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State v. Rivera

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

February 19, 2019

STATE OF CONNECTICUT
v.
ELVIN G. RIVERA

          Argued October 18, 2018

         Procedural History

         Information charging the defendant with the crimes of breach of the peace in the second degree, criminal mischief in the third degree, and threatening in the second degree, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Hartford, geographical area number twelve, where the court, Lobo, J., granted in part the state's motion to preclude certain evidence and denied the defendant's motion to disclose certain confidential records; thereafter, the matter was tried to the jury; verdict and judgment of guilty, from which the defendant appealed to this court. Affirmed.

          Alice Osedach, assistant public defender, for the appellant (defendant).

          James M. Ralls, assistant state's attorney, with whom, on the brief, were Gail Hardy, state's attorney, and Courtney Chaplin, former assistant state's attor- ney, for the appellee (state).

          DiPentima, C. J., and Keller and Moll, Js.

          OPINION

          MOLL, J.

         The defendant, Elvin G. Rivera, appeals from the judgment of conviction, rendered after a jury trial, of breach of the peace in the second degree in violation of General Statutes § 53a-181 (a) (1), criminal mischief in the third degree in violation of General Statutes § 53a-117 (a) (1), and threatening in the second degree in violation of General Statutes § 53a-62 (a) (1). On appeal, the defendant claims that (1) the trial court erroneously prohibited him from cross-examining the state's key witness, Stephen Chase, as to the specific acts underlying several misdemeanor convictions rendered against Chase, (2) the court erroneously denied his motion seeking a disclosure and an in camera review of Chase's medical, mental health, and drug and alcohol treatment records, (3) the court committed instructional error, and (4) the state failed to meet its burden to disprove his defense of property and self-defense justification defenses beyond a reasonable doubt.[1] We disagree and, accordingly, affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         The following facts, which the jury reasonably could have found, and procedural history are relevant to our disposition of the defendant's claims. In March, 2015, Chase was employed as a tow truck operator. Chase's employer contracted with various property owners to tow vehicles that were parked illegally or otherwise without authorization on their properties. Pursuant to a contract executed by Chase's employer and Coachlight Condominiums, a condominium complex located in East Hartford, Chase was authorized to tow vehicles on the Coachlight Condominiums property that were, inter alia, parked in fire lanes and/or blocking tenants' garages.

         On March 24, 2015, while patrolling the Coachlight Condominiums property in the course of his employment, Chase observed a silver car parked in an area marked as a fire lane.[2] To secure the car for towing, Chase attached the rear of the car to the boom of his tow truck and lifted the rear of the car off the ground. Soon thereafter, the defendant exited a nearby garage and angrily asked Chase why the car, which belonged to the defendant, was being towed. Chase replied that the defendant's car was parked in a fire lane. The defendant became agitated, telling Chase that ‘‘[y]ou're not f'ing towing my car . . . .'' The defendant then approached his car, which was hitched to Chase's tow truck, and opened the driver's side door. Believing that the defendant would attempt to drive the car away, Chase operated his tow truck to lift the rear of the car higher off the ground. Chase then notified the defendant that he could pay $93.59 for the release of his car. The defendant returned to the garage where from he had appeared and obtained a pipe approximately three or four feet in length. The defendant moved toward Chase, who was standing next to the driver's side door of his tow truck, and struck the tow truck with the pipe. Thereafter, Chase, believing that the defendant intended to strike him with the pipe, stepped backward toward the tow truck, reached into the tow truck through the driver's side door, grabbed a can of pepper spray located in the center console, and sprayed the pepper spray into the defendant's face. The defendant became disoriented, dropped the pipe, and pulled a knife out from his pocket. Immediately upon seeing the knife, Chase entered his tow truck, drove a safe distance away from the defendant, and called the police to report the altercation.

         The defendant was arrested on-site and charged with breach of the peace in the second degree in violation of § 53a-181 (a) (1), [3] criminal mischief in the third degree in violation of § 53a-117 (a) (1), [4] and threatening in the second degree in violation of § 53a-62 (a) (1).[5]In September, 2016, the defendant's case was tried to a jury. The state called Chase as its key witness during its case-in-chief. The jury found the defendant guilty on all three counts. The trial court, Lobo, J., accepted the jury's verdict and sentenced the defendant to a total effective sentence of two years incarceration, execution suspended after fifteen months of incarceration, followed by two years of probation with special conditions. This appeal followed. Additional facts and procedural history will be set forth as necessary.

