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Hard cases

In doing this blog, I read a lot of cases.  The downside to that is, I read a lot of cases.   It's not at all unusual to find decisions that are result-driven:  that is, cases where obvious errors are brushed aside because of the overwhelming evidence of the defendant's guilt.  And it's not just that those errors are dismissed as harmless; many times I've seen courts come up with legal rulings to justify a particular outcome.

Sometimes, that works in reverse:  a defendant's obvious innocence may lead a court to come to a legal result it otherwise might not have.  That may have happened last week in the 8th District's decision in State v. Snyder

Amy Snyder was at home the day her husband Alex spanked her two-year-old daughter for a potty-training accident.  Several days later, the child's grandmother noticed bruising along the child's buttocks and spine, and on her forehead.  She took her to the hospital, where no treatment was provided, although the report noted "excessive bruising." 

Both Alex (the child's stepfather) and Amy were charged with felonious assault, child endangering, and domestic violence.  Amy acknowledged to the police officer that she did physically punish the child on occasion, although not so that she left bruises, and admitted that on the night in question she could "hear Alex beating the living shit out of the child," but didn't intervene because she was fearful of Alex.  (She divorced him after the incident.)  The detective found her credible, and testified that when he showed her pictures of the child's bruises, she "appeared surprised and emotional."  Amy gave a statement indicating that after the incident, she promised her daughter that "no one will touch you again."  Alex testified that after the beating, he and Amy had a conversation in which Amy told him this would be the last time they physically disciplined the child, and that they needed to find "a different way."

Amy went to trial before the judge, and was convicted of felonious assault, two counts of endangering children (one second degree and one third), and one of domestic violence.  (Alex had pled earlier to a count of felonious assault, child endangering, and domestic violence.)  Oddly enough, no appeal was taken from the conviction, but Amy filed a pro se appeal, counsel was appointed for her, and assigned a single error:  that the evidence was insufficient.

Let's look at what showing that would require.  Amy's two counts of child endangering were for creating s substantial risk of harm by violating a duty of care, and for abusing the child.  Normally misdemeanors, they become felonies -- of the third and second degree, respectively -- if the child was seriously harmed.  Showing that the evidence here was insufficient to establish serious physical harm seems an Herculean task, given that the 8th District has repeatedly held that simply seeking medical treatment is proof of serious physical harm.  Overturning the conviction for domestic violence presents an even more daunting challenge; there, only physical harm is required. 

Yet that's what the court held, reversing the case, vacating Amy's convictions, and discharging her. 

How did it do that?  First, by holding that "while there was evidence that the child sustained 'excessive bruising,' there was no evidence of serious physical harm to the child."  The court then draws a distinction that most previous courts have not:  that although the child went to the hospital, "no treatment was administered."   The court also claims that "other courts have found similar and even more severe punishment to the case at h and does not constitute serious physical harm," relying on its own decision in 1994 in State v. Ivey and the 3rd District's decision in 2008 in In re Lunn.  There, the court's batting .500.  In Lunn, the court noted that

The record lacks any medical evidence, which would lead one to conclude that the discipline was excessive.  No physician testified at the hearing, nor was any medical report admitted into evidence showing that Jason required medical attention as a result of the discipline.

Ivey, on the other hand, is a must-read for attorneys defending child abuse, domestic violence (we'll get to that in a minute), or child endangering cases:  the court found no serious physical harm despite physical injuries which included "a bruised left eyelid, bruises, welts, and lacerations caused by a belt whipping  on the buttocks and lower legs, and a swollen hand."

Did the court get it wrong here?  Actually, the decision is a welcome relief from the aforementioned cases holding that merely going to the ER is proof of serious physical harm.  As I've pointed out before (scroll down), that focuses on whether the victim decided that he wanted to seek medical attention;  Snyder focuses on the correct question, whether medical treatment is necessary.  Note that the other cases address serious physical harm in the context of felonious assault, while Snyder addresses it in the context of child endangering.  (Snyder was acquitted of the charge of felonious assault.)  Still, considering that we're talking about serious physical harm in both, it's hard to see why the standard would be different.  And the argument is bolstered by the 8th's decision a month ago in State v. Wyland, where it also drew the distinction between seeking medical attention and getting medical treatment. 

Now, let's take a look at that domestic violence charge.  Again, only proof of "physical harm" is required, and with everybody agreeing that the child suffered "excessive bruising," that would seem like a done deal.  But wait:  there's a "discipline" defense here:  in the case of alleged domestic violence toward a child, the parent can raise the affirmative defense that the harm was reasonably necessary to discipline the child.  (The case law on that is detailed in my post here.)  And that's the hook the court uses:

In view of the facts and circumstances in this case, we find there was insufficient evidence for any rational trier of fact to conclude Snyder's actions were other than proper and reasonable.

Which is a roundabout way of saying

The injuries here were inflicted by the asshole stepfather, the mother made sure it didn't happen again, and we don't really understand why she was charged with any of this, let alone convicted of it.  I mean, really? 

That's the way I would have written it, anyway.  And that's just one of many, many reasons why you'll never see me writing judicial opinions.


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