Monthly Archives: May 2017

“Rough Estimates” Can’t Support a Conviction for Property Crimes.

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In State v. Williams, the WA Court of Appeals decided that a victim’s “rough estimate” regarding the value of stolen property of “roughly $800” will not support a conviction for possession of property in the second degree. While the owner of a chattel may testify to its market value without being qualified as an expert on valuation, the owner must testify to an adequate basis of his opinion of value to support a conviction.

FACTS & BACKGROUND

In May 2014, the Spokane Police Department received calls complaining of a man stalking through backyards in a west Spokane neighborhood. On May 6, 2014, one caller, Brad Dawson, observed the man carrying two sports duffel bags and possibly a screwdriver. Also on May 6, 2014, someone burglarized the home of David and Joan Nelson.

Joan Nelson’s brother, John Johnston, drove through the neighborhood in an attempt to apprehend the burglar. After inspecting five homes, Johnston espied a kneeling gentleman, with two duffels bags astride, employing a screwdriver to pry open a lock on a storage facility. The man fled when Johnston yelled.

Johnston called 911 and tracked the fleer as the fleer scattered from yard to yard and hid in changing locations. Johnston kept contact on his cellphone with Spokane police. Spokane police officers arrived and apprehended the burglar, Leibert Williams. Law enforcement officers found a duffel bag, a Bluetooth speaker, a laptop, running shoes, a jacket, and two rings belonging to Adam Macomber in the possession of Williams. Days earlier, Macomber had discovered the property missing from his apartment.

The State of Washington charged Leibert Williams with five crimes: (1) residential burglary, (2) second degree burglary, (3) attempted second degree burglary, (4) attempted theft of a motor vehicle, and (5) possession of stolen property in the second degree. The State added the final charge near the date of trial.

During trial, Macomber identified those items missing from his apartment. However, he only gave “rough estimates” of $800 for the value of his items.

The State presented no other testimony of the value of stolen goods. And the trial court denied a request by Leibert Williams for a lesser included offense instruction with regard to second degree possession of stolen property.

The jury found Williams guilty of first degree criminal trespass, attempted second degree burglary, vehicle prowling, and second degree possession of stolen property. The jury acquitted Williams of residential burglary.

Williams’ appeal concerns the possession of stolen property conviction.

ANALYSIS & CONCLUSION

The Court reasoned that Macomber’s testimony failed to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the value of his stolen property exceeded $750 when Macomber said, “I could give a rough estimate . . .  I would say roughly $800.”

It further reasoned that “value” for the purposes of theft means the market value of the property at the time and in the approximate area of the theft. “Market value” is the price which a well-informed buyer would pay to a well-informed seller, when neither is obliged to enter into the transaction. In a prosecution, value need not be proved by direct evidence. Rather, the jury may draw reasonable inferences from the evidence, including changes in the condition of the property that affect its value.

Here, Adam Macomber testified to a “rough estimate” value of the stolen goods to be $800, a figure close to the minimum amount required to convict of $750. He listed the property taken from him, but did not describe the condition of the property when stolen. He also failed to disclose the purchase date or the purchase price of each item.

“Macomber did not testify to the basis of his opinion of value. For all we know, he used the purchase price of the goods, the replacement cost of the goods, or some intrinsic value to himself.”

With that, the Court decided that the proper remedy for the insufficiency of evidence was to dismiss the charge for possession of stolen property in the second degree. This somewhat extreme measure was partially based on the trial court’s refused to instruct the jury on the lesser included offense of third degree possession: “This court lacks authority to direct the entry of judgment of the lesser included offense if the jury was not instructed on that offense.”

My opinion? Good decision. My heart goes out to the victim, however, courts need more than mere “rough estimates” when it comes to assigning a value to property. Indeed, property crimes are assigned a seriousness level – from simple misdemeanors through Class A felonies – by identifying the value of the property which was stolen or destroyed. These are not small matters. There’s a big difference between felonies and misdemeanors. Therefore, it’s extremely important to be specific and correct on these matters.

 

the “Do’s & Dont’s” of Washington’s Distracted Driving Law

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Great article by reporter Mike Lindblom of the Seattle Times discusses Washington’s Driving Under the Influence of Electronics (DUIE) Act set to be enforced in July.  The law forbids virtually all use of handheld gadgets such as phones, tablets, laptop computers and gaming devices while driving.

