Monthly Archives: May 2016

AAA Questions Marijuana DUI Laws

According to a news article from the Chicago Tribune, recent studies conducted by car insurer AAA find that blood tests given to drivers suspected of marijuana DUI have no scientific basis.

A handful of studies released by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that drivers can have a low level of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, in their blood and be unsafe behind the wheel, while others with relatively high levels may not be a hazard. Below are the individual studies accompanied by capsule summaries comprising the effort:

“If you’ve had marijuana whether it’s medicinal or otherwise, don’t drive,” said AAA Chicago spokeswoman Beth Mosher, “It’s really that simple.”

The studies examined the results of more than 5,300 people nationwide who were arrested for driving under the influence of marijuana, 600 of whom tested positive for THC only, while the others had THC and other substances. This is because marijuana isn’t metabolized by the body in the same way as alcohol. The researchers compared the Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) exam results of 602 drivers that only had THC present in their blood at the time of arrest to those of 349 volunteers that took the test drug-free and sober. Ultimately, the degree to which a driver is impaired by marijuana use depends a lot on the individual, the foundation said.

The data appears confusing because AAA also looked at Washington – one of the first states to legalize marijuana – and found fatal crashes involving drivers who recently used marijuana doubled.

“ In most recent data 1 in 6 drivers who are involved in a fatal crash there had marijuana in there system,” Mosher  said.  “And as more and more states look at legalizing marijuana we see this as a concerning trend.”

Nevertheless, AAA is sending the message that the legal limits established for marijuana are arbitrary. A handful of states have moved to specify the maximum amount of active THC — the main chemical in marijuana — that drivers can have in their system. But AAA says that doesn’t work.

“We think those are meaningless,” said Mosher. “They are not backed by any science. One person can have one limit of THC in their blood and be significantly impaired and others can have that same limit and not be impaired at all,” Mosher said.

Many in law enforcement and AAA say that officer recognition of impaired drivers is really the only what to determine whether someone is too high to drive.  Of course all of this a public safety concerns as pot becomes legal across the country.

Youth as Mitigating Factor

In State v. Solis-Diaz, the WA Court of Appeals Division II held that a juvenile defendant who was tried as an adult for numerous violent felony crimes involving firearms is entitled to a sentencing at which the judge must conduct a meaningful, individualized inquiry into whether the defendant’s youth should mitigate his sentence.

Solis-Diaz was 16 years old in 2007, when he participated in a gang related drive-by shooting in Centralia. He was charged with six counts of Assault in the First Degree, each with a firearm sentencing enhancement; one count of Drive-by Shooting; and one count of Unlawful Possession of a Firearm in the Second Degree. He was tried as an adult. The jury found him guilty on all counts, and the trial court imposed a sentence of 1,111 months in prison.

Solis-Diaz requested an exceptional downward sentence on grounds that the multiple offense policy of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1981 (SRA) operated to impose a clearly excessive sentence and that Solis-Diaz’s age indicated diminished capacity to understand the wrongfulness and consequences of his actions. The judge denied the request and again imposed a standard-range sentence of 1,111 months in prison. Solis Diaz appealed.

The Court of Appeals held that under the SRA, a sentencing court must generally sentence a defendant within the standard range. Pursuant to the SRA’s multiple offense policy, standard range sentences for multiple serious violent offenses are to be served consecutively and not concurrently.

This is important. For those who don’t know, a consecutive sentence is when a defendant has been convicted of more than one crime, usually at the same trial, and the sentences for each crime are “tacked” together, so that sentences are served one after the other. In contrast, a concurrent sentence is when sentences on more than one crime “run” or are served at the same time, rather than one after the other. For instance, if a defendant’s three crimes carry sentences of five, three, and two years, the maximum time he’ll spend in jail is five years.

The Court of Appeals further reasoned that a court may impose an exceptional sentence below the standard range if it finds that mitigating circumstances are established by a preponderance of the evidence. One such mitigating circumstance exists if the operation of the multiple offense policy results in a presumptive sentence that is clearly excessive.  When the resulting set of consecutive sentences is so clearly excessive under the circumstances that it provides “‘substantial and compelling reasons’” for an exceptional sentence below the standard range, the sentencing court may grant that exceptional downward sentence.