         I

         We first consider the defendant's claim that the trial court erroneously precluded him from cross-examining Chase as to the specific acts underlying several misdemeanor convictions rendered against Chase, thereby violating his constitutional rights to confrontation and to present a defense under the sixth amendment to the United States constitution.[6] Specifically, the defendant asserts that the court improperly prohibited him from inquiring into the specific acts underlying (1) convictions rendered against Chase on February 20, 2014, on three separate counts of larceny in the sixth degree in violation of General Statutes § 53a-125b[7] (2014 larceny convictions), and (2) a conviction rendered against Chase on January 17, 2013, on one count of breach of the peace in the second degree in violation of § 53a-181 (2013 breach of the peace conviction). We disagree.

         We begin by setting forth the relevant standard of review and legal principles that govern our review of the defendant's claim. ‘‘The sixth amendment to the [United States] constitution guarantees the right of an accused in a criminal prosecution to confront the witnesses against him. . . . The primary interest secured by confrontation is the right to cross-examination . . . and an important function of cross-examination is the exposure of a witness' motivation in testifying. . . . Cross-examination to elicit facts tending to show motive, interest, bias and prejudice is a matter of right and may not be unduly restricted. . . .

         ‘‘Although it is within the trial court's discretion to determine the extent of cross-examination and the admissibility of evidence, the preclusion of sufficient inquiry into a particular matter tending to show motive, bias and interest may result in a violation of the constitutional requirements [of the confrontation clause] of the sixth amendment. . . . Further, the exclusion of defense evidence may deprive the defendant of his constitutional right to present a defense. . . .

         ‘‘[T]he confrontation clause does not [however] suspend the rules of evidence to give the defendant the right to engage in unrestricted cross-examination. . . . Rather, [a] defendant is . . . bound by the rules of evidence in presenting a defense. . . . Although exclusionary rules of evidence cannot be applied mechanistically to deprive a defendant of his rights, the [federal] constitution does not require that a defendant be permitted to present every piece of evidence he wishes. . . . To the contrary, [t]he [c]onfrontation [c]lause guarantees only an opportunity for effective cross-examination, not cross-examination that is effective in whatever way, and to whatever extent, the defense might wish. . . .

         ‘‘In analyzing the defendant's claims, we first review the trial court's evidentiary rulings. Our standard of review for evidentiary claims is well settled. . . . We review the trial court's decision to admit [or exclude] evidence, if premised on a correct view of the law . . . for an abuse of discretion. . . . The trial court has wide discretion to determine the relevancy of evidence and the scope of cross-examination. . . . In determining whether there has been an abuse of discretion, the ultimate issue is whether the court . . . reasonably [could have] conclude[d] as it did. . . . If, after reviewing the trial court's evidentiary rulings, we conclude that the trial court properly excluded the proffered evidence, then the defendant's constitutional claims necessarily fail.'' (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Davis, 298 Conn. 1, 8-11, 1 A.3d 76 (2010). Additionally, ‘‘[i]t bears emphasis that any limitation on the impeachment of a key government witness is subject to the most rigorous appellate review.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Grant, 89 Conn.App. 635, 645, 874 A.2d 330, cert. denied, 275 Conn. 903, 882 A.2d 678 (2005).

         Pursuant to § 4-5 (a) of the Connecticut Code of Evidence, evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts of a person may not be admitted to prove the bad character, propensity, or criminal tendencies of that person, subject to certain exceptions set forth in § 4-5 (b) that are not applicable here. Pursuant to § 4-5 (c), however, evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is admissible for other purposes, ‘‘such as to prove intent, identity, malice, motive, common plan or scheme, absence of mistake or accident, knowledge, a system of criminal activity, or an element of the crime, or to corroborate crucial prosecution testimony.'' ‘‘Admissibility of other crimes, wrongs or acts evidence is contingent on satisfying the relevancy standards and balancing test set forth in [Connecticut Code of Evidence §§] 4-1 and 4-3, respectively. For other crimes, wrongs or acts evidence to be admissible, the court must determine that the evidence is probative of one or more of the enumerated purposes for which it is offered and that its probative value outweighs its prejudicial effect.'' Conn. Code Evid. § 4-5 (c), commentary. ‘‘To determine whether evidence of prior misconduct falls within an exception to the general rule prohibiting its admission, we have adopted a two-pronged analysis. . . . First, the evidence must be relevant and material to at least one of the circumstances encompassed by the exceptions. Second, the probative value of such evidence must outweigh the prejudicial effect of the other crime evidence.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Boscarino, 86 Conn.App. 447, 458, 861 A.2d 579 (2004).

