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People v. Jackson

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Second Division

June 27, 2017

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
JAMES JACKSON, Defendant-Appellant.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 10 MC6 014663 The Honorable Thomas J. O'Hara, Judge, presiding.

          PRESIDING JUSTICE HYMAN delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justice Neville concurred in the judgment and opinion. Justice Mason dissented, with opinion.

          OPINION

          HYMAN, PRESIDING JUSTICE

         ¶ 1 After James Jackson calls 911 for an ambulance, the paramedics arrive to find him "agitated, " "nervous, " "irrational, " and "very uncooperative, " suffering from some type of psychological issue and with an "altered" mental state. The paramedics call for police assistance. Jackson screams and flails; one officer uses his taser on Jackson, striking him 10 times. Another officer tries to grab Jackson and gets kicked in the shins. Jackson resists being placed in handcuffs. Ultimately, the police subdue him and place him into the ambulance for transport to the hospital. Jackson is charged and convicted of battery and resisting arrest.

         ¶ 2 This, in sum, is what happened to James Jackson, and what happens all too often to individuals who may be experiencing a mental health or other crisis. When they (or their families) call for help, they are met with some use of force by officers. See United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and United States Attorney's Office, Northern District of Illinois, Investigation of the Chicago Police Department (Jan. 13, 2017), at 37 (listing incidents where Chicago police officers "used force against people in crisis who needed help"). The DOJ report reveals that, as here, law enforcement officers, often "first responders" to mental health emergencies, are not necessarily trained or prepared to deal with the complex situations in which they may find themselves. The lesson in these cases can be stark: call 911 and someone could end up charged with a crime, or worse. (The dissent, infra ¶ 101, states that there is no evidence that Jackson was mentally ill, but this ignores testimony from every state witness that Jackson was "irrational." The ultimate diagnosis is irrelevant-what matters is how Jackson acted.)

         ¶ 3 Battery against a police officer is a serious charge, but being kicked in the legs by a mentally unstable person (causing no serious injury) is not the type of touching that requires either specific or general deterrence. Sometimes, the initial decision to arrest or charge a defendant becomes a boulder rolling downhill, and no one feels strong enough to say, "stop, " regardless of the resources wasted. The dissent (infra ¶ 100) feels we should not find fault with the officers' actions and theorizes that they had no choice but to wrestle Jackson to the ground and tase him 10 times. But the officers should have received training in how to de-escalate such a situation. The officers didn't tase Jackson out of malice, but because they did not know what else to do. The restraint used on Jackson did not assist the paramedics in assessing Jackson's health-how could they do so, after he had been zapped with 50, 000 volts? All they could do was bundle Jackson into an ambulance. The lack of training turned a call for help into a contentious encounter with police.

         ¶ 4 Prosecutors too should receive training to enable them to distinguish between those responsible for their actions and those, like Jackson, whose vulnerable or abnormal mental state causes them to act in uncooperative or confused ways. We will say it outright-this prosecution was a waste of time and money, all so that Jackson could be sentenced to 18 months of conditional discharge.

         ¶ 5 Jackson challenges the sufficiency of the evidence. He also contends that several errors occurred during trial, which he asks us to review under the plain error standard. And he claims that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to preserve those errors.

         ¶ 6 We find the evidence was legally insufficient to support Jackson's conviction. Further, several errors occurred during trial-the trial court (i) failed to properly question potential jurors during voir dire; (ii) erringly admitted other-crimes evidence that Jackson smelled of marijuana; and (iii) erringly admitted opinion testimony from paramedics that Jackson was not having a seizure during the incident. The State in its closing argument relied on this inadmissible evidence, and so did the jury in convicting Jackson. We reverse Jackson's conviction, and the State may not retry him. People v. Lopez, 229 Ill.2d 322, 367 (2008) (State may not retry defendant once it has been determined evidence introduced at trial was insufficient to sustain conviction).

         ¶ 7 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 8 Before trial, the judge asked each panel of potential jury members whether they disagreed with, or would be unable to follow, the rules of law that (i) Jackson is presumed innocent; (ii) the State has the burden to prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt; (iii) Jackson did not need to present evidence; and (iv) Jackson's failure to testify could not be held against him. The judge did not ask the panels whether they understood and accepted these principles. Jackson's counsel did not object to these questions.

         ¶ 9 The relevant facts adduced at trial follow.

         ¶ 10 On December 10, 2010, James Jackson called 911 from his apartment building in Calumet City, and requested an ambulance. Calumet City Fire Department paramedic Timothy Piepenerink testified that he and his partner, Chris Stapleton, responded to an ambulance call for an unknown medical emergency at about 6:00 p.m. They arrived in a large ambulance labeled Calumet City Fire Department and entered the apartment building through the front door into a vestibule. A second door separated the vestibule from the rest of the building. Jackson was behind the second door, and said that he needed an ambulance. When Piepenerink identified himself, Jackson replied, "You are not the ambulance." Piepenerink observed that Jackson seemed "a little bit nervous and kind of upset."

