State v. Tollie

Decision Date22 March 2022
Docket NumberDA 20-0302
Citation408 Mont. 129,506 P.3d 1021
Parties STATE of Montana, Plaintiff and Appellee, v. Brandon James Lewis TOLLIE, Defendant and Appellant.
CourtMontana Supreme Court

For Appellant: Chad Wright, Appellate Defender, Gregory Hood, Assistant Appellate Defender, Helena, Montana

For Appellee: Austin Knudsen, Montana Attorney General, Tammy K Plubell, Assistant Attorney General, Helena, Montana, Steven Eschenbacher, Lake County Attorney, Benjamin R. Anciaux, Deputy County Attorney, Polson, Montana

Chief Justice Mike McGrath delivered the Opinion of the Court.

¶1 Brandon Tollie appeals from a March 31, 2020 judgment in the Twentieth Judicial District Court in Lake County. A Lake County jury found Tollie guilty of two counts of burglary and two counts of theft. At the close of the State's presentation of its case, Tollie had moved for the District Court to direct a verdict of not guilty based on the insufficiency of the State's evidence. The District Court denied that motion regarding the charges for which Tollie was then convicted. Tollie appeals that decision.

¶2 We restate the issue on appeal as follows:

Was the State's evidence connecting Tollie to these crimes impermissibly based on uncorroborated accomplice testimony?

¶3 We affirm.


¶4 In July 2019, the State charged Tollie with a total of eight crimes: two counts each of burglary and theft at two different properties. The first property belonged to Wayne Treweek. The State alleged that Tollie broke into Treweek's property on two different dates in September 2018 and each time stole things. The second property was the Mountain Lake Lodge. The State alleged that once in October 2018 and again in November 2018, Tollie broke into the Mountain Lake Lodge and stole things.

¶5 At trial, the State presented seven witnesses. The first two were Treweek and a manager at the Mountain Lake Lodge. They testified to the circumstances of discovering the burglaries at their respective properties and documenting the items stolen. Next, the State presented three witnesses with personal connections to Tollie. All three were facing charges in connection with these and other burglaries in the area.

¶6 The first such witness was Crystal Chase, who said she was in a relationship with Tollie at the time of the Treweek burglaries. Chase testified that she and Tollie had broken into the Treweek property, but she denied that she or Tollie stole anything while there.

¶7 The second was Mitchell Raymond. The State had charged Raymond with possession of stolen property, including the property taken from the Mountain Lake Lodge and the Treweek property. Raymond testified to several specific items that law enforcement found in his possession, each from recent burglaries. Raymond explained that he had received those items from friends and given them drugs in exchange. Raymond testified that he knew or assumed the things were stolen. And Raymond testified that one person who brought him stolen goods was Tollie.

¶8 The third witness connected to Tollie was Eugene Germain. The State had also charged Germain with numerous burglaries in the area. Raymond had named Germain as another source of some of his stolen property. The State attempted to elicit testimony from Germain regarding statements Tollie had made to Germain about the burglaries. Germain was resistant, but when the prosecutor confronted him with prior statements he had made to law enforcement, Germain confirmed that he had recalled Tollie bragging to him about burglarizing a property which Germain demonstrated on a map was the Treweek property.

¶9 Finally, the State presented testimony from two law enforcement officers who had investigated the case. The first officer had investigated the stolen goods at Raymond's property. He testified that there, he found the things stolen from the Treweek property and that Raymond told him he had received the things from Tollie. The first officer also testified about additional statements Chase had made when he spoke to her during the investigation; he said that she told him Tollie had taken tools when they broke into the Treweek property. The second officer had interrogated Germain. This officer described what Germain had told him about the burglaries. The jury also listened to a recording of the interrogation.

¶10 At the close of the State's case, Tollie made a motion for a directed verdict. Tollie's attorney argued that the State's evidence was insufficient to support a conviction because it relied on the uncorroborated statements of accomplices. The District Court had a back-and-forth on this matter with the prosecutor and with Tollie's attorney. The District Court ultimately concluded that the State had not provided enough independent corroboration to link Tollie to the thefts from Mountain Lake Lodge, and the court granted Tollie's motion on those counts. For the crimes at the Treweek property, however, the District Court concluded that there was enough corroborating evidence demonstrating Tollie's connection. These charges went to the jury following Tollie's defense presentation at which he testified and denied having broken into the Treweek property.