According to Lindblom, nearly one-tenth of motorists are holding a device at any given moment, state observation teams have found. That far outnumbers traffic police on the road and raises questions about the law’s chances of success. On the other hand, the state has a history of reducing drunken driving and posting a 95 percent compliance with seat-belt requirements. Linblom gave helpful insights to the law:

Q. When does the law take effect?

A. Approximately July 23, which is 90 days after the Legislature’s regular session adjourned, the governor’s staff say.

“Public safety is better served by implementing this bill this year,” Inslee wrote in his partial-veto message. Bill sponsor Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, had initially proposed a Jan. 1, 2018, start, and then agreed to a year delay, in negotiations with the House, to give police and drivers more time to prepare.

Q. What will be banned?

A. Texting is already illegal, as is holding a cellphone at the ear. Drivers constantly flout those rules, or evade them by holding a phone between the legs, or just below the chin.

The new bill forbids handheld uses, including composing or reading any kind of message, picture or data. Photography while driving is illegal. Drivers also cannot use handheld devices while at a stop sign or red-light signal.

Q. What is still legal?

A. Drivers may still use a smartphone mounted in a dashboard cradle, for instance to use a navigation app, but not to watch video. The new law permits “minimal use of a finger” to activate an app or device.

Built-in electronic systems, such as hands-free calling and maps, remain legal. Calls to 911 or other emergency services are legal, as are urgent calls between transit employees and dispatchers. Amateur radio equipment and citizens-band radio, remain legal. Handheld devices may be used if the driver has pulled off the roadway or traffic lanes, where the vehicle “can safely remain stationary.”

Q. What are the penalties?

A. The standard traffic fine of $136 would nearly double to $235 on the second distracted-driving citation.

Q. Is DUIE a primary offense?

A. Yes. A police officer can pull someone over just for using a handheld device.

Q. Will a ticket raise my insurance rates?

A. Probably. Distracted-driving citations will be reported on a motorist’s record for use by the insurance industry, which testified in favor of the law. There was considerable debate about that, as some lawmakers sought to keep DUIE offenses off the record, the way texting violations are currently. But the safety hawks managed to make them reportable — a penalty that House sponsor Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, gained in exchange for allowing that now-vetoed 1½ year implementation time.

The cost of a citation on personal insurance bills will depend on what the data show, about a correlation between someone’s violations and crash history, said Nicole Ganley, public-affairs director for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of AmericaArkansas, North Dakota, and Colorado lawmakers passed stronger distraction bills this year, she said, but insurers especially like the Washington law’s broader sweep.

“It’s modernizing the driving code, so that all the behaviors are included,” she said. “This new law will serve as a deterrent and draws a line in the sand that this behavior is not safe for anyone.”

Q. What about other kinds of distraction?

A. Miscellaneous distractions such as grooming or eating will be a secondary offense, meaning a ticket may be issued if a law-enforcement officer pulls you over for some other offense, such as speeding or a dangerous lane change. The penalty will be an extra $30.

Q. Who will enforce this?

A. Lack of staffing is a potential weakness. Earlier this year, there were as few as a half-dozen State Patrol troopers some shifts in the whole Bellevue detachment, patrolling Interstate 405 and Interstate 90. Those teams should grow somewhat. The Legislature voted to raise trooper pay 16 percent this year, based on a governor’s agreement with the troopers’ labor union, in hopes of winning recruits and stopping attrition.

A new class of 49 people just graduated from the academy May 1, of which 16 will work in King County, said Trooper Rick Johnson, a spokesman in Bellevue. Another class is due in September. “We’re moving in the right direction, definitely,” he said.

In early April, the state’s law-enforcement agencies spent $400,000 in federal grants to add 6,000 patrol hours aimed at driver distraction. The same program in April 2016 produced 5,412 citations statewide, double the usual monthly pace, according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. Statistics show 171 of 568 road deaths in the state in 2015 were blamed on some form of driver distraction, not necessarily electronics.

Officials haven’t issued plans for any extra patrols, to break in the new law this summer. To date, only $19,000 has been budgeted to support the distraction law. Lawmakers weren’t intending to fund a big education blitz until next year.

