whatever amount the defendant owed Becker.

In total, Becker gave the defendant more than $40,000. Although all of Becker's payments were deposited into a joint bank account belonging to the defendant and John Skok, there were never any withdrawals from that account that corresponded with the amounts deposited, nor any checks made out to Stuart Skok, or to anyone who appeared to be an attorney or an investigator.

As time went on and Becker's payments amassed, the defendant's story spiraled into an even more implausible tale. The defendant explained that, in settlement of Becker's claims against the supposed mob boss, Becker was to receive proceeds from the sale of the mob boss' property in California to a South American diplomat. Unfortunately, according to the defendant, the settlement proceeds never arrived because the attorney to whom the diplomat's check was given had been hit by a car, and his briefcase, with the check inside, was missing.

In an effort to conceal her scheme, the defendant insisted that Becker not allow her family to overhear their conversations and admonished Becker to not tell her family about the defendant's involvement in the [318 Conn. 705] legal action against the mob boss. One of Becker's granddaughters, who had been living with her at the time, nevertheless became suspicious of the defendant's activities after she overheard Becker talking on the telephone with the defendant about an attorney in Brazil who had been struck by a car and lost a check that was supposed to be given to Becker. Becker's family members then contacted the police, who were unable to find any FBI personnel records associated with anyone named Stuart Skok.

When police officers met with Becker at her home to discuss the defendant's conduct, she agreed to allow them to set up recording equipment on her telephone. The officers instructed Becker on how to use the recording equipment and told her that, if the defendant called and began discussing Becker's legal action, she should try to coax further conversation on that topic from the defendant. Becker then recorded multiple conversations with the defendant wherein the defendant insisted that Becker not allow her family members to overhear their conversations and then made references to " Stu" --referring to Stuart Skok--" lawyers," and " the mob." The defendant also expressed her concern that an attorney sent to South America to receive funds from the sale of a mob boss' house had been intentionally hit by a car and demanded that Becker ask her financial advisor to disperse funds from her retirement account immediately so that Becker could pay the defendant for attorney's fees.

A state police officer was later present for and recorded a conversation between Becker and the defendant, after he coached Becker on the types of questions to ask during the call. During that call, in response to Becker's allegations that the defendant had stolen her money, the defendant asserted that she was only trying to help Becker and claimed that the money went " where it was supposed to go." The defendant again made references [318 Conn. 706] to an attorney, the mob, and Stuart Skok, and insisted that " Stu" was a real person. The recordings were admitted as full exhibits at trial and were played for the jury without objection by the defendant.

Following trial, the jury returned a verdict of guilty on both counts alleging larceny in the first degree and conspiracy to commit larceny in the first degree. The trial court thereafter rendered judgment

Page 613

in accordance with the verdict, and this appeal followed. See footnote ...


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