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State v. Williams

State v. Williams, 2020 UT App 67 (Hagen, J.)

Criminal

The defendant was charged with aggravated burglary, criminal mischief, and assault. To establish the elements of the crimes at trial, the State relied primarily on a 911 phone call from the defendant’s father claiming he and another son had just been assaulted by the defendant, who had gained entry to the father’s motorhome by tearing off the door. In the beginning of the phone call, the father’s breathing was rapid, his tone of voice was stressed, and his statements were spontaneous. At some point, after an officer got on the line, the father’s breathing slowed down, his voice calmed, and he became more responsive. Neither the father nor the other son testified at trial. Before trial, the State filed a motion to admit the 911 call. The defendant initially responded that the entire phone call was hearsay and that it violated his Sixth Amendment Confrontation right. The district court allowed the jury to hear the entire call. The jury convicted the defendant. The Utah Court of Appeals affirmed his convictions, holding:

  • The statements made during the phone call did not violate the defendant’s confrontation rights, because they were nontestimonial in nature. Statements are nontestimonial when they are made to enable police assistance to meet an ongoing emergency. Here, the father was seeking protection and medical attention, and the defendant was still at large, so the primary purpose of the father’s phone call was to enable police assistance to meet an ongoing emergency. The statements were not, by contrast, given to police for the purpose of investigating a crime after a violent situation had subsided and after the assailant had been found.
  • In deciding whether father’s statements fall under the excited utterance exception to hearsay, courts should examine each statement in the call should individually. Here, the district court appeared to have examined the phone call as a whole and not as a series of individual statements that each required examination.
  • The first portion of the phone call fell under the excited utterance exception to the rule against hearsay. Under rule 803(2) of the Utah Rules of Evidence, an utterance is not hearsay when it relates a “startling event or condition, made while the declarant was under the stress of excitement that it caused.” Here, the defendant “tore the door off” of a motor home and “kicked the shit out of” the father and brother. Both victims were injured and bleeding. The court did not exceed its discretion in finding that the attack was a startling event and that the contents of the call relayed the event. As well, the first part of the call was made under the stress of the event: the father made many of the statements spontaneously, he stated he had “just” been assaulted, the assault was unexpected and traumatic, and the defendant was still at large.
  • The second part of the phone call should have been excluded as hearsay, because it was not made under the stress of the event: father’s breathing slowed, his voice calmed, and his answers became less spontaneous. But the defendant waived any error in playing that portion of the call to the jury when he abandoned an objection to that portion of the call after he told the district court “no” in response to the court’s question whether he objected to playing that portion of the call. 

Read the full court opinion

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