People v. Givens: Examining the Court's Ability to Address Issues Sua Sponte

People v. Givens: Examining the Court’s Ability to Address Issues Sua Sponte

While most European countries employ the inquisitorial system, the United States has an adversarial system that is exemplified by an impartial and passive fact-finder that rules only on the evidence presented by the parties. In People v. Givens, No. 107323, 2010 WL 1497518 (Ill. May 24, 2010), the Illinois Supreme Court reaffirmed this.

In Givens, the defendant and a codefendant were charged with one count of possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver. After receiving a tip, the police found the defendant and codefendant in the bedroom of their friend’s apartment with cocaine in several small plastic bags. The police allegedly met the defendant’s friend, Teri Mathews, outside of her apartment building, explained their reasons for being there, and obtained a signed consent form from her that allowed them to enter and search her apartment. In contrast, Ms. Mathews testified that the police took her apartment keys from her outside of the building and asked her to sign a consent to search form only after they had conducted the search. Furthermore, she testified that she signed the form only after the police told her that she could lose her apartment.

As a result, the defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence, generally arguing that her arrest was made without a valid search warrant. However, the defendant withdrew her motion to suppress after the codefendant pled guilty to a lesser charge. Despite withdrawing the motion, the defendant continued to argue at trial that Ms. Mathews did not consent to the search of her apartment. In response, the prosecution questioned Ms. Mathews’ credibility and asked the trial court to consider the demeanor and bias of the witness. Ultimately, the trial court found the defendant guilty of possession of a controlled substance but directed a verdict in favor of the defendant on possession with intent to deliver. In reaching its holding, the trial court specifically noted that it considered the credibility of the witnesses, such as Ms. Mathews.

On appeal to the First District Appellate Court, the defendant raised several issues, including whether her trial counsel was ineffective for withdrawing the motion to suppress when the evidence presented at trial cast doubt on the voluntariness of Ms. Mathews’ consent to the search. However, the appellate court did not resolve the appeal based on any of the issues raised by the defendant. Instead, the appellate court reversed the conviction after holding that Ms. Mathews did not have the right to consent to the police entering the bedroom, which the defendant had occupied as an overnight guest. The appellate court held that Ms. Mathews only had authority to give her consent to the police to enter into the common area of the apartment.

On appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court, the state argued that the appellate court “deprived [it] of a fair proceeding” when it reversed the conviction based on “a theory never raised by defendant or addressed by the parties in their appellate briefs.” 2010 WL 1497518 at *5. It is this argument that caused the court to reaffirm the adversarial nature of the American legal system.

In particular, the Illinois Supreme Court noted that “Illinois law is well settled that other than for assessing subject matter jurisdiction, ‘a reviewing court should not normally search the record for unargued and unbriefed reasons to reverse a trial court judgment.’ ” [Emphasis omitted.] 2010 WL 1497518 at *5, quoting Saldana v. Wirtz Cartage Co., 74 Ill.2d 379, 385 N.E.2d 664, 667, 24 Ill.Dec. 523 (1978). The court then looked to Greenlaw v. United States, 554 U.S. 237, 171 L.Ed.2d 399, 128 S.Ct. 2559 (2008), for further guidance. In Greenlaw, the United State Supreme Court stated: “In our adversary system, in both civil and criminal cases, in the first instance and on appeal, we follow the principle of party presentation. That is, we rely on the parties to frame the issues for decision and assign to courts the role of neutral arbiter of matters the parties present.” 2010 WL 1497518 at *5, quoting Greenlaw, 128 S.Ct. at 2564. The Greenlaw Court in fact noted that “[o]ur adversary system is designed around the premise that the parties know what is best for them, and are responsible for advancing the facts and arguments entitling them to relief.” Id. The Givens court then examined People v. Rodriguez, 336 Ill.App.3d 1, 782 N.E.2d 718, 270 Ill.Dec. 159 (1st Dist. 2002), in which the court held that “[w]hile a reviewing court has the power to raise unbriefed issues pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 366(a)(5), we must refrain from doing so when it would have the effect of transforming this court’s role from that of jurist to advocate. . . . Were we to address these unbriefed issues, we would be forced to speculate as to the arguments that the parties might have presented had these issues been properly raised before this court.” 2010 WL 1497518 at *5, quoting Rodriguez, 782 N.E.2d at 728. However, the Givens court noted that a “reviewing court does not lack authority to address unbriefed issues and may do so in the appropriate case, i.e., when a clear and obvious error exists in the trial court proceedings.” 2010 WL 1497518 at *6.

With these principles in mind, the Illinois Supreme Court examined the appellate court’s ruling, found error, and thus vacated the judgment and remanded the cause for the appellate court to address certain outstanding issues. In reaching this conclusion, the court stated that “the appellate court stepped over the line from neutral jurist to that of an advocate for defendant to raise and rule on issues that were neither controlled by clear precedent nor dictated by an interest in a just result.” Id. The court went on to note that “under the cold record before us, it was within the province of defendant and his appellate counsel to raise or not raise any argument with respect to trial counsel’s ineffectiveness, and in the absence of any such argument, it should have been presumed, without specifically addressing the merits, that the record would not have supported the argument had it been litigated below.” Id. The court also held that the “identified sua sponte by the appellate court did not amount to obvious error controlled by clear precedent, and for that additional reason, the appellate court erred in addressing the issue.” 2010 WL 1497518 at *7. The court stated that the cases relied on by the appellate court did not support the court’s lack-of-consent theory. Finally, the court noted that this approach - i.e., refraining from addressing unbriefed issues absent obvious error - is consistent with the plain-error doctrine of S.Ct. Rule 615(a), which permits an appellate court to correct only errors that are clear and obvious under current law. 2010 WL 1497518 at *8.

Afterwards, the court addressed the specific issues that the defendant had raised in the appellate court and rejected them all. The court ruled that the defendant was not denied effective assistance of counsel because of her trial counsel’s withdrawal of the motion to suppress, as the parties still had presented to the trial court all evidence relating to Ms. Mathews’ consent and that court resolved the issue in favor of the prosecution after considering the credibility of the witnesses. Also, the court ruled that a rational trier of fact could have found the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt on all elements of the crime. The court remanded the case to the appellate court to address a chain-of-custody issue though, as the appellate court neglected to address it initially.

In short, Givens reaffirmed the traditional role that the appellate court should play in the adversarial system. The Illinois Supreme Court made it clear that the appellate court should not decide unbriefed issues sua sponte unless there is obvious error.