Monthly Archives: July 2016

Backpack Searches When Jailed

In State v. Dunham, the WA Court of Appeals Division II decided that a warrantless search of a suspect’s locked backpack pocket was a lawful inventory search where the defendant was booked into jail, a search of his person produced knives, the backpack was to be logged into the jail’s temporary storage area and the officer felt knives on the outside of the backpack.

On January 29, 2014, Sergeant Gwen Carrell of the Chehalis Police Department responded to a reported shoplifting at a local department store. Upon arrival, Sgt. Carrell met with loss prevention officers. They told Sgt. Carrell that defendant Jason Dunham had multiple knives in his backpack and that they had removed the backpack from Dunham’s reach. Sgt. Carrell placed Dunham in handcuffs for officer safety and searched him for weapons. She located two more knives on Dunham’s person, arrested Dunham for theft and booked him into jail.

Sgt. Carrell searched Dunham’s backpack for items to be logged into the jail’s temporary storage. This is called an inventory search. In short, it is every police department’s policy to inventory items to be held in its storage facility for any dangerous items. As part of this policy, knives are to be kept in secure containers, preventing them from puncturing anything.

Sgt. Carrell used Dunham’s keys to unlock the backpack pocket. She opened the pocket and observed a flashlight, a butane torch, and a glass pipe. What Sgt. Carrell thought was a knife was actually the butane torch. The residue in the glass pipe tested positive for methamphetamine. The State charged Dunham with Possession of a Controlled Substance and Theft in the Third Degree.

Dunham filed a motion to suppress the evidence found during Sgt. Carrell’s search of the locked portion of his backpack pursuant to CrR 3.6, arguing that the search violated his constitutional rights. The trial court denied the motion and ruled that the inventory search was valid. Later, the trial court found him guilty on both counts at a bench trial.

Dunham appealed. He argued that the warrantless search of his backpack’s locked pocket violated the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution. He claims that the search was not a valid inventory search.

Unfortunately for Dunham the Court of Appeals disagreed. First it reasoned that  inventory searches are an exception to the requirement that police have a warrant to search people’s personal property. Second, the Court described the purpose of an Inventory Search:

“The purpose of an inventory search is not to discover evidence of a crime, but to perform an administrative or caretaking function. The principal purposes of an inventory search are to (1) protect the owner’s property, (2) protect the police against false claims of theft by the owner, and (3) protect the police from potential danger. The scope of an inventory search should be limited to those areas necessary to fulfill its purpose.”

Third, the Court reasoned that Officer Carrel’s safety concern about potentially exposed knives in the locked pocket was reasonable based on the facts that (1) several knives were found on Dunham’s person, (2) additional knives were found in the unlocked portion of Dunham’s backpack, (3) one of the knives found in the backpack was unsheathed, and (4) Sgt. Carrell felt what she believed to be another knife in the locked pocket of the backpack. Therefore, a manifest necessity existed for searching the locked portion of the backpack.

Finally, the Court concluded that the inventory search was valid and affirmed Dunham’s conviction:

“Substantial evidence supports the challenged finding of fact. Given the reasonable indication that the locked portion of the backpack contained dangerous items along with Sgt. Carrell’s reasonable fear of being stabbed, we hold that a manifest necessity existed to search No. 46169-2-II 8 inside the locked portion of the backpack. Therefore the trial court’s findings of fact support its conclusion that the inventory search was valid. We affirm Dunham’s conviction.”

My opinion? Search and seizure issues are a HUGE aspect of unlawful possession cases. The legal issues come down to whether the search was lawful, and if not, whether the evidence can be suppressed. Here, the court’s decision appears sound. Under Washington law, officers may search a suspect’s person if they feel “hard and sharp” objects through the outside of a suspect’s clothing. This is done for officer safety. Similarly, Inventory Searches are conducted under the same policy of preserving officer safety. Here, the hard and sharp objects felt through Dunham’s backpack raised a safety concern. Therefore, the search appears lawful.

For more information on Search and Seizure Issues please review my Legal Guide titled, “Search & Seizure: Basic Issues Regarding Their Search for Weapons, Drugs, Firearms and Other Contraband.” There, I provide links to my analysis of Washington cases discussing searches of persons, vehicles, cars and homes. Also, please go the search engine of my Blog if you have specific queries about these issues.

Finally, I am available for free consultations if you face criminal charges involving search and seizure issues.

Good luck!