Additionally, the Court of Appeals relied on the WA Supreme Court’s recent decision in State v. O’Dell. In that decision, and similar to the defendant here, O’Dell was a juvenile who was also tried and sentenced as an adult to a very serious felony crime (rape, in O’Dell’s case). At O’Dell’s sentencing, the trial court ruled that it could not consider O’Dell’s age as a mitigating circumstance and imposed a standard range sentence of 95 months.  The Supreme Court disagreed with O’Dell’s trial court: “[I]n light of what we know today about adolescents’ cognitive and emotional development, we conclude that youth may, in fact, “relate to a defendant’s crime.”

The Court of Appeals followed O’Dell and said the following:

“The same logic and policy that led the Supreme Court to require the consideration of the youth of a young adult offender would apply with magnified force to require the same of Solis-Diaz, who committed his crimes while a juvenile. As did the trial court in O’Dell, the trial court here decided that under Ha’mim it could not consider the defendant’s youth as a mitigating factor in sentencing. As did the trial court in O’Dell, the trial court here abused its discretion in refusing that consideration. Our Supreme Court’s analysis in O’Dell compels the same result: reversal of Solis-Diaz’s sentence and remand for a new sentencing hearing to meaningfully consider whether youth diminished his culpability.”

The WA Court of Appeals even offered a litmus test in making these determinations:

“In short, a sentencing court must take into account the observations underlying Miller, Graham, Roper, and O’Dell that generally show among juveniles a reduced sense of responsibility, increased impetuousness, increased susceptibility to outside pressures, including peer pressure, and a greater claim to forgiveness and time for amendment of life. Against this background, the sentencing court must consider whether youth diminished Soliz-Diaz’s culpability and make an individualized determination whether his “capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct or to conform that conduct to the requirements of the law” was meaningfully impaired.”

The WA Court of Appeals concluded that the sentencing court erred in failing to consider whether the operation of the SRA and Solis-Diaz’s youth at the time he committed the crimes should mitigate his standard range sentence and warrant an exceptional downward sentence.

Consequently, the Court of Appeals vacated Solis-Diaz’s sentence and remanded for re-sentencing back to the trial court. The Court of Appeals also noted that Solis-Diaz may move to disqualify the prior sentencing judge.

My opinion? I’m very pleased Division II is embracing O’Dell, an opinion which I’ve discussed in my blog titled, “State v. O’Dell: Court May Consider Defendant’s Youth at Sentencing.” Furthermore, I’m pleased that Division II also offered a workable litmus test in determining these issues juvenile sentencing for adult crimes. Very good. It not only shows the Courts are following O’Dell, they are also supporting it and offering guidelines for future decisions involving juvenile justice.

State v. Budd: WA Supreme Court Acknowledges Unlawful Search of Home.

In State v. Budd, the WA Supreme Court decided law enforcement officers must properly give Ferrier warnings before entering a residence.

Good decision. Last year, I discussed how the WA Court of Appeals decided this matter in my blog titled, State v. Budd: Ferrier Warnings Improperly Given. Fortunately, the WA Supreme Court upheld the Court of Appeals’ decision.

Police arrived at his door on a “cybertip” that Mr. Budd was talking to underage girls through online chatting and that he possessed child pornography on his computer. Officers arrived at Budd’s home and performed a “knock & talk“, however, they lacked probable cause for a search warrant.  Also,  the detectives did not properly discuss Ferrier warnings with Mr. Holmes before he allowed them entry. They seized his computer, found child porn and charged him with Possession of Depictions of Minors Engaged in Sexually Explicit Conduct under RCW 9.68A.070. He was convicted.

Some background on Ferrier warnings is necessary in order to understand this “search & seizure of a home” case. In State v. Ferrier, the WA Supreme Court held that, before entering a citizen’s home without a warrant, a law enforcement officer must (1) ask the citizen for consent, (2) inform the citizen that he can revoke consent at any time and (3) notify the citizen that he can limit the scope of the entry into the home. If an officer fails to provide these Ferrier rights/warnings, then any evidence obtained from the search is “fruits of the poisonous search” and can be suppressed.

On appeal, Budd argued that the trial court wrongfully denied his motion to suppress evidence because the Ferrier warnings given by police were insufficient. The Court of Appeals agreed with Mr. Budd and suppressed the evidence. In response, the State took the issue up on appeal to the WA Supreme Court. In this new opinion, however, the WA Supremes ultimately decided the Court of Appeals correctly ruled that Budd’s consent was invalid.

