State v. Pratt, 122220 MESC, Aro-20-102

Docket NºAro-20-102
Opinion JudgeHUMPHREY, J.
Party NameSTATE OF MAINE v. MEGGAN M. PRATT
AttorneyTina Heather Nadeau, Esq., The Law Office of Tina Heather Nadeau, PLLC, Portland, for appellant Meggan M. Pratt Todd R. Collins, District Attorney, and Matthew A. Hunter, Asst. Dist. Atty., Prosecutorial District 8, Houlton, for appellee State of Maine
Judge PanelPanel: MEAD, GORMAN, JABAR, HUMPHREY, HORTON, and CONNORS, JJ.
Case DateDecember 22, 2020
CourtSupreme Judicial Court of Maine

2020 ME 141

STATE OF MAINE

v.

MEGGAN M. PRATT

No. Aro-20-102

Supreme Court of Maine

December 22, 2020

Submitted On Briefs: September 29, 2020

Tina Heather Nadeau, Esq., The Law Office of Tina Heather Nadeau, PLLC, Portland, for appellant Meggan M. Pratt

Todd R. Collins, District Attorney, and Matthew A. Hunter, Asst. Dist. Atty., Prosecutorial District 8, Houlton, for appellee State of Maine

Panel: MEAD, GORMAN, JABAR, HUMPHREY, HORTON, and CONNORS, JJ.

HUMPHREY, J.

[¶1] Meggan M. Pratt appeals from a judgment of conviction of domestic violence assault (Class D), 17-A M.R.S. § 207-A(1)(A) (2020), entered by the trial court (Aroostook County, Nelson, J.) after a jury trial. Pratt contends that (1) the court erred by allowing testimony from the victim-her fifteen-year-old daughter-concerning Pratt's parenting practices and (2) the State committed prosecutorial misconduct by commenting on inadmissible evidence during its cross-examination of Pratt. Because Pratt had, in her opening statement, indicated her pursuit of the parental discipline justification, 17-A M.R.S. § 106(1) (2020), the court did not err in admitting evidence regarding Pratt's parenting, and although the State committed prosecutorial misconduct in eliciting and commenting on evidence that other children had been removed from Pratt's home, we cannot conclude that the error in admitting that evidence amounted to obvious error. We therefore affirm the judgment.

I. BACKGROUND

[¶2] Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, the jury rationally could have found the following facts beyond a reasonable doubt. See State v. Ouellette, 2019 ME 75, ¶ 1, 208 A.3d 399.

[¶3] Over Memorial Day weekend in 2019, Pratt and the victim had an argument because Pratt wanted to cut the victim's hair and the victim would not allow it. Pratt picked up a pair of scissors and moved toward the victim with them in her hand. The victim attempted to grab the scissors from Pratt, and the two struggled briefly until the victim eventually let go. Pratt then left to run an errand.

[¶4] Pratt returned approximately ten minutes later and told the victim that she would be punished for disobeying her mother. The victim said to Pratt, "You aren't even a mother to us." Pratt grabbed the victim by her arms, held her firmly, and said that she fed and clothed her and "[t] hat's all a mother is supposed to do." Pratt then smacked the victim's face with her right hand, leaving a bruise above the victim's left eye that persisted for several days. The victim hit Pratt in return, and the two "struggled for a bit" until Pratt pinned the victim to the ground. Pratt did not allow the victim to get up until the victim calmed down.

[¶5] On June 12, 2019, the Aroostook County District Attorney charged Pratt with domestic violence assault. See 17-AM.R.S. § 207-A(1)(A). A jury trial was held on November 15, 2019, and in her opening statement, Pratt introduced the issue of "family dynamics" and the idea that parents are legally justified in using reasonable and moderate forms of punishment against their children.1 At the trial, only Pratt and the victim testified.

[¶6] During its direct examination of the victim, the State asked where she was living, and the victim responded that she was currently living with her foster parents. The State then asked where the victim's siblings lived, and Pratt objected on relevance grounds. The State argued that this information was relevant to the issue of "the family dynamics" raised by Pratt in her opening, but the court sustained Pratt's objection, noting that the question could indicate "to the jury that children may have been removed[]."

[¶7] As the State's direct examination continued, the victim testified that she had told Pratt, "You aren't even a mother to us," and the prosecutor asked her why she had made that statement. The victim responded that "all [Pratt] really did was stay in her room the majority of the time" and "didn't really treat us like we were her kids." Pratt objected, arguing that the question lacked specificity, 2 but her objection was overruled.

[¶8] The prosecutor then asked the victim more questions about Pratt's parenting practices, and the victim testified that "[Pratt] didn't really treat us like we were [her] kids" and "wouldn't really spend time with us," that Pratt did not cook for the children and "got us store-bought meals that were generally microwaved or easy to cook... [s] o we just made our own meals," and that Pratt did not do the victim's laundry and did laundry only for the younger children. Pratt objected to this line of questioning on relevancy grounds, and the State responded that its questioning was "getting into why [the victim] felt her mother wasn't her mother." The court again overruled Pratt's objection, stating that it would "allow a little bit of latitude on it."3 The State continued to ask more questions related to Pratt's parenting and engagement with her children, eliciting testimony about an alleged assault on another child, as well as Pratt's failure to play with or eat with her children. Pratt did not object to this additional testimony.

[¶9] In her direct testimony, Pratt explained that she slapped her daughter to avoid being assaulted by her. She also explained that she had been raising children for twenty-four years and understood how to raise and discipline children. During cross-examination of Pratt, despite the court's earlier ruling sustaining Pratt's objection to questions related to the victim's siblings being removed from the home, the State posed three questions about whether another child had been "taken out of the house." And, in closing, the State again referred to the fact that the victim no longer lived with Pratt.4

[¶10] Despite having introduced both the parental discipline justification, see 17-A M.R.S. § 106(1), and the self-defense justification, see 17'-A M.R.S. § 108(1) (2020), in her opening statement, and despite the record's appearance that the court and the State were under the impression that Pratt was pursuing both justifications, Pratt expressly waived the parental discipline justification after the close of evidence. As a result, the court's jury instructions addressed only self-defense. The jury found Pratt guilty of domestic violence assault. On February 24, 2020, Pratt was sentenced to sixty days in jail, all suspended, and one year of probation. Pratt timely appealed from the court's judgment. See 15 M.R.S. § 2115 (2020); M.R. App. P. 2B(b)(1).

II. DISCUSSION

A. Testimony Concerning Pratt's Parenting Practices

[¶11] Pratt objected to the victim's testimony about Pratt not "treat[ing] [her children] like [they] were [Pratt's] kids," and about Pratt not doing the children's laundry, on the grounds that the information lacked specificity and was irrelevant to the assault charge. When a proper objection has been made and the issue preserved, we review a trial court's determination of relevance for clear error and its ultimate ruling on admissibility for an abuse of discretion. State v. Haji-Hassan, 2018 ME 42, ¶ 13, 182 A.3d 145. The clear error standard "is similar to a sufficiency of the evidence standard in that it asks if the trial court's ruling on evidentiary foundation is supported by or not inconsistent with the facts that appear in the record." State v. Dilley, ...

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