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The Importance of Effective Cross-Examination of Witnesses in Arizona Criminal Defense Cases

In many Arizona criminal cases, the issue of witness credibility is key. This is because, by and large, most cases present two sides of the same story. Whichever side the judge or jury believes is generally the side that prevails at trial.Whether it be the testimony of a complaining witness, the arresting or investigating police officer, or the defendant himself, the importance of establishing that a witness is being truthful is crucial to the side calling that witness. On the flip side of the coin, the opposing side will often attempt to establish that an adverse witness is biased, untruthful, or somehow mistaken about their remembrance of the facts. This is most often done through cross-examination.

When a witness testified, he or she will first be asked questions by the party calling that witness. This is called the direct-examination of a witness. After that party concludes their questioning, the opposing side will then have an opportunity to ask questions of the witness through cross-examination. A skillful cross-examination can highlight problems with a witness’ testimony, casting doubt on that witness’ credibility.

In the end, the determination of which witnesses were credible comes down to the fact-finder, which is either a judge or a jury depending on the case. Once the fact-finder makes a credibility determination, that will very rarely be disturbed on appeal because appellate courts generally defer to fact-finders due to the fact that they personally observed the witness testify. A recent case illustrates the importance of effective cross-examination in Arizona criminal cases.

The Facts of the Case

The defendant was arrested for drunk driving after he was pulled over by a police officer. In a motion to suppress, the officer testified that when he first saw the defendant drive by, he noticed only the corner of the defendant’s license plate was illuminated. Under the law, vehicles must have completely illuminated license plates that are visible from 50 feet away. The officer testified that he was about 20 feet away when he made his observation. The officer took pictures of the license plate from about 13 feet away.

The defendant was placed in the rear of the squad car while the police officer processed arrest paperwork. The defendant testified that he was able to read the license plate perfectly fine from where he was located. The defendant claimed that the photograph taken by the officer was intentionally under-developed to make it look less legible than it was in reality.

The trial court found that the police officer had a reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant and affirmed his conviction. On appeal, the defendant raised several issues, including the lower court’s denial of his motion to suppress. However, upon reviewing the lower court’s decision, the appellate court explained that the “question of whether the deputy could have seen what he claimed to is an issue of fact and witness credibility, upon which we defer to the trial court.”

This case shows how important it is for an Arizona criminal defense attorney to diligently and skillfully cross-examine opposing witnesses, since once a credibility determination is made, it is rarely reversed.

Have You Been Arrested?

If you have recently been arrested and charged with a crime in Arizona, you need a dedicated Arizona criminal defense or DUI attorney.  Attorney James E. Novak is a former prosecutor with over 17 years of experience representing those charged with serious Arizona felony and misdemeanor offenses. He works closely with his clients and their families to thoroughly investigate all possible defenses, and he provides a unique form of client-centered representation from the moment he gets involved in a case. To learn more, call Attorney Novak at 480-413-1499 to schedule a free consultation.

Additional Resources:

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Arizona Court Upholds Validity of California Recommendation Letter in Marijuana Case, Arizona DUI and Criminal Defense Attorney Blog, March 26, 2018

Arizona Court Precludes Evidence of Defendant’s PTSD Diagnosis in Recent Homicide Case, Arizona DUI and Criminal Defense Attorney Blog, April 11, 2018

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