State v. Ashley: Prior Bad Acts of DV

In  State v. Ashley, the WA Supreme Court decided a trial court properly admitted evidence of the defendant’s prior acts of domestic violence against the victim. Here, defendant Baron Ashley was charged with Unlawful Imprisonment Domestic Violence (DV) for detaining his girlfriend Makayla Gamble in the bathroom without her consent.

Apparently, Ashley and the victim Makayla Gamble had a long-term DV relationship. Gamble testified that Ashley had physically abused her in the past. She explained that she had been in a relationship with Ashley for several years and that he had abused her multiple times during that relationship. In total, Gamble described four specific instances of abuse, including three instances when Gamble was pregnant. Gamble explained that she suffered bruises, black eyes, and a popped eardrum as a result of these attacks, but that she called the police only once and later retracted her complaint because she loved Ashley. Specifically, Gamble testified that these instances affected her decision to get into the bathroom when instructed.

The jury found Ashley guilty as charged.

On appeal, Ashley argued the trial court wrongfully admitted evidence of his prior misconduct under Evidence Rule (ER) 404(b). The Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction, and the WA Supreme Court granted review. ER 404(b) provides in full:

Evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith. It may, however, be admissible for other purposes, such as proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident. By its plain language, the rule absolutely prohibits certain types of evidence from being used “to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith,” but allows that same evidence to be introduced for any other purpose, depending on its relevance and the balancing of its probative value and danger of unfair prejudice.

The Court  explained that ER 404(b) prohibits certain types of evidence from being
used “to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity
therewith,” but allows that same evidence to be introduced for any other purpose,
depending on its relevance and the balancing of its probative value and danger of
unfair prejudice. The Court also referred to its four-part test to determine if ER 404(b) evidence is admissible:

“To admit evidence of a person’s prior misconduct, the trial court must (1) find by a preponderance of the evidence that the misconduct occurred, (2) identify the purpose for which the evidence is sought to be
introduced, (3) determine whether the evidence is relevant to prove an element of the crime charged, and (4) weigh the probative value against the prejudicial effect.”

Here, Defendant Ashley argued that the State did not establish that the incidents of prior domestic violence even occurred. He also said that this evidence was irrelevant to Gamble’s credibility and to the elements of the crime, and that the prejudice of the prior bad acts dramatically outweighed any probative value of the evidence.

However, the WA Supreme Court rejected Ashley’s arguments.

The Court decided the Prosecution satisfied the first prong of the test: “The trial court heard undisputed testimony describing a series of instances of domestic violence by Ashley against Gamble and reviewed a 2004 police report. The trial court found Gamble’s testimony credible. Ashley presents no legal or factual argument for disturbing this finding; he simply disagrees with it.”

The Court also found the prosecution satisfied the second and third prong of the test:

“The State’s theory was that Ashley intimidated Gamble, forcing her to remain in the bathroom. The trial court found that the State demonstrated that Ashley’s history of domestic abuse against Gamble was highly probative of whether Ashley restrained Gamble using intimidation and fear based on this history of domestic abuse. Essentially, the trial court found-and the Court of Appeals agreed-that the domestic violence evidence was both material and relevant to Gamble’s lack of consent and to whether Ashley restrained Gamble by intimidation. We agree.”

Finally, the Court held the Prosecution satisfied the fourth prong of the test:

“Here, the trial court properly balanced these interests, concluding that Ashley’s long history of domestic violence toward Gamble was highly probative in assessing whether Ashley intimidated Gamble, such that she was restrained without her consent.”

In conclusion, the Court held that the trial court undertook the proper ER 404(b) analysis, the domestic violence evidence presented was highly probative of the victim’s lack of consent, and the State met its burden of demonstrating the evidence’s overriding probative value to establish a necessary element of the crime. However, the Court also held that the trial court committed harmless error by instructing the jurors that they could consider the evidence for the purpose of bolstering Gamble’s credibility. Ashley’s conviction was affirmed.

For more information on Domestic Violence issues please review my Legal Guide titled “Defending Against Domestic Violence Charges.” There, I provide links to my analysis of Washington cases discussing domestic violence. Also, please go the search engine of my Blog if you have specific queries about these issues.

Finally, I am available for free consultations if you face criminal charges involving domestic violence.

Good luck!

Utah v. Strieff: High Court Upholds Unlawful Search

In Utah v. Strieff, the U.S. Supreme Court held in a 5-3 vote that an illegal police stop and resulting drug arrest did not ultimately violate the Fourth Amendment because the officer later discovered the defendant had an outstanding traffic warrant.

