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State of Arizona ex rel. Montgomery v. Duncan , Court of Appeals of Arizona

2011 Ariz. App. LEXIS 215

Nature of the case:

Rape shield law; relevant evidence

Facts and Issues on Appeal:

Defendant was charged with four counts of sexual conduct with a minor. The State alleged that Defendant orally raped the victim multiple times over approximately a two-week period. The victim was fifteen years old at the time. The Defendant was thirty-eight. The defendant sought to admit at trial evidence that the victim had told him that she had engaged in oral sex with two other individuals. The defendant argued that the information was relevant because it supported his belief that the victim was eighteen or older, thus old enough to consent. The trial court ruled the evidence was relevant and admissible and not excluded under Arizona’s rape shield law, Arizona Revised Statutes Section 13-1421 (2010). The prosecutor appealed. Issues addressed were: 1) whether the trial court was correct in admitting evidence of the victim’s alleged statement, and (2) whether the Arizona rape shield statute is constitutional as applied to the evidence the defendant sought to admit? The appellate court reversed the trial court's ruling, reasoning as follows:

Ruling & Rationale:

The plain language of Arizona's rape-shield law prohibits admissibility of this evidence and the statute is not unconstitutional even if the proffered evidence is "relevant" because a defendant's fair trial rights do not include the right to admit all relevant evidence. Indeed, the rights of the accused must bend in the face of competing legal rights and social interests. While the confrontation rights of the defendant might be affected if the evidence is not admitted, there is no indication that such information will "aid in the truth-seeking process" on the issue of whether the defendant believed the victim was over the age of consent.

Editorial Comment

This case is noteworthy for the way the court presumes relevancy of the information then excludes the evidence on the grounds that it lacks materiality. In other words, it might be relevant but it doesn't matter because it's not relevant ENOUGH or strong ENOUGH to actually help elucidate the truth on an issue in dispute. Very few courts address this critical difference in their analyses of this issue and many jurisdictions rely on simple relevancy and even only marginal relevancy to determine that past sexual behavior of the victim is admissible. This approach necessarily renders rape-shield laws meaningless as they add no value to relevancy which already exists as a core doctrine that controls judicial decision on nearly all evidentiary disputes. In another unusual move, the court differentiated between the right to cross-examine the victim on her statement, and the right of the accused to testify about his reaction to the victim’s statement. If the evidence is not admissible, it should be forbidden irrespective of the means by which the information is offered up for consideration. This case is also noteworthy for its jurisdictional language and should inspire prosecutors in other states to file appeals on rape-shield issues and to be proactive in this regard because a victim’s rights cannot be protected in an ordinary course either in the event of an acquittal or an appeal post-conviction. Many states have procedural rules that allow for pre-trial prosecutorial appeals of evidentiary rulings, but prosecutors generally decline to seek judicial review either to preserve resources or to avoid delaying the trial, or both. The downside to such an approach is that erroneous rulings that are not appealed eventually become the tolerated norm. Prosecutors may want to be more active and/or to support the role of third-party victims in filing their own appeals on such issues, especially where prosecutors are limited by ethical restraints from standing in the shoes of the victim and arguing on behalf of her constitutional privacy rights. Finally, this case is also notable for its lack of robust discussion of the policy reasons behind rape-shield laws, opting instead to simply states that the plain language of the statute prohibits admissibility. While a plain language argument is sufficient, it adds value to the discussion to explain why a barrier to seemingly relevant evidence is fair in terms of understanding how such statutes protect constitutionally valuable interests of victims, e.g privacy and autonomy.

Submitted By: Allison O'Connor -- Law Student

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