The WA Supreme Court reasoned that since Ferrier, the Court has consistently limited the Ferrier warnings to knock and talk procedures. “In this case, the officers conducted a knock and talk because they sought Budd’s consent to enter his home to search for and seize suspected contraband. Therefore, the officers were required to give Budd the Ferrier warnings before entering his home.”

Furthermore, the Court discussed the similarities between Mr. Budd’s case at hand and the defendant in Ferrier:

“Indeed, the officers’ conduct in this case paralleled the conduct of the officers in Ferrier. In both cases, the officers arrived without announcement, surprising the resident. In both cases, the resident was not given time to reflect on the officers’ presence before being asked to give his or her consent for the officers to enter the home and search for evidence of a crime. In both cases, the resident reacted to the knock and talk procedure as expected by being polite and cooperative, and allowing the officers inside the residence.”

Finally, the WA Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s finding that the officers did not give Budd the Ferrier warnings before entering his home and hold that Budd’s consent was therefore involuntary. And with that ,the WA Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals and dismissed the charges against Mr. Budd.

Again, good decision. Although Mr. Budd’s actions leading up to his charges were certainly concerning, the WA Supremes got it right in deciding that our individual rights trump unlawful government searches of our homes. I’m glad they didn’t decide differently and chip away at the Ferrier decision. In Ferrier, the WA Supreme Court specifically highlighted the fact that when confronted with a surprise show of government force and authority, most residents believe they have no choice but to consent to the search. This is absolutely true. The Ferrier court also noted that it was not surprised by an officer’s testimony that virtually everyone confronted by a knock and talk accedes to the request to permit a search of their home.

Prosecutors Must Reveal Toxicologist Identities in DUI Trials.

In State v. Salgado-Mendoza, the WA Court of Appeals Division II reversed a defendant’s DUI conviction because the Prosecutor failed to give Defense Counsel the name of their Toxicologist expert witness before trial.

On the evening of August 11, 2012, a Washington State Patrol trooper observed Mr. Salgado-Mendoza driving his vehicle and struggling to stay in his lane of travel. The trooper stopped the vehicle. Salgado-Mendoza was investigated and arrested for DUI. His BAC test showed a blood alcohol concentration of 0.103 and 0.104; which is over the .o8 limit.

Several months before his trial date on the DUI charge, Salgado-Mendoza requested that the Prosecutor disclose information about any and all expert witnesses the Prosecutor intended to call at trial. This regularly happens when defense attorneys argue motions to compel. The Prosecutor attempted to contact the toxicology lab by phone to narrow the list of possible toxicology witnesses, but was unsuccessful.

Three days before trial, Salgado-Mendoza filed a motion requesting that the court dismiss the case or exclude the toxicologist’s evidence based on governmental misconduct.

On the afternoon before trial, the State received a list of three toxicologists, one of whom might testify the next day. The State provided this list to Salgado-Mendoza.

When the parties appeared for trial on May 9, Salgado-Mendoza re-argued his motion to exclude the toxicologist’s testimony or to dismiss the DUI charge because the State had still not disclosed which toxicologist would testify. The Court denied the motion. Salgado-Mendoza was found guilty at trial.

Salgado-Mendoza appealed his conviction to the superior court. Finding that the district court had abused its discretion by (1) not excluding the toxicologist’s testimony due to the State’s violation of the discovery rules and mismanagement of the case in failing to disclose its witness prior to trial, and (2) excluding the defense expert’s testimony about the breath-alcohol testing machine, the superior court reversed the DUI conviction and remanded the matter for a new trial. The State appealed to the WA Court of Appeals.

Ultimately, the WA Court of Appeals held that the Prosecutor violated the discovery rules under CrRLJ 4.7(d) by failing to take reasonable steps to obtain the name of its witness in a timely manner. It reasoned that the Prosecutor had an obligation to attempt to acquire and then disclose that information from the toxicology lab. Consequently, the Prosecutor’s failure to provide the defense with a specific witness’s name before trial is not reasonable. This, in turn, amounted to governmental misconduct under CrRLJ 8.3(b).

Furthermore, the Court held that Prosecutor’s misconduct was prejudicial and that the exclusion of the toxicologist’s testimony was the proper remedy. The Court emphasized this remedy was necessary because the issue was an issue of public importance:

“On retrial, the State should ensure that it provides the name and address of the person or persons it intends to call at trial or comply with CrRLJ 4.7(d) when preparing for the new trial.”

My opinion? Good decision. It is extremely difficult to provide a competent and adequate defense when Prosecutors do not follow the rules of discovery.

