Unlawful Suppression of Evidence Results in Mistrial

A mistrial has been declared in the case against Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy after it was determined the prosecution was guilty of unlawful suppression of evidence, a violation of Bundy’s constitutional rights.

Rancher vs the feds

Photo by: Gage Skidmore

Cliven Bundy is a cattle Rancher residing in Clark County Nevada with ties to many local families throughout southern Utah. Bundy has been in a long-standing disagreement with the federal government over the right to have his cattle graze on public land, which is family had been doing for generations. The feds wanted to require a permit and collect yearly grazing fees plus arrears while Bundy claimed requiring a fee for use of the land was erroneous since the land belonged to the state. Over twenty years of debating this right ended when the BLM closed off over 140,000 acres of land and confiscated any trespassing livestock found roaming within the off-limits acreage. Bundy along with friends and family protested the capture of the cattle and after heated negotiations regained control of the livestock. Bundy continued his family traditions of grazing his cattle on public lands.

Arrested on federal charges

Almost two years after the Nevada cattle standoff, Bundy travelled to Oregon where his sons and others had taken over control of a vacant ranger station at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in support of two local ranchers charged with federal arson while protecting their property. On route to that scene however, Bundy was apprehended at the airport and arrested on multiple federal charges related to the Nevada Cattle Standoff. Some of the charges include conspiracy, assault on a federal officer, threatening an officer, as well as firearms charges. His sons and another individual were also arrested for their involvement in both the Nevada and Oregon standoffs. The Bundy sons and others involved in the Oregon standoff went to trial for that incident and were acquitted by a jury of all federal charges. They still faced charges for their involvement in Nevada alongside their father Cliven Bundy. This court experience in Nevada turned out to be very different from the one in Oregon however.

Unlawful Suppression of evidence

Photo by: Allen Allen

During the court proceedings for the Bundy clan in Nevada, the defense discovered multiple items of crucial evidence obtained by the prosecution had been withheld. Suppression of evidence is defined as when a party in a trial unlawfully withholds evidence that could be useful in exonerating the defendant(s) in the case. Some of the evidence items withheld from the defense included video surveillance of Cliven Bundy’s home as well as confirmation on the presence of snipers surrounding the Nevada cattle incident, increasing tensions. The feds denied allegations of unlawful suppression of evidence until proof emerged and they were forced to recant their omissions, claiming their careless handling of evidence was not intentional. The defense, not satisfied that the federal government could make numerous “honest” evidence mistakes in a federal trial claimed six violations to the Brady Rule. The judge agreed and declared a mistrial due to unlawful suppression of evidence or a violation of due process which is a constitutional right.

The Brady Rule

The Bundy family and another man were released on all charges thanks to the 1963 Brady v. Maryland case which was monumental in ensuring all exculpatory evidence, or evidence that might be helpful to the defense, is shared by prosecutors. In the case of Brady, prosecutors had obtained a written confession to a murder by another individual, yet suppressed that evidence and tried Brady of the murder as well. Once the courts realized there was evidence that could have exonerated the defendant of murder charges, they declared his due process rights had been violated and thus the Brady Rule was born. The Brady Rule ensures the due process law protected by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution are withheld and that no state of federal government shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”. Due process is defined as by the United States Courts as “the constitutional guarantee that a defendant will receive a fair and impartial trial.” Anyone who feels they are facing a trial with an unfair advantage due to due process violations should consult with a criminal defense attorney who will ensure all evidence vital to one’s defense is unveiled..

How Social Media Can Negatively Affect a Jury Ruling

Active jurors in highly publicized cases are told not to discuss court matters with others or watch, listen, or read any news or social media coverage regarding the trial because these can negatively affect the jury ruling.

Simpler times

Photo by: Justin Grimes

In previous years, avoiding media coverage of a high profile case was easier. Turning off the radio or television during the news hours and refraining from reading the main page of a newspaper was usually enough to help jurors keep their opinions based solely on court approved testimony and evidence. Jurors were not accustomed to having a constant stream of information at the fingertips any time of day.

Bombardment of the media

Nowadays, news sources are available 24/7 on television while also having a large presence on social media. These immediate sources of news are available instantly to anyone with a smart phone or access to a computer. These sources may be read by millions, yet may contain speculative information written to gain attention or ruffle feathers, not to spread truth and justice.

Opinion rant

Photo by: Bernard Spragg. NZ

Beyond what is posted by news sources is the ever-growing oversharing of public opinions. These rants are usually shared on private social media accounts and are viewable to anyone on the news feed of all their followers, whether the opinion is sought after or not. Avoiding these blatant posts would require a person to avoid checking their social media, which may be impossible for some to do.

Twitter in the courtroom

Many jurors continue to use social media during a trial while others have gone as far as to post live tweets during the court proceedings. This can result in a mistrial and loss of time and money for those working on the case.

• In the July 2014 case of a foster father accused of murder and child abuse, a juror was found to have tweeted opinions about the case and his disdain of jury duty starting before he was even selected to serve on the jury.

• A New York juror during a 2015 robbery trial was fine $1,000 after her constant postings on social media caused the case to go to mistrial.

• In June 2017, the jury foreman for an attempted murder case in Pennsylvania caused it to be declared a mistrial after the jury foreman continually posted updates on Facebook which were then flooded with heated comments of debate.

Isolated or fined

Photo by: Kumar’s Edit

In an attempt to keep juror’s away from social media and their views during a trial private and untarnished, some cases require juror’s to be sequestered from the world for a time. This can include housing them away from home and family while confiscating cell phones and laptops. Those that find their way around these barricades may end up removed from jury duty while some also face hefty fines or even jail time. Those that follow the rules but are tired of being isolated may not take the necessary time needed to properly deliberate a case. The jury members’ growing feelings of homesickness and isolation could cause them to do whatever possible to ensure they home sooner.

Social media’s negative effect on trials

Social media has been shown to have an increasingly negative effect on jury trials, whether through jurors misuse of social media or through their desire to return to it. According to Utah Courts, “American citizens have the right to a fair trial and jurors ensure this right is upheld. “ Defendants that feel their case may have been unfairly judged due to outside influences on jurors or through sequestering causing jurors to come to a verdict prematurely should consult with their attorney regarding how to proceed.