The case began when a police officer stopped Edward Strieff on the street and ran his identification. The state of Utah concedes that this was an illegal police stop. However, when the Officer ran Strieff’s identification, it was discovered that Strieff had an outstanding traffic warrant. The officer then arrested him, searched him, and discovered drugs in his pockets. Strieff argued that the drugs should have been inadmissible under the Fourth Amendment because they are the fruits of an illegal search.

In an opinion authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed with Mr. Strieff, ruled for the State, and found there was no flagrant police misconduct:

“The evidence Officer Fackrell seized as part of his search incident to arrest is admissible because his discovery of the arrest warrant attenuated the connection between the unlawful stop and the evidence seized from Strieff incident to arrest.”

Furthermore, the Court also noted that although the Exclusionary Rule prohibits the admissibility of evidence which is illegally seized in violation of people’s Constitutional rights, there are several exceptions to the rule. One exception is the Attenuation Doctrine, which admits typically inadmissible evidence when the connection between unconstitutional police conduct and the evidence is sufficiently remote or has been interrupted by some intervening circumstance.

The Court reasoned that the Attenuation Doctrine therefore applies here, where the intervening circumstance is the discovery of a valid, pre-existing, and untainted arrest warrant: “Assuming, without deciding, that Officer Fackrell lacked reasonable suspicion to stop Strieff initially, the discovery of that arrest warrant attenuated the connection between the unlawful stop and the evidence seized from Strieff incident to his arrest.” Justice Thomas’s majority opinion was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer, and Samuel Alito.

Writing in dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor blasted the majority for excusing police misconduct and undermining the Fourth Amendment:

“The Court today holds that the discovery of a warrant for an unpaid parking ticket will forgive a police officer’s violation of your Fourth Amendment rights. Do not be soothed by the opinion’s technical language: This case allows the police to stop you on the street, demand your identification, and check it for outstanding traffic war rants—even if you are doing nothing wrong. If the officer discovers a warrant for a fine you forgot to pay, courts will now excuse his illegal stop and will admit into evidence anything he happens to find by searching you after arresting you on the warrant. Because the Fourth Amendment should prohibit, not permit, such misconduct, I dissent.”

“This case tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time. It says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights. It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.”

My opinion? I agree with Sotomayor’s dissent. Utah v. Strieff is a terrible blow to every American’s Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unlawful and intrusive government searches. Period.

That aside, will Utah v. Strieff negatively impact the constitutional rights of citizens in Washington State? Probably not. We already have time-tested precedents like State v. Doughty, State v. Afana and State v. Winterstein. All of these WA Supreme Court cases – and more – are recent opinions that are factually similar to Utah v. Streiff. Fortunately, these cases have already ruled against police officers violating people’s Constitutional rights against illegal search and seizure.

As a colleague of mine said, “The rest of the country may be SOL, but Utah v. Strieff should not survive here in WA State.”

Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Apology Letters & Free Speech

In State v . K.H.-H., the WA Supreme Court held that a defendant’s First Amendment free speech rights are not violated by a requirement that the offender write an apology letter to the victim of the crime.

K.H.-H., a 17-year-old male, was charged with assault with sexual motivation after he forced himself on C.R., a female acquaintance who attended the same high school. The juvenile court found K.H.-H. guilty. At the disposition hearing, the Prosecutor requested the court order K.H.-H. to write a letter of apology to the victim. Defense Counsel objected, insisting that K.H.-H. maintained the right to control his speech. The Court followed the Prosecutor’s recommendations and ordered K.H.-H. to write an apology letter. The court also imposed three months of community supervision.

K.H.-H appealed. Eventually, his case ended up in the WA Supreme Court.

In short, the Court upheld the sentencing requirement that K.H.-H write the apology letter.

First, the Court acknowledged that because a forced apology involves making an offender say something he does not wish to say, it implicates the compelled speech doctrine. The compelled speech doctrine generally dictates that the State cannot force individuals to deliver messages that they do not wish to make.

Nevertheless, the Court also stated that First Amendment rights are not absolute, particularly in the context of prison and probation, where constitutional rights are lessened or not applicable. “Similarly, criminal convictions result in loss or lessening of constitutional rights.”

The Court also reasoned that a victim has an interest in receiving a letter of apology. This not only aims to rehabilitate the juvenile offender but also acknowledges the victim’s interest in receiving the apology:

“A letter of apology demonstrates a recognition and acceptance of responsibility for harmful actions. Such a condition is reasonably necessary for K.H.-H. to recognize what he did was wrong and to acknowledge his behavior. Additionally, an apology letter recognizes the victim’s interest in receiving an apology from the perpetrator. An apology allows the victim to hear an acceptance of responsibility from the very person who inflicted the harm. This is particularly important where both the victim and perpetrator are juveniles, and demonstrates to both the significance of giving and receiving an apology for wrongful acts.

