AT A PRELIMINARY HEARING, IF WITNESS TESTIMONY CONFLICTS ON AN ELEMENT OF THE CRIMINAL CHARGE, SHOULD THE JUDGE ALLOW THE CASE TO BE CARRIED OVER TO A TRIAL?
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. Bell, 259 Kan. 131 (1996).
This case addresses the following question:
At a preliminary hearing, if witness testimony conflicts on a key fact on the criminal charge, should the judge allow the case to be carried over to a trial?
The issue in this case included whether the State failed to meet its burden of proof at the preliminary hearing that a felony was committed, which ultimately resulted in the dismissal of the criminal complaint. Id. at 133. A preliminary examination is a hearing before a magistrate based on a complaint of information to determine (1) if a felony has been committed, and (2) if there is probable cause to believe that the person charged committed it. Id. at 132. When addressing the first requirement, the magistrate may make the determination based on the evidence presented if “there is a reasonable ground of suspicion, supported by circumstances sufficiently strong in themselves, to cause a person of ordinary prudence and caution to conscientiously entertain a reasonable belief that it appears a felony has been committed.” Id. at 132-3. After a judge has made the determination that the felony was committed, the next step is to determine whether probable cause exists as to believe that the person charged committed the crime. Id. at 133. The standard for this determination includes that “there must be evidence sufficient to cause a person of ordinary prudence and caution to conscientiously entertain a reasonable belief of the accused’s guilt.” Id. Further, the judge should not dismiss the case solely because they believe it was erroneous for the State to file charges against the defendant due to the remote or nonexistent possibility of a conviction. Id. The judge should consider the defendant’s defense and determine creditability and competency of both the State’s and the defendant’s witnesses. Id. Finally, if there is a conflict in witness testimony that creates a question of fact for the jury, the judge is to accept the version of the testimony that is most favorable to the State. Id.
In the current case, the issue arose when the State alleged that that the defendant intentionally obtained control over workers compensation payment with the intent to permanently deprive the State Self-Insurance Fund (SSIF) of property by making false representations. Id. at 134. This would be a criminal charge because the SSIF pays workers compensation claims to all state employees who are injured on the job and is State funded, whereas, the Second Injury Fund (the Fund) is designed to encourage employers to hire injured and handicapped employees and is funded mainly by insurance carriers. Id. at 135. The Court agreed with the trial court that the defendant did sustain an injury and that the injury was consistent with the incident described and was supported by two medical experts. Id. at 138. The issue in this case involved the testimony of a witness who stated that the defendant said he did not want the Second Injury Fund to be impleaded in the case, to which the defendant emphatically denied making such a statement. Id. at 140. The trial court judge stated that, assuming that the testimony is true, it only establishes the desire of the defendant. Id. The trial court judge noted that desire alone is not a crime, and that the defendant had no input in any decision whether or not to implead the Fund, therefore, no crime had been committed. Id. This Court concurred with the decision by the trial court. Id. at 141. This Court reasoned that the memo only showed desire, and the fact that the individuals who were responsible for not impleading the Fund made the decision without any input from the defendant or anyone on his behalf. Id. The Court further noted that the defendant never made this desire known to the decisionmakers that the Fund not be impleaded. Id. This Court, in conclusion, stated that even if it was the defendants desire to not implead the Fund, this is not evidence of a crime because the defendant took no action to prevent the Fund from being impleaded and had no authority to do so, thus the criminal complaint was rightfully dismissed. Id.