For those who don’t know, a Prosecutor must follow many procedures when trying cases. The following procedures expedite a fair trial and protect the constitutional rights of the defendant: (i) promote a fair and expeditious disposition of the charges, whether by diversion, plea, or trial; (ii) provide the defendant with sufficient information to make an informed plea; (iii) permit thorough preparation for trial and minimize surprise at trial; (iv) reduce interruptions and complications during trial and avoid unnecessary and repetitious trials by identifying and resolving prior to trial any procedural, collateral, or constitutional issues; (v) minimize the procedural and substantive inequities among similarly situated defendants; (vi) effect economies in time, money, judicial resources, and professional skills by minimizing paperwork, avoiding repetitious assertions of issues, and reducing the number of separate hearing; and (vii) minimize the burden upon victims and witnesses.

Here, knowing the names of the Prosecutor’s witnesses before trial is simply fair. Period.

High Court Strikes Racism in Jury Selection

The U.S. Supreme Court just sent a strong message about racism in the justice system.

In Foster v. Chatman, the Court reversed a defendant’s murder conviction after discovering that the Prosecutor systematically eliminated African American jurors from serving on Mr. Foster’s jury because of their race.

Petitioner Timothy Foster was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in a Georgia court. During jury selection at his trial, the State used peremptory challenges to strike all four black prospective jurors qualified to serve on the jury.

Foster argued that the State’s use of those strikes was racially motivated, in violation of Batson v. Kentucky. The trial court rejected that claim, and the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed. Foster then renewed his Batson claim in a state habeas corpus proceeding.

While that proceeding was pending, Mr. Foster’s defense attorneys used the Georgia Open Records Act to obtained the Prosecutor’s file used during trial. In notes, prosecutors had highlighted the African Americans on several different lists of potential jurors. On one list, under the heading “Definite NOs,” prosecutors listed six potential jurors, all but one of whom were black.

Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court granted review of the case on the issue of whether the Georgia courts erred in failing to recognize race discrimination under Batson v. Kentucky in the extraordinary circumstances of this death penalty case.

The Court reasoned that the Georgia Supreme Court’s decision that Foster failed to show purposeful discrimination was clearly erroneous. They started with Batson’s three-step process for adjudicating claims such as Foster’s. First, a defendant must make a prima facie showing that a preemptory challenge has been exercised on the basis of race. Second, if that showing has been made, the prosecution must offer a race-neutral basis for striking the juror in question. Third, the trial court must determine whether the defendant has shown purposeful discrimination.”

Here, and in sum, the Court reasoned that Foster established purposeful discrimination in the State’s strikes of two black prospective jurors:

” . . . along with the prosecution’s shifting explanations, misrepresentations of the record, and persistent focus on race, leads to the conclusion that the striking of those prospective jurors was motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent . . . the focus on race in the prosecution’s file plainly demonstrates a concerted effort to keep black prospective jurors off the jury.”

My opinion? Good decision. The decision is a forceful blow against racism in the courts. Although the Foster decision won’t end racial discrimination in jury selection, it is certainly vindication for the potential jurors who weren’t allowed to fulfill their civic duty all those years ago because of their race. As for Foster, his future is still in limbo. The Supreme Court’s decision entitles him to a new trial before a jury of his peers that hasn’t been tainted by racial discrimination. Still, that mere fact doesn’t guarantee a different outcome. The new jury may come to the same conclusion as the old one. But if nothing else, Mr. Foster’s death penalty has likely been put off for many years to come. And in the world of death penalty litigation, that counts as a win.

The Neurology of Risky Driving Behavior

A very interesting article from the Association for Psychological Science discusses how a team of Canadian psychological scientists is looking at the personality, cognitive, and neurobiological factors that contribute to reckless driving behavior. By better understanding the patterns of emotional processing and risk perception shown by repeat offenders, the researchers hope to design interventions that more effectively target these subgroups of dangerous drivers.

The evidence certainly exists. According to the article, drunk driving accounts for 35-40% of all driver fatalities in Canada and the United States, and drunk driving crashes kill more than 10,000 Americans every year. Amazingly, an estimated 30% of DUI offenders will continue to drink and drive, even after being arrested and punished.

“Surprisingly, these drivers usually don’t consider themselves as risk takers,” lead author Thomas G. Brown of McGill University said. “If drivers don’t believe they are risky, they will not accept the need to change. On the other hand, if we and they don’t understand their behavior, how can they be expected to change it effectively?”

