A Havre woman has asked the state’s highest court to order a local district judge to throw out the case against her.
Erica Dion believes District Court Judge Kaydee Snipe Ruiz erred when the judge declared a mistrial after Dion didn’t show up to court. The trial should’ve continued without her, Dion argues. Another trial would violate the double jeopardy constitutional provision, which says a person can’t be prosecuted twice for the same crime.
In defense, Snipes Ruiz contends Supreme Court intervention does not apply in this case because it does not meet an emergency or gross injustice standards. Double jeopardy does not apply, either, the judge contends, adding that she was perfectly within her judicial purview to declare a mistrial. Snipes Ruiz has asked the Supreme Court to dismiss Dion’s petition and let the process continue.
The retrial is on hold until the Supreme Court makes a decision.
Dion is charged with felony assault with a weapon. According to court charging documents, on May 13 she drove up and pointed what appeared to be a black .45-caliber pistol at someone. Reportedly, the incident was related to another incident the previous day, when the person refused to let Dion onto the property. The next day, Dion allegedly pointed the weapon and told the victim she “better watch” her back and then Dion drove away. The person called the police. After Dion’s arrest, police determined the pistol was actually a BB gun. Dion “admitted to intimidating” the victim with the BB gun, but “denied aiming” at her, according to court documents.
The county attorney filed charges against Dion in District Court. Initially, police also charged Dion with misdemeanor disorderly conduct, which was later dismissed.
To The Supreme Court
Court documents filed by Dion’s attorney, Paul Gallardo of Great Falls, in conjunction with Snipes Ruiz and the Attorney General’s office — on behalf of Snipes Ruiz — document how the unusual case ended up on the state’s highest court docket:
On Sept. 30, Dion failed to show in court for the jury confirmation part of the trial. Through her lawyer, she asked that the process continue without her. But Snipes Ruiz denied the request and reset the jury confirmation for the next day.
She showed up late the next day and drew the judge’s ire:
“The Court admonished the Defendant’s lax attitude toward the judicial process and warned her that if she was not on time, the Court would dismiss the jury, assess costs, and issue a warrant for Defendant’s arrest where she would be held until a trial could be reset and Defendant’s presence could be guaranteed,” wrote Snipes Ruiz.
Nevertheless, the court scheduled Dion’s trial to start on Oct. 30.
The previous day, on Oct. 29, Dion was arrested on an unrelated charge — criminal mischief — not a rare occurrence for her. In 2019, she was arrested six times, including the aforementioned arrest, in Hill County. Most of Dion’s arrests were related to outstanding warrants.
The day of the Oct. 29 arrest, Dion’s attorney asked the judge to delay the trial because his client didn’t feel “mentally prepared.” Dion recently lost her living arrangements and was essentially homeless, Gallardo told the judge.
However, Snipes Ruiz denied the request and on Oct. 30, with the help of Hill County Detention staff who transported her, Dion appeared in court on time.
But the process continued to sputter.
That day, Gallardo told Snipes Ruiz his client was experiencing problems with her arm. The judge then had Dion transported to Northern Montana Hospital for an examination. Eventually, hospital personnel medically cleared and discharged her. Detention staff then transported Dion back to court after 2 p.m.
Again, Dion asked to be excused because she wasn’t feeling well. The judge denied Dion’s request and by the end of the day, a jury had been selected and attorneys gave opening statements. The judge also reminded Dion she needed to be in court by 8:15 a.m. the next day.
By 8:15 a.m. on Oct. 31, Gallardo was in court, but Dion was not.
At about 8:34 a.m., Snipes Ruiz asked Gallardo why his client was not in court. The attorney said his client was trying to find a ride and he didn’t know when she would arrive. Gallardo also told the judge Dion wasn’t feeling well and asked to continue the trial without her.
The judge’s response follows:
“Absolutely not. That is absolutely ridiculous. She is ordered to be here. She needs to be at trial. So this is what the Court is going to do. If she is not here by the time we have the jury brought up, I will call a mistrial and order a warrant for her arrest. She absolutely needs to be at trial. This is not a tea party. This is not optional. She needs to be here. We will wait until the jury gets here and wait until she arrives.”
By 8:56, Dion had still not arrived, so Snipes Ruiz declared a mistrial.
“That sounds appropriate your honor,” said Gallardo, who also reportedly apologized to the jury.
Snipes Ruiz then issued an arrest warrant for Dion. She was arrested after showing up at the courthouse at 9:05 a.m.
Seven days later, on Nov. 7, Gallardo filed to have the case against Dion thrown out on the grounds that a second trial would violate the double jeopardy clause. Snipes Ruiz denied the motion.
On Dec. 30, Gallardo filed an appeal to the Supreme Court to have Snipes Ruiz’s mistrial decision reversed and the entire case thrown out.
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Snipes Ruiz and Gallardo make several arguments for why each is in the right. Here are some of them:
Gallardo argued that Montana law precedent says double jeopardy applies after jury selection and both sides deliver opening statements, both of which happened in this case.
Snipes Ruiz contends double jeopardy does not apply in this case because there are caveats to the law’s application. One such exception is when a defendant waives her right to object to trial termination.
In this case, Gallardo did not object when the judge declared a mistrial, the judge said. Instead, he waited seven days to object. Snipes Ruiz cited a precedent case in which a defendant waited two days to object to impermissible evidence, but the Montana Supreme Court ruled the objection was too late. Since Gallardo failed to object when the judge ordered a mistrial, he waved his client’s right to object to the trial’s termination, Snipes Ruiz argued.
Not so, said Gallardo. It’s perfectly fine to ask to have a case dismissed so long as it’s before retrial, he said, arguing that in this case, five days remained before Dion’s retrial was set to start. The retrial, which had been delayed, was scheduled for Jan. 9.
Snipes Ruiz also argued the law allows her to terminate a trial if “the merits of the charge were not resolved.” A judge must have authority to order a mistrial in accordance with their best judgment and cautious exercise of judicial discretion, she said.
Gallardo said the jury trial should have continued without Dion. He argues that Montana law says a defendant can be absent from their trial absence “up to and including the return of a verdict” if the defendant is voluntarily absent and the offense is not one that is punishable by death. Dion was voluntarily absent and her charge is not punishable by death, he said.
Snipes Ruiz challenged Gallardo, saying the clause is based solely on the discretion of the judge. “The Defendant must be identified as the person acting in violation of the law at issue” and must be present, the judge added.
Gallardo countered, saying the judge failed to research the fine points of the law or disregarded it altogether.
Order and decorum are the hallmarks of court proceedings, added Snipes Ruiz:
“ … the Defendant is not allowed to leisurely stroll in and out of the courtroom at will during a criminal jury trial at their own convenience. Allowing this type of behavior by defendants would wreak havoc within the formal institution that is the criminal justice system during trial.”
She said she emphasized to Dion several times the importance of appearing in court on time. Yet Dion “did everything within her control to delay and disrupt the trial continuing on, from motions to continue, claiming injury, and then simply not showing up at all,” added the judge.
Furthermore, Snipes Ruiz argued that justice is impeded when a defendant uses stress as an excuse to disrupt a trial.
“This is an unfounded excuse because any Defendant could make this argument and completely derail the processes of the criminal justice system,” Snipes Ruiz says. “Court, generally, and especially a criminal jury trial is not a voluntary event.”
Editor’s note: Court documents containing both side’s arguments are available at the Supreme Court’s online docket.
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Email Paul Dragu at email@example.com