So the safety commission will do what it can, to possibly include informational cards for police to hand drivers, before the tougher law begins July 23, according to spokeswoman Erica Stineman.

Gina Bagnariol-Benavides, who also testified for tougher laws, said the governor’s sudden change was “a pretty exciting thing.”

“Common sense tells you (that) you shouldn’t use your phone behind the wheel of a car,” Bagnariol-Benavides said. “I don’t think there’s a huge amount of education that should have to go along with that.”

Seattle Allows Filming Cops

 

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Great article in the Seattle Times by Daniel Beekman discusses how Seattle’s City Council voted Monday to enshrine in the Seattle Municipal Code the rights of the public to observe, record and criticize police activity without fear of retaliation.

 The only exceptions are when an observer hinders, delays or compromises legitimate police activity, threatens someone’s safety or attempts to incite other people to violence, according to the ordinance sponsored by Councilmember Lisa Herbold.

The First Amendment can offer protections to members of the public when they watch and record police. And a Seattle Police Department policy adopted in 2008 says bystanders may remain nearby and record the incident as long as they don’t interfere.

So, people already were allowed to watch and record police in Seattle. But the council’s vote means the rights of police observers are now recognized in city law.

According to Beekman, the ordinance says officers should assume members of the public are observing and possibly recording their work at all times. Councilmember Herbold initially proposed the change last year, pointing to high-profile shootings that was recorded by bystanders.

 “The value of video and audio recordings by the public is keenly evident from the recordings in 2016 of the deaths of Philando Castile in Minnesota, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge … and law-enforcement officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge,” the ordinance says.

Across the country, smartphones are helping regular people hold their police departments accountable. But people watching, recording and criticizing officers have in some instances been arrested, according to a council memo.

Though Seattle police are recorded by patrol-car cameras and are being outfitted with body-worn cameras, civilian recordings are still important, Herbold said Monday.

My opinion? Wonderful! I’ve had many Clients complain that their attempts to record interactions with police result in their cameras being confiscated and being slapped with charges of Obstructing and Resisting police.

I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: recording interactions between police and citizens makes everyone behave better and shows proof of what really happened. Kudos to the Seattle City Council.

Opening the Door

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In State v. Wafford, the WA Court of Appeals that a defendant’s counsel “opened the door” to suppressed evidence during opening statement, and that the proper remedy was to admit evidence that the court had previously ruled inadmissible.

FACTS & BACKGROUND

The incidents began years before. In 2005, T.H.’s mother heard that eight-year-old T.H. had told a friend that something inappropriate happened with Mr. Wafford. After reporting to police, T.H.’s mother took T.H. to be interviewed at Dawson Place, the Snohomish County Center for Child Advocacy. There, a child forensic interview specialist talked with T.H., and their conversation was video-recorded. T.H. did not make a specific disclosure of sexual abuse by Wafford, though she did appear to nod affirmatively in response to one question about inappropriate sexual contact. The State did not investigate further or charge Wafford.

However, Mr. Wafford continued to sexually abuse H.F. as well as her sister T.H. Eventually, the State charged Wafford with crimes against both T.H. and H.F.  As to T.H., Wafford was charged with first degree rape of a child, first degree child molestation, and first degree incest. As to H.F., Wafford was charged with first degree rape of a child, first degree child molestation, and third degree child molestation.

PRE-TRIAL SUPPRESSION OF VIDEO INTERVIEW

Before trial, the court conducted a child hearsay hearing at which it concluded that the 2005 recorded interview of T.H. was inadmissible. The court reasoned that because T.H. never actually described an act of sexual contact, her statements were not admissible under the child hearsay statute.

TRIAL

During defense counsel’s opening statement, she referred explicitly to the video of T.H.’s interview: “Mariyah brought both H.F. and T.H. to Dawson Place in 2005. Nova Robinson interviewed on video T.H., but T.H. denied that anything was happening to her.” The State did not object.

After opening remarks, the State requested that the court admit the interview video that had been previously excluded. The State argued that when defense counsel mentioned the video, she opened the door to its admission. The court found that defense counsel opened the door and admitted a portion of the video. Ultimately, the jury found Wafford guilty of first degree child molestation of T.H., but was unable to reach a verdict on the remaining counts. The court sentenced Wafford to 68 months in prison.