The study began when Brown and his colleagues recruited four groups of male drivers who had different criminal histories: 36 men with at least two convictions for drunk driving (DUI group); 28 reckless drivers with at least three speeding violations in the past two years (speeders); 27 men with arrests for both DUI and speeding (DWI-speeders); and 47 low-risk drivers with no history of serious traffic offenses (control group).

According to the article, participants completed a battery of personality and impulsivity assessments, ranging from a Big Five personality measure to an executive control task that assessed their sensitivity to punishment and reward. Participants’ cortisol response, a hormonal reaction to stress, was measured by collecting saliva samples before and after they completed a timed mental arithmetic task previously shown to elicit stress.

Even more interesting, participants also completed a session of simulated driving that included driving on virtual highways, merging lanes, turning at intersections, and avoiding pedestrians.

The researchers found that different subgroups of risky drivers had distinctive neurobiological profiles. Compared to the low-risk control group, speeders were prone to making decisions based on thrill-seeking and a need for high levels of stimulation. Repeat DUI offenders, in contrast, had the lowest level of risk-taking behavior while sober.

“One possibility in line with the present results is that once heavy drinking has occurred, more impulsive drivers are more vulnerable to alcohol’s disruptive effects on the behavioral control mechanisms required to avoid DWI,” the researchers explain.

All of the dangerous driving groups exhibited significant blunting in their cortisol stress response compared with the control group. Cortisol, along with other stress hormones, influences cognitive processes that range from risk assessment to encoding emotional memories. These results suggest that dysregulation of the body’s cortisol response could act as a neurobiological marker for risky driving behavior.

“Relative to the other [risky driving] profiles considered here, the profile exhibited by group DUI may be the most amenable to interventions that aim to augment recall of the negative consequences of DUI behavior and pre-emptively decouple alcohol use from driving,” the researchers conclude.

Stated differently, interventions designed to improve drivers’ recall of the negative consequences of drinking and driving are effective for preventing drunk driving. This explains the findings why repeat DUI offenders had the lowest level of risk-taking behavior while sober.

My opinion? The study is interesting, for sure. Not surprisingly, the criminal justice system uses many of these these psychological deterrents to “decouple alcohol use from driving.” When it comes to DUI cases, gaining a worthwhile reduction of the charges often means the defendant obtaining an alcohol/drug evaluation, attending mandatory treatment, attending AA meetings and attending a Victim Impact Panel. Additionally, the financial costs of DUI fines and mandatory ignition interlock devices are constant reminders to DUI offenders that future risky behavior is simply not worth it.

That said, hiring a competent DUI attorney to fight DUI charges might be a worthy endeavor. The basic legal issues surrounding a DUI arrest are (1) whether the stop was lawful, (2) whether there was enough evidence to arrest, (3) whether the officer informed the defendant of Implied Consent Warnings, and (4) whether the defendant either (a) refused the BAC breathalyzer machine or (b) blew over .08 and/or had .05 nanograms of active THC in their blood when pulled over.

If you’re charged with DUI, the best advice is to immediately contact a competent DUI defense attorney to discuss your case. Good luck!

State v. Deleon: Court Strikes Evidence of “Gang Affiliation” Due To Defendant’s Music Preferences

In State v. Deleon, the  WA Supreme Court held that (1) a defendant’s musical preference does not establish gang membership, and their admittance to gang affiliation during jail  booking may not be used at trial.

The State prosecuted Mr. Deleon and two others for multiple counts of Assault in the First Degree with deadly weapon enhancements and with gang aggravators.  If convicted, these upward enhancements substantially increased Deleon’s prison sentence. At trial, the court admitted as evidence of gang affiliation statements the defendant made at booking about his gang affiliation and evidence of the type of music on his cell phone.  Also, the trial court allowed a police officer to testify as a gang expert regarding generalized information of gang affiliation.

Mr. Deleon was found guilty and sentenced to 1,002 months. He appealed on the issue of (1) whether the trial court violated his Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination improperly admitted the aforementioned evidence, and (2) whether the gang expert testimony regarding gang culture and behavior was irrelevant and thus improperly admitted.

The WA Supreme Court reasoned that the gang information from the jail intake forms was not gathered voluntarily, and thus should not have been admitted as evidence. In short, it reasoned that when a defendant’s self-incriminating statements are made in exchange for protection from credible threats of violence while incarcerated, the statements are coerced and involuntary:

“We do not see how statements made under these circumstances could be considered voluntary. The admission of these statements was a violation of the defendant’s Fifth Amendment rights.”

