The Wyoming Supreme Court declined last week to consider whether a man’s statements in front of police body cameras should have been excluded from a criminal case because law enforcement did not read him a Miranda warning during a traffic stop.
Police didn’t take Justin Bittleston, 50, into custody during the March 2018 traffic stop. When they did, they charged him with two felonies alleging Bittleston sent his ex-girlfriend hundreds of text messages after she broke up with him and broke into her home, stealing a page out of her journal.
Prosecutors showed video of the traffic stop — in which Bittleston tells a Natrona County sheriff’s deputy and an Evansville police officer he had a photo on his phone of the journal page, which he had taken from her home — during a three-day trial, and a jury convicted Bittleston of burglary and stalking. In July, Judge Daniel Forgey sentenced Bittleston to three to six years imprisonment. He is now serving his sentence at the Wyoming Honor Farm in Riverton.
In February, students in the University of Wyoming defender aid clinic appealed the case to the state’s highest court. Of the five issues raised, two were of insufficient evidence: Bittleston’s appellate team argued that prosecutors did not present enough evidence to show Bittleston entered the woman’s house or had the necessary intent to convict him of stalking.
The other three issues presented by Bittleston’s appellate team centered on the admission of the body camera footage. The appeal argued the footage should have been excluded at trial because police did not read him a Miranda warning — in which police interviewing people in custody inform them of their rights to remain silent and to speak with a lawyer — and, because his court-appointed trial attorney, Kurt Infanger, did not ask for its exclusion on those grounds, the appellate court should find the lawyer did not effectively assist Bittleston.
The appeal brief also argued Forgey had incorrectly decided a request to keep the body camera footage from jurors on other grounds; the district court judge should have rejected the video’s display at trial because the questions police asked Bittleston were based on inaccurate premises and mischaracterized evidence, wrote law students Dami Metzler and Emily Williams.
The court’s unanimous opinion, written by Chief Justice Michael Davis, decided against Bittleston on all five issues. Corroborating evidence of the burglary, which “did not conclusively establish that Mr. Bittleston unlawfully entered Ms. Skinner’s home,” was enough for a reasonable jury to find Bittleston guilty beyond reasonable doubt, Davis wrote. The opinion also stated menacing text messages Bittleston sent the woman were enough for the jury to infer Bittleston intended to cause the woman substantial fear and emotional distress.
In addressing Bittleston’s Miranda argument, the Supreme Court did not address whether police should have read the warning to Bittleston. Because the issue was not raised at trial, the lower court’s record of the stop was not fleshed out and it was not clear to justices to what extent police used coercion, the appellate court wrote. The justices wrote that the lack of request for exclusion of the footage on Miranda grounds at trial precluded the Supreme Court from reviewing the issue.
Infanger’s failure to ask for suppression of the video on Miranda grounds, however, did not comprise ineffective assistance, the court ruled. Because, even without the video, the state would have had other corroborating evidence to prove the crimes, the appeal could not meet the standard required by case law. The appellate justices did not consider Infanger’s actual performance at the trial stage.
The court also decided that Forgey’s decision to allow jurors to see the footage — which Infanger had opposed on the basis that it would unfairly prejudice jurors against his client — was appropriate. The court did determine that some of the police officer’s statements to Bittleston captured by the footage would not have made it before jurors if not for the video, including a statement misrepresenting the content of text messages, but Bittleston’s on-camera denial and the officer’s accurate testimony at trial countered the weight of that presentation to the jury.
Lauren McLane, the University of Wyoming professor who oversees the clinic, said by email Tuesday night that the high standard for showing prejudice to a defendant at trial applied in ineffective assistance claims means that issues are rarely considered for the first time on appeal.
“The Court’s opinion is, of course, disappointing, but it is also a reiteration of a very important message to counsel at the trial court level. We as Defenders must take great care to raise all constitutional arguments at the trial court level or those issues may be forever lost,” McLane wrote. “The bottom line is that in spite of that enormous caseload (placed on public defenders) there are just some issues we cannot afford to fail to raise, including Miranda and 5th Amendment claims.”
Infanger did not immediately respond to a Wednesday afternoon phone message requesting comment for this story.