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State v. Chavis

Supreme Court of Montana

May 7, 2019

STATE OF MONTANA, Plaintiff and Appellee,
v.
CHRISTOPHER WILLIAM CHAVIS, Defendant and Appellant.

          Submitted on Briefs: March 27, 2019

          APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Thirteenth Judicial District, In and For the County of Yellowstone, Cause No. DC 15-1136 Honorable Mary Jane Knisely, Presiding Judge.

          For Appellant: Chad Wright, Appellate Defender, Alexander H. Pyle, Assistant Appellate

          For Appellee: Scott D. Twito, Yellowstone County Attorney, Paul Chaon, Deputy County

          Justice Ingrid Gustafson delivered the Opinion of the Court.

          INGRID GUSTAFSON, JUDGE.

         ¶1 Christopher Chavis (Chavis) appeals the Order & Memorandum Denying Defendant's Motion to Dismiss or For New Trial in the Alternative issued by the Thirteenth Judicial District Court, Yellowstone County, on June 2, 2017.

         ¶2 We restate the issue on appeal as follows:

Did the District Court err when it denied Chavis's motion for a new trial?

         ¶3 We reverse and remand for a new trial.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         ¶4 Chavis was charged with felony Partner or Family Member Assault on December 1, 2015. Prior to trial, Chavis requested discovery from the State, including photographs in the possession of "any law enforcement official or other interested parties cooperating with investigating authorities dealing with all incidents out of which the charges arose" and any material which "through due diligence may be learned from the investigating officers or the witnesses in this case which is exculpatory in nature or favorable to Defendant." The State never indicated the existence of any evidence sought in discovery to be held by or in the control of another agency such that Chavis should seek subpoena directed to the other agency, but instead represented the opposite. On June 9, 2016, the State, in response to Chavis's motion to compel, represented Chavis had "received the full discovery in this matter from the State."

         ¶5 At trial, Chavis testified in his defense, asserting a justifiable use of force defense. Chavis testified that while he and M.M. were driving to work, the two argued, M.M. struck him in the face, and grabbed the steering wheel. While trying not to crash, Chavis's hand hit M.M.'s face when he blindly pushed her away. Chavis testified he developed a black eye under his right eye from M.M.'s assault. During closing argument, the State attempted to rebut Chavis's self-defense claim arguing, "The officers looked for an injury, there were none. The black eye didn't appear later, you have no evidence other than the Defendant's statement." On July 18, 2016, Chavis was found guilty of the offense.

         ¶6 Near the end of July 2016, Chavis became aware of photographs in the possession of the State. These photographs were taken through the Telmate system at the Yellowstone County Detention Facility (YCDF) within a few days after Chavis's arrest while he was being held pending bail. The photographs showed Chavis with discoloration under his right eye consistent with Chavis's assertion M.M. attacked him resulting in a black eye and contradicting the State's assertion that there was no black eye. Chavis filed a timely Motion to Dismiss or for New Trial in the Alternative. Therein, Chavis sought dismissal of the charge against him for the State's Brady violation or, alternatively, a new trial based on the discovery of new evidence-the photos showing Chavis with a black eye. The State resisted the motion. In analyzing Chavis's Brady violation claim, the District Court concluded, "the State was in possession of the photographs . . . which were favorable to the Defendant's claim of self-defense showing a mark under his right eye only a few days following his arrest[]" and that "there is a reasonable probability that these photographs may have changed the result of the proceeding since [Chavis] alleged justifiable use of force." The District Court also concluded that as the State was unaware of the photos prior to trial, it did not suppress them[1] and that Chavis "could have obtained the photographs with reasonable diligence, a subpoena or a simple request to his attorney or their investigator for the Telmate information."[2] In analyzing Chavis's alternative motion for a new ...


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