This further advances the rehabilitative goals of the statute. The outward manifestation of accepting and apologizing for the consequences of one’s actions is a rehabilitative step that attempts to improve K.H.-H.’s character and outlook. Such a condition is reasonably related to the purpose of K.H.-H. ‘s rehabilitation and the crime here. One must face the consequences of a conviction, which often include the loss or lessening of constitutional rights.”

Justice McCloud dissented. Among other things, his dissent says the following:

“Compelling a false apology for a crime the defendant denies committing is far from the least restrictive means of achieving rehabilitation. In fact, it is probably the most ineffective way to achieve that result.”

An interesting case, no doubt.

My opinion?

I strive for reductions and dismissals in all of my cases. Sometimes that means taking accountability for what happened. Consequently, that also means apologizing. An apology letter to the judge is a great place to start. They are a great way to demonstrate responsibility and remorse for your actions. While an apology letter to the judge/magistrate is often an excellent way to show your remorse after you have committed an offence, it’s success will largely depend on how serious the crime was. Among other things, judges consider your likelihood at re-offending. A sincere apology letter may show you have learnt your lesson and may go some way to proving this. Writing a letter to the victim can be one way of repairing the harm caused. Remember, judges have a fair amount of discretion when sentencing. They can consider the fact that you have taken responsibility for your actions as well as paid for any loss or damage caused. Finally, many victims will be happy to receive a sign of your recognition of the harm that you have caused them, especially if your crime wasn’t intentional or didn’t cause a great deal of harm.

If you have any concerns or questions about your criminal case, speak to an experienced criminal lawyer to ensure you have the information to let you make the best possible decisions. Good luck!

Threatening Note = Robbery

 

In  State v. Farnsworth, the WA Supreme Court decided a defendant’s handwritten note demanding money from a bank teller contained threats sufficient enough to support a conviction for robbery.

On October 15,2009, defendants Charles Farnsworth and James McFarland were suffering heroin withdrawals and had no money to purchase more. The pair made a plan to “rob” a bank. The plan was for McFarland to wait outside in the car while Farnsworth entered a bank wearing a wig and sunglasses as a disguise, and retrieve money. Farnsworth would present a note to the teller, which read, “No die packs, no tracking devices, put the money in the bag.”

They executed the plan. The bank teller handed Farnsworth about $300 in small bills, and McFarland left. Farnsworth and McFarland drove away, but they were pulled over and arrested a few blocks from the bank. Both were charged with Robbery in the First Degree pursuant to RCW 9A.56.200(1 )(b) (robbery committed in a financial institution).

Both defendants had long criminal histories. Farnsworth faced the possibility of a life sentence under the Persistent Offender Accountability Act (POAA) of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1981 if convicted of this robbery, as he was previously convicted of a 2004 Robbery and a 1984 Vehicular Homicide in California. The POAA requires a life sentence when a repeat offender commits a third felony that is classified as a “most serious offense” (often referred to as a “third strike”).

Farnsworth went to trial and was found guilty. The trial court sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of release. Farnsworth appealed, arguing that the evidence was insufficient to support robbery because (1) there was no threat of force and (2) he agreed to aid only a theft, not a robbery. The case ended up the WA Supreme Court.

The court upheld Farnsworth’s conviction.  It reasoned that sufficient evidence supports an implied threat of force:

“Although the note did not convey an explicitly threatening message, we believe it was laden with inherent intimidation. When a person demands money at a bank, with no explanation or indication of lawful entitlement to money, it can imply a threat of force because without such a threat, the teller would have no incentive to comply. An ordinary bank teller could reasonably infer an implied threat of harm under these circumstances.”

Because of this implicit threat, reasoned the Court, banks have security guards and distinctive policies in place to prevent harm flowing from precisely these types of encounters.

The Court also reasoned that the defendants were well aware that banks generally instructed their employees to react to such notes as if they contained an explicit threat. “In fact, the pair relied on that knowledge and fear to commit this crime,” said  the Court.

Finally, the Court reasoned that no errors deprived Farnsworth of a fair trial. With that, the Court affirmed Farnsworth’s conviction for first degree robbery.

My opinion? It’s generally difficult to see how threatening notes create a basis to support a prosecution and conviction for Robbery, which can be a Class or a Class B violent felony “strike” offense. Still, a threatening note passed to a bank teller in a financial institution must be taken seriously. This is, in fact, how most bank robberies happen.

Note to self: DON’T PASS THREATENING NOTES.