Wafford appealed on the argument that, as a matter of law, comments made by counsel during opening statements cannot open the door to otherwise inadmissible evidence.

ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSION

The Court reasoned that (1) a party who introduces evidence of questionable admissibility may open the door to rebuttal with evidence that would otherwise be inadmissible, and (2) a party who is the first to raise a particular subject at trial may open the door to evidence offered to explain, clarify, or contradict the party’s evidence. State v. Jones, citing 5 KARL B. TEGLAND, WASHINGTON PRACTICE: EVIDENCE LAW AND PRACTICE § 103.14, at 66-67 (5th ed.2007).

With that background, the Court addressed Wafford’s argument that because a comment made during an opening statement  is not evidence, it cannot open the door pursuant to State v. Whelchel and  Corson v. Corson.

However, the Court distinguished these cases. First, it reasoned that Whelchel does not support the broad proposition that opening statements cannot open the door because the evidence in question in Whelchel was admissible when the parties made opening statements. Second, the Corson case was distinguishable because in that case the trial court wrongfully admitted irrelevant and prejudicial evidence in response to an improper opening statement when other more effective means of ensuring a fair proceeding are available. Consequently, the Corson case did not hold that opening statements can never open the door to otherwise inadmissible evidence.

Next, the Court rejected Wafford’s argument that comments made during opening statements cannot open the door. First, such a rule would be contrary to the general rule permitting trial courts the discretion to determine the admissibility of evidence. Second, whether the issue arises from the statement of counsel or the testimony of a witness is immaterial to the question faced by the trial judge: to what extent, if any, has the statement compromised the fairness of the trial and what, if any, response is appropriate:

“In answering this question, the trial judge should have a range of options at his or her disposal. A judge may admonish the jury to disregard certain statements or reiterate its instruction that opening statements are not evidence. The judge may allow testimony about otherwise inadmissible evidence, while continuing to exclude the exhibit or document which contains the evidence. Or the judge may find that a party has opened the door to otherwise inadmissible evidence. The appropriate response is that, which in the discretion of the trial judge, best restores fairness to the proceeding.”

Finally, the Court rejected Wafford’s argument that the trial court mistakenly admitted the recording because it was inadmissible hearsay and therefore incompetent evidence.  Under ER 801(d)(1)(ii), a statement is not hearsay if “the declarant testifies at the trial or hearing and is subject to cross examination concerning the statement, and the statement is… consistent with the declarant’s testimony and is offered to rebut an express or implied charge against the declarant of recent fabrication or improper influence or motive. . . .” Here, however, the victim testified. The court concluded her affirmation of Wafford’s unlawful sexual conduct was consistent with her testimony and is thus not hearsay under ER 801(d)(1).

With that, the Court upheld Wafford’s conviction and sentencing.

My opinion?

It is well settled in Washington that a party that introduces evidence of questionable admissibility runs the risk of “opening the door” to the admission of otherwise inadmissible evidence by an opposing party.

For this reason, it is mandatory that attorneys exercise extreme discretion with their comments and questions during trial. Defense attorneys must avoid discussing evidence they work so hard to suppress. Not only can one “open the door” during direct and cross examination of witnesses, but also opening statements.

State v. Armstrong: Prosecutor Not Obligated to Bring Video Evidence

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Some Clients are concerned why can’t make the Prosecution obtain video surveillance evidence from crime scenes. This recent case explains why.

In State v. Armstrong, the WA Supreme Court held that the Prosecutor’s failure to obtain a copy of the AM/PM store’s surveillance video prior to the store’s destruction of the video pursuant to the store’s policy, did not violate the defendant’s due process rights.

FACTS & BACKGROUND

A no-contact order existed prohibiting Defendant Dennis Armstrong from contacting his former partner, Nadia Karavan. Nonetheless, on April 20, 2014, they agreed to meet at a bus stop in violation of the No-Contact Order. As the two talked, Armstrong became angry. He yelled and hit the wall of the bus stop shelter. Armstrong then hit Karavan twice in the face with an open fist.

