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STALLINGS V. STATE – A12A1929: Gauging the Influence of Objectionable Evidence Presented to a Jury

Stallings v. State (2013) – Georgia Court of Appeals

At 1:00 a.m. on March 26, 2011, a DeKalb County Police Officer responded to a call about a driver asleep at the wheel of an intersection. Upon reaching the intersection, the officer saw Dominique Stallings’ vehicle, which fit the description, parked irregularly in a nearby parking lot. When the officer made contact he noticed that Stallings was visibly intoxicated: his eyes were glassy, his clothes disheveled, and there was an odor of alcohol on his breath. The keys were in the ignition. Stallings failed field sobriety tests and was arrested for DUI. He consented to a state-administered breath test and blew a .212 BAC. At trial, Stallings was convicted of DUI per se. He appealed his conviction, contending that there was insufficient evidence to prove his guilt and that the trial court erred in allowing inadmissible hearsay evidence. Citing, primarily, Stephens v. State, 271 Ga. App. 634 (610 SE2d 613) (2005), Howard v. State, 305 Ga. App. 159, 161 (2010), and Jones v. State, 200 Ga. App. 666 (3) (409 SE2d 251) (1991) the Court of Appeals found no reason for the error and affirmed.

Regarding the sufficiency of the evidence, the court notes that “It is well settled that the driving of an automobile while intoxicated may be shown by circumstantial evidence” Stephens, supra. The issue with Stallings’ claim that there was insufficient evidence to prove his guilt is that there are similar cases, with arguably less evidence of DUI, which resulted in convictions and were affirmed by the Court. In Dorris v. State, 291 Ga. App. 716, 718 (662 SE2d 804) (2008), Dorris was convicted of DUI after being found intoxicated and honking her horn in a hospital parking lot. In O’Connell v. State, 285 Ga. App. 835, 836-837 (1) (a) (648 SE2d 147) (2007), O’ Connell was found guilty of DUI after an anonymous tip led the police to find him intoxicated in his home with the hood of his car warm. Considering that Stallings reportedly fell asleep at the wheel, had to be pushed into the parking lot, was the sole occupant of the vehicle, and still had the keys in the ignition when the police arrived, this proved to be enough evidence to support a conviction of DUI. His objections to the admittance of hearsay evidence have more merit.

With Howard, the Court shows that testimony is only considered hearsay if a witness testifies to another person’s statement to demonstrate its truth. By OCGA § 24-3-2, the Court claims that when conversations, letters, replies, and similar evidence are used to explain conduct and motive, they will be admitted as original evidence and not as hearsay. The record shows that the description of Stallings’ vehicle “was admitted for the limited purpose of explaining the officer’s conduct in responding to the dispatch call.” The issue here is that evidence presented to a jury with “limited purpose” could influence their decision beyond the purpose with which it was presented. Though the evidence was supposed to be limited in scope, it functioned to both explain the officer’s conduct and confirm that Stallings’ vehicle was the one stopped in front of an intersection.

Regarding further questions of evidence admitted in error, the Court notes that since a“rational trier of fact” has found defendants guilty from circumstances similar to Stallings, excluding his vehicle description and the fact that he was unconscious, any such argument is moot, Jones supra. But this logic only truly works on appeal. In Stallings, the “rational trier of fact” did not find Stallings guilty based only on the similar circumstances outlined in Dorris and O’ Connell. More evidence was introduced that the Court admitted was questionable but subsequently deemed it harmless. While the circumstances of Stallings may be similar to Dorris and  O’ Connell, the circumstances of their respective trials were not, which is a gray area for argument based on precedence that raises the question: What is the influence of objectionable evidence presented to a jury?

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