In 2009, a jury convicted Christopher Briejer of theft of workers’ comp benefits and he was sentenced to prison. Testimony in his trial included that he had climbed Mt. Rainier. Now an appeals court has ruled in his case.
Briejer worked as a carpenter and suffered a slipped disk on the job in 2000. He received workers’ comp for a period of time and then went back to work.
In 2004, Briejer asked that his workers’ comp claim be reopened. He told his doctor that his back pain “simply crept up on him slowly without any specific injury.”
When his case was being reconsidered, Briejer told his doctor that he had suffered an intervening injury: a crushed ankle bone.
His doctor initially said that injury wouldn’t have contributed to his back injury. The state reinstated his workers’ comp benefits.
In 2008, the state received a tip that Briejer had been participating in “extreme sports.” Specifically, the tip suggested authorities look into a YouTube video of Briejer climbing Mt. Rainier.
The state investigated and charged Briejer with 57 counts of theft for fraudulently taking workers’ comp benefits in Washington state.
A jury convicted him of 56 counts and a judge sentenced him to 43 months in prison and to pay $364,000 in restitution for time-loss, vocational training and medical services.
Was mountain climbing improper evidence?
During his trial, Briejer sought to suppress testimony about his climbing Mt. Rainier, but the judge allowed it.
The state said the information about Briejer’s mountain climbing was necessary because that led to the investigation.
But Briejer argued that when you introduce information like that to jurors, they are going to think that’s what the case is about.
The court agreed. In its opinion it wrote:
“If the evidence merely established the background to the investigation, without more, it may be relevant. But the testimony in the present case went beyond merely establishing that [the state] received an anonymous tip in 2008 and began investigating.”
The court said although the mountain climbing evidence was allegedly admitted to show why the state investigated, it ultimately served as evidence that would likely lead a jury to conclude Briejer deceived the state because he participated in extreme sports while receiving workers’ comp benefits .
And that wasn’t the argument the state was trying to make.
The state argued Briejer attempted to hide his ankle injury, which he suffered while self-employed and uninsured, and that injury contributed to his back problems.
But the court also ruled Briejer hadn’t tried to conceal his ankle injury and the state failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
For those two reasons, the appeals court vacated the jury verdict and Briejer’s sentence, and ruled prosecutors couldn’t refile the charges against him.
By the time the appeals court ruled, Briejer had already served his sentence, which ultimately amounted to two years in prison. However, the court’s ruling means he doesn’t have to pay the $364,000 in restitution.
Note: In a 2009 interview, Briejer told a newspaper, “It doesn’t take a back to climb a mountain, it takes legs. Even though I’m injured, I take care of my body. My doctors are 100% in favor of me hiking.”
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(State of Washington v. Christopher Robin Briejer, Court of Appeals of WA, No. 40912-7, 12/7/12)