Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
State v. Dority, 324 P.3d 1146 (Kan. Ct. App. 2014).
This case addresses the following issue:
When a victim of domestic battery recants (renounces) their initial police report when testifying at trial, can a trial judge rely on his or her common knowledge and experience to ignore the victim’s testimony at trial and use the police reports instead?
This case explored the issue of whether a trial judge could use his or her common knowledge and experience to ignore statements made by the victim at trial. In exploring this issue, the court held that a trial judge was not allowed to use his or her special knowledge of a particular subject to decide an issue without hearing evidence to support the judge’s findings. Id. at 1147-48. However, a trial judge was allowed to use his or her common knowledge and experience to determine the credibility of a witness and assess the weight of a witness’s testimony. Id.
In this case, the victim and her 4-month-old daughter went to the hospital after the daughter hit her head on the floor. Id. at 1148. While at the hospital, the victim told police she had been involved in an argument with the defendant (boyfriend and father). Id. The victim was interviewed by two separate police officers. Id. In both interviews, the victim stated that she and her boyfriend had been in a heated argument and that the defendant had pushed her to the ground and the daughter had fallen out of the victim’s arms and hit her head on the floor. Id. Eventually, the defendant was arrested for domestic battery. Id. At trial, the victim’s testimony differed from what she had told the two police officers. Id. The victim testified that she was the one who had hit the defendant and the daughter had received the head injury after falling off the couch two days prior to the incident. Id. Nevertheless, the trial court found the defendant guilty of domestic battery. Id. at 1149. In giving the verdict, the trial judge commented, “And using my common knowledge and experience, I can say it is absolutely not uncommon for the victims in these kinds of cases to come in at the time of trial and totally change their story around.” Id. at 1150. Furthermore, the trial judge found that the victim’s version of events she gave to the police were far more persuasive than her testimony at trial. Id. at 1149. Therefore, the trial court sentenced the defendant to a total of 18 months in jail. Id.
On appeal, the defendant argued that he did not receive a fair trial due to the trial judge’s stated beliefs about domestic violence victims. Id. at 1150. In particular, the defendant pointed to the one sentence in which the trial judge commented that based on his experience in this type of case, it was common for victims to recant their initial police reports when testifying at trial. Id. Therefore, the defendant claimed the trial court improperly relied on personal knowledge about domestic violence victims instead of relying on the evidence provided at trial. Id.
In addressing the defendant’s argument, the Court of Appeals of Kansas identified three points. Id at 1152. First, the court found that the trial judge merely noted a situation he had encountered previously in cases involving domestic battery. Id. Second, the court identified that an expert witness would not be required to testify that it was common for domestic violence victims to change his or her story prior to trial. Id. Third, the court concluded that the trial judge indicated that he was not basing his guilty verdict solely on his common knowledge and experience about domestic violence victims; rather, he was also considering the physical evidence. Id.
In conclusion, the Court of Appeals of Kansas held that the trial judge was allowed to use his common knowledge and experience in domestic battery cases to ignore the victim’s testimony at trial and instead use her police reports. Id.