Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Defining "victim" in the Arizona Victim's Bill of Rights

Article 2.1 of the Arizona Constitution, better known as the Victim's Bill of Rights (VBR), has a strange quirk. Take a look at its definition of "victim":

"Victim" means a person against whom the criminal offense has been committed or, if the person is killed or incapacitated, the person's spouse, parent, child or other lawful representative, except if the person is in custody for an offense or is the accused.

(emphasis added)

A plain reading suggests that people "in custody for an offense" are not victims, and thus have no rights under the VBR. Which would mean they have no right to criminal restitution, no right to be present at hearings, and, of course, no right to refuse interview requests from criminal defendants. It was generally accepted that Stapleford v. Houghton, a case involving a prisoner-on-prisoner assault, seemed to support this general interpretation.

Until now.

State v. Ergonis, a part of the high-profile Kumari Fulbright case from a few years back, just came back from the Court of Appeals. The Court sharply circumscribes the reach of the VBR's exclusionary clause with respect to people in custody, to include only cases in which the victim is also the accused and when the crime occurred while the victim is in custody.

The Court seems to ridicule Ergonis's position -- that the VBR excludes anyone in custody, regardless of whether the offense happened while the victim was in custody or not -- but frankly, its own reasoning doesn't appear to be that strong either, except that to rule otherwise would bring down the perceived status quo.

Will we now see a resurgence in interest in the VBR on the part of in-custody defendants? Perhaps victims currently held in other states, or in federal custody, will demand to be transferred to Arizona court? How will Arizona courts handle these requests?


Prison Abolitionist said...

Thank you for this. You rock.

Anonymous said...

I have a client who is a prisoner who was beaten up by a guard while he was handcuffed. He got a letter from the Pinal County Attorney saying he was the victim in the criminal prosecution of the guard, but because he is a prisoner, he doesn't have any victim's rights. He thought it meant his civil suit was being thrown out too. It was a stupid, mean interpretation and I'm glad it's gone, and that something good came out of that mess!