Police Officer’s Bolstering of Child Witness’s Credibility Leads to Reversal

Cavaliere v. Florida (2014)

A Florida court of appeals has overturned a child molestation conviction because two witnesses, a police officer and a teacher, testified to the child’s credibility during trial. The case is Cavaliere v. Florida, No. 2D13-2452 (July 18, 2014).

The girl made her allegations after watching a movie that depicted a teenager being sexually assaulted by an older man she had met online. After watching the movie, the girl told her teacher that Cavaliere had molested her. A detective interviewed the child afterwards.

Both the teacher and the detective testified at trial about their impressions of the child. The teacher testified the child seemed “relieved” and acted “like a ton of bricks was… lifted off her shoulders.” The detective stated that the child acted “appropriately” during the interview and that he thought “this wasn’t a joke to [her].”

The appellate court reversed the trial judge because of these two witnesses’ testimony. The court recognized the harm that occurs when a police officer bolsters a complainant’s credibility. The court added that bolstering of a child’s credibility by a civilian (such as a teacher) could also be harmful. The ultimate issue in child molestation cases is often the complaining child’s credibility. The court stated that it is for the jury to determine the child’s credibility, not for the police officer or the teacher. The court held the trial judge’s failure to exclude this testimony was a prejudicial error, and it reversed Cavaliere’s conviction.

The appellate court also identified a second error by the trial judge. During trial, the prosecution showed a clip of the film that prompted the child to report the alleged molestation. The clip depicted a teenage girl intimately interacting with an older man with the inference that sexual assault followed off-screen. The Court of Appeals explained that this clip was substantially more unfairly prejudicial than probative, and thus, inadmissible. It would have been sufficient, the court said, to tell the jury that viewing a film prompted the child to speak out rather than to show a video of a crime with dissimilar circumstances. This could have confused the jury, the court said.