¶11 The jury found Tollie guilty on all burglary and theft counts regarding the Treweek property and not guilty on the remaining two Mountain Lake Lodge charges. Tollie now appeals the District Court's denial of his directed verdict motion regarding the Treweek charges.


¶12 The sufficiency of evidence to corroborate the testimony of an accomplice is a question of law. State v. Fey , 2000 MT 211, ¶ 5, 301 Mont. 28, 7 P.3d 358. We review a district court's legal conclusions for correctness. State v. Bales , 1999 MT 334, ¶ 43, 297 Mont. 402, 994 P.2d 17. "We review questions regarding the sufficiency of corroborating evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution." State v. Torgerson , 2008 MT 303, ¶ 25, 345 Mont. 532, 192 P.3d 695.


¶13 Was the State's evidence connecting Tollie to these crimes impermissibly based on uncorroborated accomplice testimony?

¶14 Tollie's appeal arises under an important principle in criminal law: the State may not prove someone guilty of a crime by simply pointing to evidence provided by an accomplice or someone else who is also legally accountable for that crime. Given the motivations of such witnesses to avoid or ameliorate their own punishment, such testimony is inherently untrustworthy and cannot, without corroboration, sustain a conviction. The Montana Legislature has codified this rule at § 46-16-213, MCA. Under the statute, to convict someone based on accomplice testimony, the State must corroborate that testimony with "other evidence that in itself and without the aid of the testimony of the one responsible or legally accountable for the same offense tends to connect the defendant with the commission of the offense." Section 46-16-213, MCA.

¶15 Our case law applying this standard has made clear that it depends on the circumstances of each case. State v. Kemp , 182 Mont. 383, 387, 597 P.2d 96, 99 (1979). Sufficient corroborating evidence may be circumstantial, and it need not extend to every fact from an accomplice's testimony. State v. Black , 2003 MT 376, ¶ 24, 319 Mont. 154, 82 P.3d 926. Accomplice testimony cannot, however, be corroborated by other evidence that simply describes the occurrence or circumstances of a crime; the other evidence must raise some independent connection with the defendant that is apparent without reference to the accomplice testimony. Kemp , 182 Mont. at 387, 597 P.2d 96.

¶16 Preliminary to the question of whether other evidence sufficiently corroborates an accomplice, however, is the question of who is an accomplice. Section 45-2-302, MCA, defines when someone shares culpability for the purposes of § 46-16-213, MCA. It describes three general situations: (1) causing the other person to commit the crime; (2) being accountable according to the statutory definition of the crime; and (3) soliciting, aiding, or abetting the crime before or during its commission. Section 45-2-302, MCA. If a witness's shared legal accountability is in dispute, the question is one of fact that may go to the jury. State v. Blackcrow , 1999 MT 44, ¶ 21, 293 Mont. 374, 975 P.2d 1253.

¶17 In Tollie's case, we must therefore first consider the status of the three witnesses he contends were accomplices: Chase, Germain, and Raymond. As the parties and the judge discussed Tollie's motion at trial, it appears that the State did not really dispute that Chase and Germain were accomplices.

The State admitted that "two of those [witnesses] are accomplices," although the State argued for a distinction about which witness was an accomplice to which charge.

¶18 Nonetheless, to begin with Chase, we consider her an undisputed accomplice in Tollie's crimes at the Treweek property. She admitted to being present during the alleged crimes and to participating in some of the activity. The State also charged Chase for her conduct in this and other incidents. She falls squarely within parts (2) and (3) of the accomplice definition above, and her testimony requires non-accomplice corroboration.

¶19 Germain's status is less clear. None of the evidence demonstrated that Germain caused Tollie to commit the Treweek crimes or that he aided or abetted Tollie during the commission of those crimes. However, there is a question of whether Germain is an accomplice by statutory definition because the State also charged Germain with the Treweek burglary. While investigating these and other burglaries in the area, the State charged Germain with multiple counts, listing Treweek as one alleged victim. This led to the police interrogation, played for the jury, at which Germain admitted to some burglaries but denied participating in the Treweek burglary. Germain implicated Tollie in the burglary and theft of the Treweek property.

¶20 While...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT