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State v. Gravois

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Fifth Circuit

February 26, 2019

STATE OF LOUISIANA
v.
BLAISE GRAVOIS IN RE BLAISE GRAVOIS

          APPLYING FOR SUPERVISORY WRIT FROM THE TWENTY-THIRD JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT, PARISH OF ST JAMES, STATE OF LOUISIANA, DIRECTED TO THE HONORABLE KATHERINE TESS STROMBERG, DIVISION ''C'', NUMBER 75, 22

         WRIT GRANTED

          Panel composed of Judges Marc E. Johnson, Robert A. Chaisson, and Stephen J. Windhorst

         In his writ application, relator, Blaise Gravois, seeks review of the district court's granting, in part, of the State's motion in limine to prohibit the admission of irrelevant evidence.

         On September 13, 2018, the State filed a "Motion in Limine Incorporated Memorandum to Prohibit Admission of Defendant's Irrelevant Evidence Pursuant to La. C.E. art. 402." Specifically, the State sought to prohibit relator from introducing evidence concerning any other St. James Parish work conducted by the Department of Operations which is not the subject of the indictment. In its motion, the State alleged that this evidence was not relevant to whether defendant was guilty or innocent of the crimes charged. The State further maintained that even if relevant, this evidence should be excluded pursuant to La. C.E. art. 403 because it will only cause unfair prejudice, confuse the issues, and mislead the jury. In its opposition to the motion, relator argued that the evidence was undeniably relevant to undermine the State's theory that relator acted with the requisite criminal intent.

          After a hearing, the trial court granted in part and denied in part the State's motion in limine. In its reasons for judgment, the trial court found that evidence of public work done on properties, other than the ones alleged in the bill of indictment, is of no consequence to the determination of the pre-trial motions filed in this matter, or at trial with regard to defendant's guilt or innocence. Later, in its reasons, the trial court stated that even though evidence of multiple instances of parish work on private property may be probative of defendant's lack of intent to commit the crimes charged, its probative value is outweighed by the risk of confusing the jury and a waste of time in trying the five-count indictment. The court then stated:

Though the court will not allow Defendant to question Mr. Chenier about each and every act of public work that may have been performed on private property under his leadership, the Court finds that the Sixth Amendment gives Defendant the right to briefly question Mr. Chenier about whether he engaged in similar conduct and whether he was offered immunity in exchange for his testimony. As such, the State's Motion in Limine to Prohibit Admission of Defendant's Irrelevant Evidence is granted, in part, and denied, in part.

         Relator now challenges the trial court's granting, in part, of the State's motion in limine to prohibit the admission of irrelevant evidence. First, relator contends that the trial court abused its discretion in finding that evidence of other public work performed on private property was irrelevant. Second, relator asserts that the trial court abused its discretion in finding that the probative value of the contested evidence was outweighed by the risk of confusing the jury and that admission of such evidence would be a waste of time. Third, relator maintains that the trial court abused its discretion in finding that despite the fact that such testimony was irrelevant, he has a Sixth Amendment right to "briefly question" one witness, former director of operations, Jody Chenier, about whether he engaged in similar conduct. Having reviewed the entirety of the documents provided to this Court and the applicable law, we find merit to these arguments.

         Both the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 16 of the Louisiana Constitution guarantee a criminal defendant the right to present a defense. This fundamental right may not be superseded by evidentiary rules. However, the right to present a defense does not require the trial court to permit the introduction of evidence that is irrelevant or has so little probative value that it is substantially outweighed by other legitimate considerations in the administration of justice. State v. Smoot, 13-453 (La.App. 5 Cir. 1/15/14), 134 So.3d 1, 7, writ denied, 14-297 (La. 9/12/14), 147 So.3d 704. The trial court is accorded great discretion in evidentiary rulings and, absent a clear abuse of that discretion, rulings regarding the relevancy and admissibility of evidence will not be disturbed on appeal. State v. Sandoval, 02-230 (La.App. 5 Cir. 2/25/03), 841 So.2d 977, 985, writ denied, 03-853 (La. 10/3/03), 855 So.2d 308.

         Relevant evidence is defined in La. C.E. art. 401 as "evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence." All relevant evidence is admissible, except as otherwise provided by law, and irrelevant evidence is not admissible. La. C.E. art. 402. However, relevant evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury, or by considerations of undue delay, or waste of time. La. C.E. art. 403.

         In the present case, relator was charged with five counts of malfeasance in office, in violation of La. R.S. 14:134. In State v. Thompson, 15-886 (La. 9/18/17), 233 So.3d 529, 538, the Louisiana Supreme Court recognized that intent is an essential element of the offense of malfeasance in office and, citing State v. Petitto, 10-581 (La. 3/15/11), 59 So.3d 1245, 1254, explained as follows:

          Louisiana R.S. 14:134 does not criminalize all ethical violations and/or general derelictions of duty. The object of the malfeasance statute is to punish a breach of duty committed with the required culpable state of mind. To this end, the statute expressly limits its application to instances in which a public officer or employee intentionally refuses or fails to perform or intentionally performs in an unlawful manner, any affirmative duty imposed by law upon him in his role as a public servant. The inclusion in the statute of a criminally culpable state of mind makes it clear that it applies only where the statutorily required mens rea is proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, mere inadvertence or negligence, or even criminal negligence, will not support a violation of the malfeasance statute because the statute specifies the act or failure to act must be intentional.

         In the present case, we find that the trial court abused its discretion in granting, in part, the State's motion in limine to prohibit the admission of irrelevant evidence. As intent is an essential element of the offense of malfeasance in office, we find that the evidence the State seeks to prohibit relating to parish work conducted on private property by the St. James Parish Department of Operations is clearly relevant, and its probative value substantially outweighs the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury. Further, the exclusion of this evidence would constitute a violation of defendant's right to present a defense. Accordingly, we find that the trial court erred in limiting relator's right to present this evidence to a brief questioning of Mr. Chenier about whether he engaged in similar conduct and whether he was offered immunity in exchange for his testimony.[1]

         Based on the foregoing, this writ application is granted. Gretna, Louisiana, ...


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