The Montana Supreme Court has sided with District Judge Kaydee Snipe Ruiz in a case involving a Havre woman who believed the judge made a mistake when she declared a mistrial after the woman failed to show up to court.
On Tuesday, the state Supreme Court denied Erica Dion’s petition to void Snipes Ruiz’s decision for a mistrial. The high court’s decision also ensures the case against Dion won’t be thrown out.
“We conclude that [Snipes Ruiz] acted rationally and responsibly when [she] declared a mistrial after Dion failed to appear in spite of the court’s explicit and clear requirement that so do so,” the justices wrote in their order.
By the next day, Wednesday, Snipes Ruiz had already scheduled a status hearing in Dion’s case for Feb. 12. The case had been put on hold until the Supreme Court made a decision. Now the case will move forward in District Court in Havre, where it was filed.
Dion, who is charged with felony assault with a weapon, failed to show up for the second day of her trial, on Oct. 31. She argued, through her attorney Paul Gallardo of Great Falls, that the jury trial should have continued despite her absence. Once a jury is impaneled and opening statement delivered, it’s technically a trial, Gallardo argued. Dion’s argument was that Snipes Ruiz’s decision to call a mistrial violated the double jeopardy constitutional provision, which says a person cannot be prosecuted twice for the same crime.
Not so, Snipes Ruiz countered.
The judge contended that neither Supreme Court intervention nor double jeopardy are warranted in this case. She was perfectly within her judicial purview to declare a mistrial. Among the reasons she cited, Snipes Ruiz maintained that Dion’s appeal was groundless because she didn’t object to the mistrial until seven days later — much too late — and because Dion’s identity had not been established for the jury.
The Montana Supreme Court agreed with Snipes Ruiz. In their order, they pointed out that the judge ordered Dion to personally appear; that Dion waived her objection to the judge’s mistrial decision when she waited seven days to object; and furthermore, double jeopardy does not apply because neither the state or defense had presented any evidence.
“Dion had full knowledge of the court’s admonishment to be present and the opportunity to object to the mistrial,” the justices wrote. “The totality of the circumstances leads this Court to conclude that Dion waved her right to object to the termination of the trial, and this the retrial is not barred by double jeopardy.”
Court documents filed by Gallardo, 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 in the first place:
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.
Snipes Ruiz denied the request and reset the jury confirmation for the next day.
The next day, Dion showed up late, drawing 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, by the end of the day, 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.
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 ordered Dion transported to Northern Montana Hospital for 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 upon entering 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.
Write to Paul Dragu at firstname.lastname@example.org