Crackheads 'r Us
To what extent can the prosecution use computer printouts to prove its case? That was the issue last week in State v. Garrett, where the 8th District reversed a conviction for receiving stolen license plates. The state had presented the testimony of the plate's owner that they'd been stolen, and the arresting officer testified that the computer printout from the BMV confirmed that. The court noted that the owner did not identify the plates or registration in court, and held that the officer's testimony about the printout wasn't sufficient.
This, the court noted, was in keeping with the precedent from the district, namely the 1983 case of State v. Sims, which held that
A computer print-out report is not reliable and trustworthy proof that an object has been stolen. Errors commonly occur in the recording, retention and retrieval of computer information.
That's certainly a handy decision to have, and the prosecution's approach to this case appears to have been rather lackadaisical: the state did not even introduce the printout, instead relying upon the police officer's recollection of it, which the trial court, somewhat bewilderingly, admitted under the business exception to the hearsay rule. And, as mentioned, the entire issue would not even have arisen if the victim had identified the license plates in court.
Still, Judge McMonagle's dissent raised some fair points. As she notes, in Sims the victim was never even called to testify: the entire case had been based upon the computer printout. Here, the victim did come in and testify that the plates had been stolen, and the police officer testified that the defendant had them. That would seem to solve the problem.
Of course, proving that they'd been stolen and that the defendant had them still leaves the element that the defendant knew or had reasonable cause to believe that they'd been stolen. This wasn't a problem here; as Judge McMonagle noted,
If there were any question regarding defendant Garrett's reasonable cause to believe that the plates had been obtained through the commission of a theft offense, it was resolved when he told Officer Sowul that he "bought them from some crackhead." Plates are purchased from the Bureau of Motor Vehicles -- not "crackheads." A finder of fact could reasonably infer that a person who purchases license plates from a "crackhead" would have reason to know they were stolen.
I suppose an enterprising defense attorney could have argued that he meant that he bought the license plate from a crackhead at the BMV, and if the judge's experiences with that agency paralleled mine, she might have bought it.