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State v. Steffen

State v. Steffen, 2020 UT App 95 (Hagen, J.)

Criminal

After a six-day jury trial, the jury acquitted the defendant of ten charges, but convicted him of child endangerment, lewdness involving a child, and aggravated child sexual abuse. The Utah Court of Appeals affirmed, holding:

  • The district court did not abuse its discretion by excluding evidence under rule 412 of the Utah Rules of Evidence that the alleged victim had previously been sexually abused. Even though the prior sexual abuse evidence was deemed relevant by the district court, failure to admit it did not hamper the defendant’s ability to present a complete defense because the State did not rely on the sexual innocence inference at trial, the defendant had other evidence available to rebut it, and the value of the evidence was limited due to the alleged victim’s age and the dissimilarity between the prior abuse acts and the charged conduct.
  • The district court did not err in denying the defendant’s motion to compel the prosecutor’s notes. The State’s compliance with a court order did not thereafter waive its privilege regarding core opinion work product. Nor did its compliance cause it to incur any new discovery obligations under rule 16 of the Utah Rules of Criminal Procedure, because its disclosure of the paralegal’s notes was involuntary.
  • The district court did not err in requiring the defendant to turn over privileged work product when it granted the State’s motion to compel. To the extent that the order required disclosure of all notes taken by the defense team during interviews with prosecution witnesses, including those portions that contained core opinion work product, it exceeded the court’s discretion. But because the defendant elected not to use those notes during cross-examination, the notes were never disclosed, and there was no prejudice. Even though the order could have had a chilling effect on the defendant’s ability to call witnesses—because it forced him to choose between using the material or abandoning it to avoid disclosing it—it is impossible for an appellate court to gauge the impact of the district court’s erroneous ruling where the defendant did not make a record of how he would have used the notes but for the order. Making such a record would not necessarily have required him to disclose the protected work product. He could have made a record of the questions he would have asked the witnesses but for the court’s order. And the court cannot presume prejudice under the circumstances.
  • The district court did not abuse its discretion when it denied a motion for a mistrial when the State played a clip for the jury that mentioned the alleged victim’s cutting in response to the defendant’s alleged abuse, even though the State represented to the court that the clip contained no evidence of cutting. The defendant did not challenge the district court’s factual finding that playing the statement was a mistake. The statement was only two words. And the statement was relatively innocuous when compared to six days of evidence, some of which was graphic. And because the court offered the defendant the opportunity to admit rule 412 evidence to mitigate the effect, the court did not abuse its discretion in denying the mistrial motion.

Read the full court opinion

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