The Appellate Group

State v. Aziakanou

State v. Aziakanou, 2021 UT 57 (Petersen, J.) (Lee, A.C.J. concurring) (Himonas, J. concurring)


The defendant, a person of color, was found guilty of arranging to distribute a controlled substance after police officers saw him lead three people to a “spice” dealer on three separate occasions. Only one occasion was substantiated with evidence of drugs. During jury voir dire, juror 13, the only person of color on the jury, affirmed that—while he had been a victim of racial profiling in the past—he could nevertheless impartially view the State’s evidence. The State used a peremptory strike to dismiss juror 13. Defendant objected to juror 13’s dismissal under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79. After conviction, Defendant also moved for directed verdict based on insufficient evidence. The trial court overruled both motions. The Utah Court of Appeals certified the case to the Utah Supreme Court, where Defendant argued that a potential juror’s experience with racial profiling is not a race-neutral explanation for a peremptory strike as a matter of law. On direct appeal, The Utah Supreme Court affirmed the district court, holding:

  • Under Batson, the State’s rationale for dismissing a juror “does not demand an explanation that is persuasive, or even plausible” and can be “silly or superstitious,” as long as it is “facially race-neutral.” Here, Defendant asserts that the State struck juror 13 because juror 13 had been racially profiled. The Utah Supreme Court instead believed that the State struck juror 13 because, as the State noted to the trial court, he “has an issue with law enforcement” and “all [the State’s] witnesses are law enforcement” officers. The Court held that “[o]n its face, this explanation is not based on the race of a prospective juror but on the particular juror’s prior experience with and views toward law enforcement.”
  • Of note: Were Defendant to show that there were similarly situated white jurors whom the State treated differently—for example, white jurors who described prior negative interactions with the police or indicated a dim view of law enforcement in some way, but were not stricken by the State—that could provide evidence of purposeful discrimination under Batson.
  • FLAG: The court refers the issue of the disproportionate removal of racial minorities under peremptory strikes—even where a Batson violation has not occurred—to its advisory committee on the rules of criminal procedure.
  • CONCURRENCE, J. Himonas: The right not to be excluded from a jury on account of race is not self-enforcing—it must be enforced. And when it is not enforced, the judicial process is compromised and our justice system becomes complicit in the social inequities of racism. Trial courts have the power, if not the duty, to raise Batson challenges sua sponte.

Read the full court opinion