Utah Court: Defendant Prejudiced by Jury Instruction

A Utah appeals court recently overturned the theft conviction of the Utah man, citing an erroneous jury instruction.

The defendant was Joseph Brandon Crowley, who was convicted of receiving stolen property and theft by deception. Investigators say that Crowley pawned an iPod which had been stolen from a car two weeks earlier.

The owner of the iPod reported it stolen and Crowley was tracked down because the pawn shop recorded the serial number of the iPod into a database. The documents created at the pawn shop included Crowley’s signature and other identifying information, such as his fingerprint.

During the trial, the state admitted that it could not prove that Crowley actually stole the iPod, but rather that he possessed the stolen iPod in the moments right before it was pawned. The state therefore relied on the presumption of law outlined in a jury instruction which provided:

“The law presumes that possession of property recently stolen, when no satisfactory explanation of such possession is made, shall be deemed prima facie evidence that the person in possession stole the property. While the law regards the facts giving rise to the presumption as evidence of the presumed fact, the presumed fact must on all evidence be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The defendant objected to the jury instruction and appealed on that basis. An appeals court agreed that the instruction violated Crowley’s due process rights by unconstitutionally shifting the burden of proof to him.

In order to convict a person of a crime, the state must prove every essential element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. A jury instruction can violate a defendant’s due process rights by relieving his burden.

In this case, the jury instruction created an unconstitutional mandatory presumption that Crowley stole the iPod, which prompted the appeals court to vacate his conviction.

The Salt Lake City criminal defense team at Greg Smith & Associates handles criminal defense cases throughout Utah. If you or a loved one is under investigation or has been charged with a crime, call us at 801-651-1512 or contact us online.

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