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Law School Case Brief

People v. Meredith - 29 Cal. 3d 682, 175 Cal. Rptr. 612, 631 P.2d 46 (1981)

Rule:

An observation by defense counsel or his investigator, which is the product of a privileged communication, may not be admitted unless the defense by altering or removing physical evidence has precluded the prosecution from making that same observation.

Facts:

Defendants Frank Earl Scott and Michael Meredith were convicted in California state court of first-degree murder and first-degree robbery. Meredith's conviction rested on eyewitness testimony that he shot and killed the victim, David Wade. Scott's conviction, however, depended on the theory that Scott conspired with Meredith and a third defendant, Jacqueline Otis, to bring about the killing and robbery. To support the theory of conspiracy, the State sought to show the place where Wade's wallet was found. The State's witness, Steven Frick, testified that he observed the partially burnt wallet in a trash can behind Scott's residence. However, Frick gained that knowledge while serving as a defense investigator for Scott's former counsel. In addition, at the request of Scott's prior counsel, Frick retrieved the wallet from the trash can and gave it to the prior counsel, who examined it and then then turned it over to the police. The trial court permitted Frick's testimony over defendants' objection. The jury found defendants guilty of first-degree murder and first-degree robbery and further found Meredith was armed with a deadly weapon. Defendants appealed.

Issue:

Under the circumstances of the case, was Frick's observation of the location of the wallet, the product of a privileged communication, protected under the attorney-client privilege?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The state supreme court affirmed defendants' convictions and modified their sentences. The court ruled that the trial court did not err in admitting the evidence of the wallet's location since prior defense counsel had removed and altered it prior to disclosing it to the prosecution. The court held that whenever defense counsel removed or altered evidence, the privilege did not bar revelation of the original location or condition of the evidence in question. The court also held that because the evidence revealed a single course of conduct with one objective, defendants could only be punished for the most serious offense, which was first-degree murder. The court also held that the allegation and finding that Meredith was armed with a deadly weapon would not support a finding in the abstract of judgment that Meredith used a firearm. The court directed the trial court to modify its judgment to stay the service of sentence on the robbery convictions, such stay to become permanent upon completion of service of the sentences for murder, and to strike from the abstract of judgment of Meredith the finding of use of a firearm.

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