         Pursuant to Connecticut Code of Evidence § 6-6 (b) (1), ‘‘[a] witness may be asked, in good faith, about specific instances of conduct of the witness, if probative of the witness' character for untruthfulness.'' ‘‘The right to cross-examine a witness concerning specific acts of misconduct is limited in three distinct ways. First, cross-examination may only extend to specific acts of misconduct other than a felony conviction if those acts bear a special significance upon the [issue] of veracity . . . . Second, [w]hether to permit cross-examination as to particular acts of misconduct . . . lies largely within the discretion of the trial court. . . . Third, extrinsic evidence of such acts is inadmissible.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Martinez, 171 Conn.App. 702, 735, 158 A.3d 373, cert. denied, 325 Conn. 925, 160 A.3d 1067 (2017).

         A

         The defendant first claims that the trial court erroneously precluded him from cross-examining Chase as to the specific acts underlying the 2014 larceny convictions. We are not persuaded.

         The following additional facts and procedural history are relevant to our disposition of the defendant's claim. On September 14, 2016, prior to the start of the second day of jury selection, the defendant orally moved the court for an order requiring the state to disclose any police reports relating to the 2014 larceny convictions and the 2013 breach of the peace conviction. The court denied the defendant's motion as to the 2013 breach of the peace conviction but granted the motion as to the 2014 larceny convictions.

         On September 16, 2016, the state filed a motion in limine to preclude evidence of Chase's convictions and any allegations of criminal conduct against Chase. On September 19, 2016, the defendant filed an objection to the motion in limine, to which he attached copies of, inter alia, three police reports relating to the 2014 larceny convictions, one dated May 29, 2013, and two dated May 30, 2013 (2013 police reports). On September 20, 2016, the court heard argument on the motion in limine. In support of the motion, the state argued, inter alia, that evidence of the specific acts underlying the 2014 larceny convictions was not probative of Chase's veracity and would mislead the jury. The state also requested that, if the court were to deem evidence relating to the 2014 larceny convictions admissible, the court limit the admission of such evidence to the names and dates of the convictions, as well as the identity of the courts in which the convictions were rendered. In opposing the motion, the defendant stated that he sought to inquire into the specific acts underlying the 2014 larceny convictions rather than offer evidence of the convictions themselves. The defendant noted that the 2013 police reports contained statements by Chase admitting that he had stolen cell phones to exchange them for drugs. The defendant argued that he intended to inquire into those specific acts, as well as Chase's drug use, in order to impeach Chase's credibility and to support his defense theory that Chase, motivated by his desire to fuel a drug habit, was stealing, rather than towing, the defendant's car on March 24, 2015.

         Following argument, the court granted in part and denied in part the state's motion in limine, ruling that evidence of the 2014 larceny convictions, the dates of the convictions, the identity of the courts in which the convictions were rendered, and the sentences imposed would be admissible, but that evidence of the specific acts underlying those convictions would be inadmissible. In prohibiting evidence of the specific acts underlying the 2014 larceny convictions, the court determined that Chase's statements in the 2013 police reports were too remote, not relevant, would only serve to confuse the jury, and would inject collateral issues into the trial. The court also rejected the defendant's argument that the 2013 police reports demonstrated that Chase had a drug habit providing him with a motive to steal the defendant's car on March 24, 2015, stating that there were no allegations that Chase was under the influence of any substances at that time.

         At trial, Chase testified that he had been convicted of three counts of larceny in the sixth degree in 2014. Chase did not testify as to the specific acts underlying those convictions. In addition, on cross-examination, Chase testified that he had not been under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs on March 24, 2015, and that he had not been under the influence of illegal drugs during the seven days preceding March 24, 2015.

