State v. Spottedbear

State v. Spottedbear, 2016 MT 243 (Oct. 4, 2016) (Baker, J.) (5-0, aff’d & rev’d)

Issue: (1) Whether the improper influence statute is unconstitutionally overbroad; (2) whether the state presented sufficient evidence of improper influence; (3) whether the state presented sufficient evidence to convict Spottedbear of criminal trespass; (4) whether the district court properly admitted evidence of Spottedbear’s prior incident with Officer Walker; and (5) whether trial counsel was ineffective.

Short Answer: (1) No; (2) yes; (3) no; (4) yes; and (5) no.

Affirmed and reversed

Facts: In late February 2014, Officer Walker responded to a disturbance between Spottedbear and another customer at Wal-Mart. After speaking to a staff person at the store, Walker told Spottedbear to leave the store. On his way out, Spottedbear yelled at the staff person, and Walker arrested him for disorderly conduct.

En route to the detention center, Walker told Spottedbear he was going to charge him with criminal trespass as well as disorderly conduct. Spottedbear, who was intoxicated, became belligerent and threatened to kill Walker as well as his wife and family.

Based on those threats, the state added a charge of improper influence to the disorderly conduct and criminal trespass charges. Before trial, Spottedbear moved to limit the introduction of evidence regarding a previous incident he had with Walker. The district court ruled that the state could elicit testimony about the incident but could not bring up that Spottedbear had been convicted of any crime.

Procedural Posture & Holding: Officer Walker was the only witness at trial. The jury found Spottedbear guilty on all three charges. The district court sentenced Spottedbear as a persistent felony offender to 10 years for the improper influence conviction, six months for criminal trespass, and 10 days for disorderly conduct, to run concurrently. Spottedbear appeals the improper influence and criminal trespass convictions, and the Supreme Court affirms the improper influence conviction and reverses the criminal trespass conviction.

Reasoning: (1) A person commits the offense of threats and other improper influence in official matters “if the person purposely or knowingly . . . threatens harm to any person, the person’s spouse, child, parent, or sibling, or the person’s property with the purpose to influence the person’s decision, . . . or other exercise of discretion as a public servant, party official, or voter.” Section 45-7-102(1)(a)(i), MCA. Spottedbear argues for the first time on appeal that this statute is overbroad. He argues this Court should review it because trial counsel failed to raise it below, and because the Court may review an unconstitutional statute under the plain error doctrine.

The overbreadth doctrine “is an exception to the general rule that statutes are evaluated in light of the situation and facts before the court.” The Court is unpersuaded that trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to raise the overbreadth argument below. The mere fact that Spottedbear’s appellate counsel can conceive of some impermissible applications of the statute is insufficient to overcome the “strong presumption that [trial] counsel’s conduct [fell] within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance,” Whitlow, ¶ 21.

(2) Spottedbear did not threaten Walker until he learned that Walker intended to charge him with criminal trespass. The State had the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Spottedbear not only threatened, but did so with the conscious object to influence Officer Walker’s actions as a public servant. Although Spottedbear did not explicitly state the condition upon which his threats were based, such direct proof is unnecessary to show Spottedbear’s intent to influence, which could “be inferred from the facts testified to by witnesses and the circumstances as developed by the evidence.”

(3) Although a jury could infer from Walker’s testimony that an authorized person revoked Spottedbear’s license to be at Wal–Mart, the State presented no evidence that Spottedbear remained after his privilege was revoked. Even viewing this evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, no rational trier of fact could have found beyond a reasonable doubt that Spottedbear remained unlawfully after Officer Walker directed him to leave.

(4) Spottedbear contends that the District Court improperly allowed the State to present evidence of his prior incident with Officer Walker. However, the prior incident could be used under M. R. Evid. 404(b) to show knowledge, intent and motive. The Court’s review of the record establishes that the State used the prior evidence for that purpose.

(5) Spottedbear asserts his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance because he did not object to the state’s definition of “purpose” in the jury instruction. However, Spottedbear fails to establish that there was a reasonable probability that, but for his counsel’s error, the result of the proceeding would have been different.



State v. Hoff, 2016 MT 244 (Oct. 4, 2016) (Cotter, J.) (5-0, aff’d)

Issue: (1) Whether the district court violated Hoff’s right to a public trial when it closed a hearing on the admissibility of the victim’s prior allegations of sexual abuse; (2) whether the district court erred in preventing Hoff from questioning the victim about prior allegations of sexual abuse; and (3) whether the district court erred by not disclosing information in confidential records after conducting an in camera review.


Short Answer: (1)



Facts: IL was born in 2002 and her parents separated soon after. IL lived with her mother except during 2008-2010 when she lived off and on with her father, her father’s sister, and her maternal grandparents. In 2011, IL’s mother began dating and living with Hoff. IL’s mother worked evenings twice a week and left IL in the care of Hoff or IL’s maternal grandfather.


In July 2013, IL had an argument with her mother and said she wanted to live with her father. IL’s parents arranged for her father to take IL to his house, where he lived with his new wife. Because IL’s father traveled for work, IL was often in her stepmother’s care. After about two weeks, both IL’s father and stepmother had to travel out of state. The stepmother offered to take IL with her, but IL’s mother refused to allow her to travel out of state. When the stepmother told IL she would have to go back to her mother’s house, IL began crying and told her stepmother that Hof had sexually assaulted her. The stepmother called police. IL underwent a forensic interview two days later, during which she said Hoff had been touching her inappropriately for two years. Hoff was arrested that day. He denied any inappropriate touching.


During pretrial discovery, the state and Hoff moved for in camera review of DPHHS records pertaining to IL’s accusations against Hoff. The district court conducted its review and released relevant records, which contained reference IL made at age four accusing two other men of sexual assault. Hoff moved for a preliminary Mazurek hearing on the admissibility of the prior accusations, maintaining they were false and therefore relevant to IL’s credibility in accusing Hoff. The state asked the district court to close the Mazurek hearing to the public. The district court granted the motion over Hoff’s objection.


Procedural Posture & Holding: After the hearing, the district court issued a written order denying the admission of the prior accusations on the grounds that Hoff did not show that the accusations were in fact false, as required by Mazurek. Based on this, the district court prohibited Hoff from cross-examining IL about the prior accusations at trial. Following a four-day trial, the jury found Hoff guilty on both counts. Hoff appeals and the Supreme Court affirms.


Reasoning: (1) Preventing the disclosure of sensitive information is a sufficiently strong interest to override the general presumption of openness in trials. Few cases present that interest more starkly than the sexual assault of a minor.