The WA Supreme Court also ruled that the trial court mistakenly allowed evidence of the type of music on the defendant’s phone as evidence of gang affiliation. “Los Tigres del Norte is a prominent and popular Latin band and there is no evidence in the record to support that enjoying their music is evidence of gang affiliation . . .  We take this opportunity to remind courts to be far more cautious when drawing conclusions from a defendant’s musical preferences.”  This scathing wisdom reminded courts to be careful when admitting generalized evidence about gang affiliation.  “Such evidence is often highly prejudicial and must be tightly constrained to comply with the rules of evidence.”

Finally, the Court ruled that much of the generalized “gang evidence” was irrelevant and prejudicial, and thus should not have been admitted. The court reasoned that, under ER 402, evidence which is not relevant is not admissible. Here, the gang evidence produced by the State’s gang expert witness was highly prejudicial:

“We agree and urge courts to use caution when considering generalized gang evidence. Such evidence is often highly prejudicial, and must be tightly constrained to comply with the rules of evidence.”

With that, the WA Supreme Court held the defendant was entitled to a new trial. Therefore, the Court reversed the convictions and gang aggravators.

My opinion? I really enjoyed the rulings in this case. Sometimes, mainstream culture and music can be misconstrued as “gang evidence” when said music/culture is heard/exhibited by minorities. The Court attacked this veiled racism. Good on them. Also, they made good rulings on the 5th Amendment issues. A defendant’s gang affiliation when being booked into jail is a matter of personal security. The information should not be admitted at trial. Again, good rulings!

Jailhouse Snitches

The Legislative Advocacy Clinic at the University of Washington Law School is working on passing legislation which would require a pre-trial reliability hearing for “incentivized informants,” i.e., jailhouse rats. The law school put together a survey for defense attorneys in the state that they hope will better provide them with hard data on how and when informants are being used.

Some explanation is necessary. In some criminal cases involving wrongful convictions, the main evidence against the defendant is testimony by a jailhouse informant, who is commonly referred to as a “snitch.” Unfortunately, in weighing this evidence, a jury may be unaware that the snitch has received favorable treatment or a reduced sentence in exchange for his testimony, or that he regularly has acted as a jailhouse snitch by testifying in multiple criminal cases. In this respect, the snitch’s testimony could be unreliable because it’s motivated by something other than the truth. As a result, a snitch’s testimony has proven to be false in some cases, which in turn leads to wrongful convictions.
 
When an inmate has little recourse in his own criminal case, and is facing stiff penalties as a result of his crime, the temptation and desperation may prove too much, thus resulting in voluntary testimony that negatively implicates a fellow inmate. At that point, the snitch has nothing to lose; at worst, he will not get the incentive he has been promised, and, at best, he might receive a lighter sentence, reduced charges, and/or more pleasant accommodations while incarcerated, such as placement near family members. This all-too-common phenomenon of incentives in exchange for testimony can result in false testimony, and wrongful convictions.
Even worse, a jury considering “snitch evidence” in a criminal case is likely to be totally unaware of any incentives that the snitch was given by the prosecution in exchange for his or her testimony. Therefore, if the snitch otherwise appears to be credible during his or her testimony, the jury will have no reason to suspect that the snitch may have an alternate motive to testify.
 
The implications of wrongful convictions due to false testimony by snitches is highlighted in a 2005 report by the Center on Wrongful Convictions, Northwestern University of Law, Chicago, which profiles 38 death row defendants, convicted on the basis of false testimony by snitches, whose convictions were later overturned. According to the Center’s report, snitch testimony is the leading cause of wrongful conviction in capital cases, which obviously can have devastating results for the criminal justice system as a whole, not to mention its potentially irreversible impact on the innocent defendant, who loses years of his or her life to incarceration, or even life altogether.

Wielding Inoperable Firearm During Crime is Still Unlawful

In State v. Tasker, the WA Court of Appeals Division III held that although the State must prove to the jury that the defendant possessed a real firearm at the time of the crime, the State is not required to prove that the firearm was operable.

On June 13, 2013, Gloria Campos-White was sitting in her parked car outside of her daughter’s middle school waiting for her daughter’s basketball practice to finish. A man walked up to her open driver’s side window, pointed a gun in her face, and demanded she give him her purse. She complied, telling him as she handed him the purse that she did not have any money.