         The defendant asserts that the 2013 police reports included statements by Chase admitting that he previously had stolen cell phones to exchange them for drugs. The defendant contends that, if elicited on cross-examination, that information would have undermined Chase's credibility and supported his defense theory that Chase, motivated by a drug habit, was stealing the defendant's car rather than towing it. In response, the state argues, inter alia, that the specific acts underlying the 2014 larceny convictions were too remote and did not demonstrate that Chase had a motive to steal the defendant's car. We agree with the state.

         ‘‘It is generally held that larcenous acts tend to show a lack of veracity. . . . [L]arcenous crimes by their very nature indicate dishonesty or tendency to make false statement. . . . Moreover, [i]n common human experience acts of deceit, fraud, cheating, or stealing, for example, are universally regarded as conduct which reflects on a man's honesty and integrity. . . . It does not follow, however, that if the acts inquired about are indicative of a lack of veracity, the court must permit the cross-examination. Whether to permit it lies largely within the court's discretion.'' (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Martin, 201 Conn. 74, 87, 513 A.2d 116 (1986).

         Here, the court determined reasonably that Chase's statements in the 2013 police reports were too remote in time to have probative value as to the underlying March 24, 2015 incident and, even if they were probative, they would have confused the jury. See, e.g., State v. Morgan, 70 Conn.App. 255, 274, 797 A.2d 616 (trial court free to determine that remoteness of specific acts of misconduct tended to outweigh probative value), cert. denied, 261 Conn. 919, 806 A.2d 1056 (2002). The court also determined reasonably that Chase's statements were not probative of Chase having a motive to steal the defendant's car, namely, to support a drug habit, where there was no indication in the record that Chase was under the influence of substances at the time of the underlying incident on March 24, 2015. Accordingly, we conclude that the court did not abuse its discretion in precluding the defendant from cross-examining Chase as to the specific acts underlying the 2014 larceny convictions.

         B

         The defendant next claims that the trial court erroneously precluded him from cross-examining Chase as to the specific acts underlying the 2013 breach of the peace conviction. We disagree.

         The following additional facts and procedural history are relevant to our disposition of the defendant's claim. On September 20, 2016, after the court, in adjudicating the state's motion in limine, had precluded evidence as to the specific acts underlying the 2014 larceny convictions, the defendant requested permission to be heard on an oral motion to permit inquiry into the specific acts underlying the 2013 breach of the peace conviction. The following day, the court heard argument on such motion. The defendant noted that a police report relating to the 2013 breach of the peace conviction that he had acquired, dated October 14, 2012 (2012 police report), [8] contained a statement by Chase indicating that, following a motor vehicle accident on October 14, 2012, involving Chase and another motorist, Chase attempted to use pepper spray on the motorist in self-defense. As a result of that incident, both Chase and the motorist were charged with breach of the peace in the second degree in violation of § 53a-181. Chase pleaded guilty to the breach of the peace charge, which, according to the defendant, demonstrated that Chase's statement in the 2012 police report, representing that he had used the pepper spray in self-defense, was false. The defendant contended that the specific acts underlying the 2013 breach of the peace conviction could be used to establish that Chase was engaging in a pattern of making false self-defense claims and to impeach Chase's credibility in the present case, where Chase had sprayed pepper spray into the defendant's face allegedly in self-defense. The state objected, arguing, inter alia, that the specific acts underlying the 2013 breach of the peace conviction were too remote, lacked probative value, and did not support the defendant's argument that Chase was engaging in a pattern of making false self-defense claims.

         Following argument, the court concluded that it was ‘‘maintaining'' its ruling that the 2013 breach of the peace conviction and the specific acts underlying that conviction were not probative of Chase's credibility and were not relevant.[9] The court determined that Chase's guilty plea to the breach of the peace charge did not amount to a concession that Chase's statement in the 2012 police report was false, and it noted that the October 14, 2012 altercation between Chase and the motorist occurred over two years prior to the underlying March 24, 2015 incident. Thus, the court determined that the 2013 breach of the peace conviction and the acts underlying it did not demonstrate that Chase was engaging in a pattern of making false self-defense claims, were too remote, had no probative value, and would inject collateral issues into the trial.

         At trial, Chase testified that he had been convicted of one count of breach of the peace sometime around 2013. Chase did not testify as to the specific acts underlying that conviction.

         The defendant claims that the 2012 police report reflected that Chase previously had admitted to pepper spraying another individual. He further contends that, if elicited on cross-examination, that information would have undermined Chase's credibility and supported the defendant's theory that Chase had sprayed pepper spray ...


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