New Florida Supreme Court Case on Peremptory Challenges

 

"Court Trial of Witches", illustrato...

"Court Trial of Witches", illustrator unknown (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

HAYES vs. STATE, 37 Fla. L. Weekly S253a (Fla., Apr 5 2012)

Peremptory challenges during jury selection are once again the subject of this Court’s review. More specifically, we address the misapplication by both the trial court and the First District Court of Appeal in Hayes v. State, 45 So. 3d 99 (Fla. 1st DCA 2010), of the procedure this Court set forth in Melbourne v. State, 679 So. 2d 759 (Fla. 1996), for eliminating discrimination during the exercise of peremptory challenges.

In this case, the trial court erred in denying defense counsel’s peremptory challenge to a female juror, notwithstanding the undisputed gender-neutral reason counsel proffered (her relationship to law enforcement officers). The trial court mistakenly assessed defense counsel’s reason as if it were assessing a challenge for cause and failed to perform the critical third step of the Melbourne procedure, which requires an assessment of the genuineness of counsel’s proffered reasons for the strike. Further, the trial court erroneously relieved the State — the opponent of the strike — of its burden to establish that the reason for the challenge, despite being gender-neutral, was pretextual.

On appeal, Hayes argued that the trial court erred in denying his peremptory challenge of juror Haupt, warranting a new trial. He specifically asserted that the trial court’s basis for denying the strike was inapplicable to peremptory challenges because it related to a challenge for cause and that the record did not support the court’s finding that defense counsel’s gender-neutral reason was pretextual under step three of the three-part procedure this Court set forth in Melbourne. The State conceded error, agreeing with Hayes that the trial court engaged in the wrong inquiry and urging the First District to remand for a new trial. Without referencing either Hayes’s contention or the State’s concession that the trial court mistakenly considered the challenge as if it were one for cause, the First District affirmed the trial court’s decision to disallow defense counsel’s strike of juror Haupt.

Without referencing either Hayes’s contention or the State’s concession that the trial court mistakenly considered the challenge as if it were one for cause, the First District affirmed the trial court’s decision to disallow defense counsel’s strike of juror Haupt. In doing so, the district court initially noted that the trial court complied with the first two steps of the Melbourne procedure because the prosecutor requested a gender-neutral reason for the peremptory strike of juror Haupt (step one), and defense counsel offered a facially gender-neutral explanation after the trial court requested that he do so (step two). In turning to step three — the trial court’s assessment of the genuineness of the reason given for the strike — the First District rejected the State’s concession of error and affirmed the trial court’s decision to disallow defense counsel’s challenge since, in the district court’s view, it was not clearly erroneous under the Melbourne standard of review. The district court recognized that under Melbourne, a determination of genuineness turns primarily on credibility and takes into account “all the circumstances surrounding the strike.”

To resolve this issue, we review our precedent regarding peremptory challenges, discuss the applicable standard of review, and then apply our precedent to the facts of this case.

Peremptory and for-cause challenges constitute distinct, but complementary, methods to aid those facing criminal charges in achieving the constitutional right of trial by an impartial jury. While the two types of challenges work in tandem to permit the removal of a potential juror in whom the striking party perceives a certain bias or hostility, peremptory challenges differ considerably from challenges for cause. Affording a criminal defendant the full use of his or her allotted peremptory challenges is an essential part of securing a fair and impartial jury under Florida’s constitution, and his or her use of peremptory challenges is limited only by the rule that such challenges may not be used to exclude prospective jurors because of their race, ethnicity, or gender. to strike the appropriate balance between a party’s right to exercise peremptory challenges and the attempt to eliminate invidious discrimination in juror selection, this Court in Melbourne enunciated a three-step procedure to be followed when a party objects to the exercise of a peremptory challenge on the ground that it was made on a discriminatory basis. First, the objecting party must make a timely objection, show that the venireperson is a member of a distinct protected group, and request that the trial court ask the striking party to provide a reason for the strike. Second, if these initial requirements are met, the court must ask the proponent of the strike to explain the reason for the strike, and the burden shifts to the proponent to come forward with a race-, ethnicity-, or gender-neutral explanation. Third, if the explanation is facially race-, ethnicity-, or gender-neutral, the court must determine whether the explanation is a pretext “given all the circumstances surrounding the strike,” with the focus of this inquiry being the genuineness of the explanation. Compliance with each step is not discretionary, and the proper remedy when the trial court fails to abide by its duty under the Melbourne procedure is to reverse and remand for a new trial.

The proper test under Melbourne requires the trial court’s decision on the ultimate issue of pretext to turn on a judicial assessment of the credibility of the proffered reasons and the attorney or party proffering them, both of which must be weighed in light of the circumstances of the case and the total course of the voir dire in question, as reflected in the record. Despite the need of appellate courts to defer to a trial court’s credibility assessment, this Court has recognized that the clearly erroneous standard is not a mechanism through which appellate courts can simply rubber-stamp the trial court’s ruling. For instance, in Nowell v. State, 998 So. 2d 597 (Fla. 2008), when reversing a trial court’s finding of genuineness because it was unsupported by the record, we explained that although “the trial court is in the best position to assess the genuineness of the reason advanced, and the decision will be affirmed unless clearly erroneous . . . ‘deference does not imply abandonment or abdication of judicial review,’ . . . because ‘[d]eference does not by definition preclude relief.’ An appellate court’s inability to review a trial court’s genuineness inquiry is of particularly great concern when the trial court prohibits a party from striking a juror despite the absence of evidence of discriminatory intent. A trial court’s refusal to permit a peremptory challenge is tantamount to a finding that the strike was being exercised for a discriminatory purpose. Yet, in Melbourne, this Court emphasized the presumption that peremptory challenges are exercised in a nondiscriminatory manner and that the burden of persuasion is on the opponent of the strike to establish support for purposeful discrimination. Therefore, where the record is completely devoid of any indication that the trial court considered circumstances relevant to whether a strike was exercised for a discriminatory purpose, the reviewing court, which is confined to the cold record before it, cannot assume that a genuineness inquiry was actually conducted in order to defer to the trial court. Deferring to the trial court’s genuineness determination on appeal when no such determination has been made invites an arbitrary result. Conversely, where the record supports the conclusion that the trial court has actually considered relevant circumstances surrounding the strike, it is proper for the reviewing court to conclude that a finding has been made, notwithstanding that the trial court did not recite a perfect script or incant “magic” words.

Here, although the defendant sought to strike a juror who had ties to law enforcement, that juror remained on the jury panel. Thus, the defendant’s right to exercise a peremptory challenge was denied absent a concomitant benefit of preventing discrimination in jury selection. Because it misapplied and frustrated the original purpose of Melbourne, we quash the decision of the First District Court of Appeal in Hayes.

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