         ¶ 11 Piepenerink and Stapleton coaxed Jackson outside to show him their ambulance, but Jackson loudly insisted they were not paramedics. Jackson began calling 911, repeatedly asking for an ambulance despite the dispatcher telling him the ambulance was there. Jackson began to yell profanities, so Stapleton requested police assistance. Piepenerink thought Jackson might be suffering from some type of psychological issue: "he was not rational. We couldn't get through to him. *** He was nervous. There was something going on." Stapleton thought that Jackson's "mental status was altered;" Jackson did not follow simple directions and did not seem to be thinking clearly. Piepenerink and Stapleton also noted that Jackson smelled of marijuana.

         ¶ 12 Jackson tried to go back inside the building but did not have his key for the second door, so he and the paramedics waited in the vestibule area for the police to arrive. During that time, Jackson kept yelling "don't touch me" and appeared agitated.

         ¶ 13 When Officer Dan Piech arrived, the paramedics met him in the driveway and informed him that Jackson was mentally unstable, or possibly under the influence of an unknown controlled substance. Jackson stayed in the vestibule screaming profanities and "I am not going." Officer Piech tried to calm Jackson and convince him to go with the paramedics, but Jackson kept yelling. Piech reached for Jackson's shoulder; Jackson pulled away and fell backwards, sliding down the vestibule wall to the floor. Jackson then began to punch and kick, in a manner Piech characterized as "defending myself" rather than "violent." Piech tried and failed to handcuff Jackson, while the paramedics attempted to hold down Jackson's legs. During the struggle, Jackson tried to bite Stapleton's arm. But, Stapleton pulled away and Jackson clamped down on Stapleton's sweatshirt. Piech then used his department-issued taser, in the "dry stun" mode, to stun Jackson with 50, 000 volts in the waist area. Normally, using the taser would make a subject less combative. Piech tased Jackson "about 10 times." On Jackson, the taser had "no affect whatsoever."

         ¶ 14 A few minutes later, Officer Gary Wojcik arrived. From outside, he could hear Jackson screaming. Inside the vestibule, Wojcik tried to assist Piech in handcuffing Jackson while the paramedics backed away. To Wojcik, Jackson seemed "irrational." He noticed that the vestibule had a "very strong odor of burnt cannabis, " though he did not know where the smell had come from. Jackson kicked Wojcik several times in the lower legs. Wojcik put handcuffs on one of Jackson's wrists; Jackson pulled away, and began punching the glass window in the vestibule. Piech then tased Jackson again, which had no effect. After struggling for several minutes to subdue Jackson, the two officers succeeded in placing handcuffs on him. Jackson was placed on a stretcher, put in the ambulance, and transported to the hospital. There, Jackson was still unhinged and screaming.

         ¶ 15 According to Jackson's longtime girlfriend, Stephanie Stelly, Jackson wore leg braces, and suffered from seizures. Stelly had observed Jackson having seizures 10 to 20 times over the previous seven years, and the seizures did not always present in the same way. On the day of the incident, Stelly returned to the apartment building while Jackson was being placed in the ambulance. She saw blood on Jackson's face. His head was turning from side to side. Stelly had seen that motion before-when Jackson was going into or coming out of a seizure.

         ¶ 16 Peipenerink was unable to medically examine Jackson, but opined that Jackson had not had a seizure. Over defense objection, Piepenerink described what was typical of a seizure: "What we have been trained if the patient responds as what we consider, post dictal. It's a medical term where you just - you are slow *** to respond. They are sluggish. They have no idea where they are at. They can't answer questions. It's kind of slow to respond usually normally." Jackson was vocal and his movements brisk. Piepenerink admitted that he did not know whether Jackson had suffered a seizure before the paramedics arrived and that seizures can take different forms.

         ¶ 17 Stapleton also opined, over objection, that Jackson was not having a seizure: "I have never seen a person after post seizure act the way Mr. Jackson did that day. The people coming out of the seizures are more confused. *** Sometimes seem a little aggressive. They are scared. They are more confused, but they just don't [d]o that type of aggression and strength for that matter. Usually when people are having seizures, all of the energy in their body is pretty well spent from the seizure itself, and they don't just physically have the energy to carry on the way Mr. Jackson did that afternoon." Stapleton believed that someone having a seizure would be unable to bite at another in the manner that Jackson did, or be as vocal as he, or make the kind of statements Jackson made during the incident. Nor would someone having a seizure continue flailing like Jackson had at the hospital. Stapleton admitted that not all seizures have the same symptoms, and clamping down with the teeth is a symptom of a seizure.

         ¶ 18 During closing arguments, the prosecutor told the jury that they "heard four witnesses from our side. You heard one witness from the defense side. It's up to you now to judge the credibility." The prosecutor emphasized the paramedics' opinions that Jackson was not having a seizure, noting that Jackson was not charged with biting Stapleton, thereby rendering the paramedics' testimony more credible. Over objection, the prosecutor stated that "maybe smoking a lot of cannabis or something else" could explain Jackson's behavior, and reminded the jury that "at least three different people on the stand [] told you that he smelt strong like cannabis."