After a brief struggle, Karavan ran to a nearby AM/PM gas station, and Armstrong followed her. According to the store clerk, Todd Hawkins, the two exchanged words. Armstrong followed Karavan around the store for several minutes, and Karavan asked Hawkins to call the police several times. When Hawkins finally called the police, Armstrong left the store.

Officers responded to the 911 call. Officer Martin noticed that Karavan had a slightly swollen, red abrasion on the side of her face.

Armstrong denied spending time inside the AM/PM. In response, the officers told Armstrong that surveillance video from the AM/PM would show what really happened. The officers repeatedly emphasized the video and told Armstrong that he should “tell the truth” because they had the “whole thing on video.”

The State charged Armstrong with a domestic violence felony violation of a court order.

Before trial and again during trial, Armstrong moved to discharge his counsel. One of his reasons was that counsel failed to give him the surveillance video as he requested. The prosecutor told the court that the State had never possessed the video. The court denied Armstrong’s motions.

At trial, Hawkins (the AM/PM employee) testified that there were about 16 cameras around the store: a few of which covered the gas pumps and one that may have shown a slight, low view shot of the bus stop. Although Hawkins testified that police had requested surveillance video from AM/PM in the past, no officer requested footage from the night of this incident. Hawkins had previously reviewed the video from that night and testified that it showed what he described in his testimony, but per AM/PM policy, the video had since been destroyed.

At trial, the officers gave various reasons why they never collected the video. Officer Martin testified that she heard Officer Elliot ask about the video, but she assumed it was the responsibility of someone else at the scene to investigate the video. Officer Rodriguez testified that he never viewed the video. He simply followed Officer Elliot’s lead when the two were questioning Armstrong. Officer Elliot was unavailable to testify at trial. Detective Rande Christiansen, who had been assigned to do the follow-up investigation on the case, testified that he did not investigate any video from the AM/PM because he did not know such video existed.

The jury returned a general guilty verdict despite the lack of surveillance video evidence.

On appeal – and with other arguments, Armstrong claimed that the police violated his right to due process because they failed to collect video surveillance from the AM/PM after using that video as a tool when interviewing Armstrong at the scene.

ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS.

Ultimately, the Court held that Armstrong failed to show that the police acted in bad faith when they did not collect video surveillance that was only potentially useful evidence.

The Court reasoned that under the Fourteenth Amendment to the federal constitution, criminal prosecutions must conform with prevailing notions of fundamental fairness, and criminal defendants must have a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense. Consequently, the prosecution has a duty to disclose material exculpatory evidence to the defense and a related duty to preserve such evidence for use by the defense.

The court also reasoned that although the State is required to preserve all potentially material and favorable evidence, this rule does not require police to search for exculpatory evidence. And in order to be material exculpatory evidence – that is, evidence which has value to the defense of which can alter or shift a fact-finder’s decision on guilt or innocence – the evidence must both possess an exculpatory value that was apparent before it was destroyed and be of such a nature that the defendant would be unable to obtain comparable evidence by other reasonably available means.

Finally, the court reasoned that the police’s failure to preserve “potentially useful evidence” was not a denial of due process unless the suspect can show bad faith by the State. The presence or absence of bad faith turns on the police’s knowledge of the exculpatory value of the evidence at the time it was lost or destroyed. Also, acting in compliance with its established policy regarding the evidence at issue is determinative of the State’s good faith.

“Armstrong asserts that the video surveillance was potentially useful evidence,” said the Court. “Therefore, he must show that the police acted in bad faith.” According to Armstrong, the police acted in bad faith because they told him during the interview that they were going to collect the video but they never actually collected it. Armstrong describes this as the police acting with an “extreme cavalier attitude” toward preserving potentially useful evidence. The Court further reasoned that beyond this failure to collect the video, Armstrong offers no evidence of bad faith, such as improper motive.

“Armstrong has failed to show that the police acted in bad faith when they failed to collect the surveillance video from the AM/PM. The testimony of the officers indicates that the video went uncollected due to mere oversight. Armstrong has presented no evidence that the police had an improper motive. At most, Armstrong has shown that the investigation was incomplete or perhaps negligently conducted, but that is not enough to show bad faith.”

With that, the Court upheld his conviction.

My opinion? I understand the Court’s opinion insofar as the Prosecution should not be burdened with providing exculpatory evidence, especially if that evidence is unimportant – or not material – to the larger issues of guilt.