After the man had her purse, he got into the back seat and ordered Ms. Campos-White to drive. He still had the gun when he entered the car, and that although she did not see it again, at one point when they were actually driving she thought she heard the clicking of something behind her head.

The man gave directions as she drove, but he did not tell her where they were going. She did not know where they were. Not knowing his intentions, Ms. Campos-White felt desperate to get away. Without slowing her car, she waited for a gap in oncoming traffic, unbuckled her seatbelt, opened the car door, and jumped out of the moving vehicle. Her car soon struck a bank on the side of the road and flipped on its side. People nearby heard the crash. They stopped traffic and attended to Ms. Campos-White. They saw a man climb out of a passenger side door of her car and run off. Ms. Campos-White sustained a severe concussion that led to the loss of her ability to taste or smell.

Ultimately, based on video surveillance recorded by the middle school, Ms. Campos-White’s identification, and physical evidence recovered from the scene of the crash, Christopher Tasker was arrested and charged with first degree kidnapping, attempted first degree robbery, and first degree unlawful possession of a firearm. The State sought firearm enhancements in connection with both the first degree kidnapping and the attempted first degree robbery charges.

At trial, Ms. Campos-White identified Mr. Tasker as the man who kidnapped and attempted to rob her. She described the gun that Mr. Tasker used, explaining it was a dark color and small enough to be held with one hand. She admitted during the State’s examination that she did not know much about guns or firearms, and testified that she had “never seen a gun in real life.” She also admitted that she would not know the difference between a revolver and semiautomatic handgun by name, but knew that they looked different. She never wavered from her testimony that Mr. Tasker had been armed with a gun, however. Asked on cross-examination whether there was any chance it could’ve been anything besides a handgun, she answered, “No.”

The defense devoted its entire closing argument to urging the jury that there was reasonable doubt whether Mr. Tasker had been armed with a real firearm. It emphasized Ms. Campos-White’s nonspecific description of the gun, her inexperience with firearms, and an asserted hesitancy in her testimony. Nevertheless, the jury found Mr. Tasker guilty of all charges and imposed the deadly weapon sentencing enhancements.

Defense Counsel brought a post-trial motion to set aside the jury’s verdict on the firearm possession findings.  The trial court informed the parties that it had concluded after reading cases cited by the parties that Division Two of the Court of Appeals “seems to focus more on the question of has the prosecution proven that the gun was operable,” while Division One “appears to focus more on the question of was the gun real,” a “slightly different question.” The court denied Defense Counsel’s motion, “recognizing that it’s a razor thin issue and it could go either way on appeal.”

Mr. Tasker’s sentences on his three convictions run concurrently, with the longest being his 144 month sentence on the first degree kidnapping count. The firearm enhancement terms (60 months for the kidnapping and 36 months for the attempted robbery) run consecutive to his base sentence, increasing his sentence by eight years.

Mr. Tasker appealed on the argument that the State failed to prove he wielded an operable firearm during the crimes. In other words, the question was whether evidence of operability at the time of the crime is required because the statutory definition of “firearm” includes language that it is a weapon or device “from which a projectile or projectiles may be fired.” Again, he argued, the firearm was inoperable.

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals was not persuaded. Instead, it found that a reasonable juror would have found sufficient evidence that Mr. Tasker wielded a firearm.

Here, the State presented sufficient evidence of what it was required to prove: that the gun Mr. Tasker used in the assault was a gun “in fact,” rather than “a gunlike but nondeadly object. Mr. Tasker pointed the gun at Ms. Campos-White’s face in demanding her purse and used it to advance a kidnapping. Visibility was good; the crime occurred in daylight on a June afternoon. Ms. Campos-White saw the gun at close range and was unwavering in her testimony that it was a gun. While she forthrightly admitted to little experience with guns “in real life,” she was old enough, as the mother of a middle schooler, to have seen guns in photographs, on the news, in television programs and in movies. The clicking noise she described hearing behind her head was consistent with Mr. Tasker’s use of a real gun. Collectively, the evidence was sufficient to establish the gun met the definition of a “firearm” under RCW 9.41.010(9).

Consequently, the Court of Appeals affirmed the convictions.

My opinion? Interestingly enough, the Court of Appeals Division One might have arrived at a different conclusion. Divisions Two and Three do not require proof of a firearm’s operability. However, Division One does require such proof.