         ¶ 19 The jury pronounced Jackson guilty of battery and resisting a peace officer. Jackson's counsel filed a posttrial motion which did not address (i) the judge's questioning of the jury before trial; (ii) the admissibility of the paramedics' opinion testimony; (iii) the testimony from three of the State's witnesses regarding the odor of cannabis; or (iv) the State's closing argument. The motion was denied, and the trial court sentenced Jackson to 18 months of conditional discharge.

         ¶ 20 ANALYSIS

         ¶ 21 Sufficiency of the Evidence

         ¶ 22 Jackson contends he was having a medical emergency and lacked the mental state for either knowingly committing battery or knowingly resisting a peace officer. We must decide whether the evidence could reasonably uphold a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. People v. Cunningham, 212 Ill.2d 274, 278 (2004). We view the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, and determine if any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (1979); People v. Steele, 2014 IL App (1st) 121452, ¶ 20. We will only reverse a conviction if the proof was so improbable, implausible, or unsatisfactory that reasonable doubt exists as to the defendant's guilt. People v. Evans, 209 Ill.2d 194, 209 (2004).

         ¶ 23 The trier of fact assesses the credibility of the witnesses, determines the appropriate weight to give the testimony, and resolves inconsistencies in the evidence. Evans, 209 Ill.2d at 211. Our function on review is neither to retry the defendant nor substitute our judgment for the trier of fact's judgment. Id. We will not reverse a conviction based on contradictory evidence presented by witnesses. People v. Siguenza-Brito, 235 Ill.2d 213, 228 (2009).

         ¶ 24 Battery occurs when, without legal justification, a person knowingly "makes physical contact of an insulting or provoking nature with an individual." 720 ILCS 5/12-3(a)(2) (West 2010). A person resists a peace officer when he or she knowingly resists the performance by one known to the person as a peace officer. 720 ILCS 5/31-1(a) (West 2010). A person acts knowingly when he or she is "consciously aware that that result is practically certain to be caused by his conduct." 720 ILCS 5/4-5(b) (West 2010). Intent, such as knowingness, may be proven by circumstantial evidence, and inferred from the defendant's action and the conduct surrounding it. People v. Phillips, 392 Ill.App.3d 243, 259 (2009).

         ¶ 25 At trial and on this appeal, Jackson claims he was having an epileptic seizure during the incident, rendering his kicking of Officer Wojcik involuntary. He also claims that due to his mental state, he did not knowingly resist a peace officer. The State maintains Jackson did not present sufficient proof that he was having a seizure.

         ¶ 26 But even if, as the State suggests, we ignore Jackson's contention that he was having a seizure, the evidence was insufficient to support a finding that Jackson had the requisite mental state to commit these crimes. Rather, there was an abundance of evidence-almost all of it from State witnesses-that Jackson was not "knowingly" acting during the incident. Both paramedics observed, on their arrival, that Jackson was "nervous" and "agitated." Piepenerink thought Jackson was suffering from some type of psychological issue, and Stapleton thought Jackson's mental state was altered. Though the paramedics were in uniform, and driving a vehicle distinctively marked as an ambulance, Jackson repeatedly denied they were paramedics and continued to call 911. Jackson grew more and more upset and neither the paramedics nor Officer Piech could communicate with him. Officer Wojcik arrived, and Jackson kicked him and resisted being handcuffed, but Officer Wojcik immediately recognized Jackson's behavior as "irrational." While, as the dissent points out (infra ¶ 85), Jackson was speaking in complete sentences-those sentences included telling Piepenerink and Stapleton that they were not, in fact, paramedics. Jackson's verbal coherence does not indicate a "knowing" state of mind indicating that he understood what was happening to him.

         ¶ 27 Whatever the cause of Jackson's behavior-epilepsy, drug intoxication, some undiagnosed mental illness, or being tasered 10 times-carries no consequence in as much as the State presented little-to-no evidence that Jackson behaved "knowingly." When Jackson was thrashing in the vestibule in a "defending myself" manner, was he "consciously aware" that his thrashing would result in kicking Officer Wojcik? If Jackson did not recognize Piepenrink and Stapleton as paramedics, where was the evidence that he "knew" that Piech and Wojcik were police officers, as the statute requires?

         ¶ 28 The dissent speculates (infra ΒΆ 90) that, even if Jackson's behavior was caused by voluntary intoxication or mental illness, he would still need to plead that theory as an affirmative defense. But we analyze only the evidence presented by the State, not Jackson's chosen trial strategy-after all, as defendant, Jackson was not required to present any evidence. He could have simply required the State to meet its burden of proof without ever mentioning the word "seizure." We do not know why Jackson was behaving this way, but we ...


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