Mistrial Motions in California

The standard of review for a trial court's ruling for a mistrial motion is whether there was an "abuse of discretion, and such a motion should be granted only when a party's chances of receiving a fair trial have been irreparably damaged." (People v. Ayala (2000) 23 Cal.4th 225, 283.) "All exercises of legal discretion must be grounded in reasoned judgment and guided by legal principles and policies appropriate to the particular matter at issue." (People v. Russel (1968) 69 Cal.2d 187, 195.) "A mistrial should be granted if the court is apprised of prejudice that it judges incurable by admonition or instruction. Whether a particular incident is incurably prejudicial is by its nature a speculative matter, and the trial court is vested with considerable discretion in ruling on mistrial motions. " (People v. Haskett (1982) 30 Cal.3d 841, 854.) In People v. Barraza (1979) 23 Cal.3d 675, the California Supreme Court expressly rejected the "subjective" origin-of-intent test. (Id. at pp. 688-690.) In the "subjective" origin-of-intent approach, "the availability of the defense depends upon whether the intent to commit the crime originated in the mind of the defendant . . . and that where a defendant has a preexisting criminal intent, the fact that when solicited by a decoy he commits a crime does not show entrapment." (People v. Benford (1959) 53 Cal.2d 1, 10.) If California used this approach, defendant's argument might have some merit because the jurors' knowledge that the defendant had committed similar crimes in the past could impermissibly influence the jurors' perception of defendant's preexisting criminal intent. However, the "objective" test for the entrapment defense focuses on police conduct. Under this test, the issue is whether "the conduct of the law enforcement agent was likely to induce a normally law-abiding person to commit the offense." (People v. Barraza, supra, at pp. 689-690.) "Matters such as the character of the suspect, his predisposition to commit the offense, and his subjective intent are irrelevant." (Id. at pp. 690-691.) Accordingly, the jury was instructed that "matters such as the character of the defendant, his predisposition to commit the crime, and his subjective intent are not relevant to the determination of the question of whether entrapment occurred." Whether defendant was on parole does not have any bearing upon the conduct of the deputies. The reference to his parole status, therefore, could have no substantial impact on his entrapment defense. Nevertheless, it is true that "exposing a jury to a defendant's prior criminality presents the possibility of prejudicing a defendant's case and rendering suspect the outcome of the trial." (People v. Harris (1994) 22 Cal.App.4th 1575, 1580.) The possibility of such prejudice here was effectively cured by the court's admonition. The trial court gave a forceful and specific admonition to the jurors that they could not consider O'Brien's testimony that defendant was on parole, and told them it was irrelevant to the case. In addition, the trial court made it clear that if any juror felt that he or she could not "put it out of their mind," the juror needed to make the judge aware of that. All of the jurors agreed they would be able to put the statement out of their minds and none of the jurors told the judge later that they were not able to disregard the testimony. "A jury is presumed to have followed an admonition to disregard improper evidence particularly where there is an absence of bad faith." (People v. Allen (1978) 77 Cal.App.3d 924, 934.) As in Allen, we presume that the jury was able to follow the admonition and strike the statement from their decision making. "This is not one of those exceptional cases in which the improper subject matter is of such a character that its effect on the minds of the jurors cannot be removed by the court's admonitions." (People v. Seiterle (1963) 59 Cal.2d 703, 710.)