However, I would object to the AM/PM employee  discussing the  video as facts that are not admitted into evidence. Under this objection when the attorney claims that “the question assumes facts not in evidence,” what he is really saying is that the facts that are being presented to the witness are presumably not yet in evidence and therefore, how can this witness properly answer the question if those facts have not been put before this jury? These kinds of questions

Immigration Arrests Up 38 Percent Under Trump

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 of The Washington Times reports that under the Trump administration, arrests of criminal aliens has increased by 38 percent.
Unshackled from the restrictions under the Obama administration, immigration agents and officers are making far more arrests — but are still keeping their chief focus on criminals, authorities said as the released number detailing the first 100 days under President Trump.
Arrests of criminal aliens is up nearly 20 percent, reaching nearly 30,500, while arrests of those without criminal convictions is up 60 percent, reaching about 10,800. Combined, they show a rise of 38 percent in total arrests by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency responsible for policing the interior of the country.
Dinan reports that perhaps most striking is surge in at-large arrests made out in the community. Those have risen by 50 percent compared to a year earlier, according to ICE.
While criminals are still the chief targets, ICE said it has reversed the Obama administration’s policy of carving out entire classes of illegal immigrants from any danger of deportation. That’s expanded the potential targets from just a couple million to potentially almost all of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants now in the U.S.
“These statistics reflect President Trump’s commitment to enforce our immigration laws fairly and across the board,” said Thomas Homan, acting director of ICE.

Life Sentences Increase

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Article by Samantha Michaels of Mother Jones discusses how one out of every nine prisoners in the United States is currently serving a life sentence—a record high—even as the overall prison population has fallen.

That’s according to a depressing new report by the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group that’s been tracking life sentences since 2004. Almost 162,000 people are now serving life behind bars, up from 132,000 about a decade ago and 34,000 in 1984.

To put that in perspective, for every 100,000 people in America, 50 have been locked up for life. That’s roughly the total incarceration rate—including inmates whose sentences are just a few months—in Scandinavian countries like Denmark, Sweden, and Finland.  And it doesn’t even account for the tens of thousands of Americans handed sentences of 50 years or more, which are considered “de facto life sentences,” says Ashley Nellis, a senior research analyst at the Sentencing Project who co-authored the report.

What’s driving the uptick? It’s not a rise in violent crime or murder—both have dropped substantially since the mid-1990s. Nor is it an increase in the number of criminals behind bars: A majority of states saw declining overall prison populations from 2010 to 2015.

According to Michaels, the continuing rise in lifers is a legacy of three-strikes laws and mandatory minimum sentencing.

“It may also be related to the shift away from capital punishment,” she says. She further elaborates that in some states that no longer allow executions, elected officials like governors and prosecutors have championed life-without-parole sentences—which account for the biggest increase in life sentences nationally—as a way to appear tougher on crime.

“Going forward, we will have a system that allows us to put these people away for life, in living conditions none of us would want to experience,” Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, said in 2012 when his state abolished the death penalty. But these lengthy punishments probably aren’t keeping the public safer. “The impulse to engage in crime, including violent crime, is highly correlated with age,” the Sentencing Project notes. “Most criminal offending declines substantially beginning in the mid-20s and has tapered off substantially by one’s late 30s.”

The biggest losers of all this? Minorities. Of all the lifers and de facto lifers in the country, almost half are African American. What’s more, 12,000 of the total are locked up for crimes they committed as kids, though some are eligible for release thanks to recent court decisions.

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that life-without-parole sentences are unconstitutional for juveniles who didn’t commit homicide. In 2012, the justices went further, saying that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for kids, including those who committed homicide, are also unconstitutional. Nineteen states and DC now ban any kind of life-without-parole sentence for juveniles.)

Finally, according to Michaels, it’s important to remember that many of the prisoners serving these long sentences never actually hurt anyone: Two-thirds of lifers or de facto lifers in the federal system committed nonviolent crimes—and one-third of them are serving time for drug crimes.

With Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the helm of the Justice Department alongside his team of tough-on-crime advisers, there’s a good chance that won’t be changing anytime soon.

My opinion? I couldn’t agree more.

Sessions Seeks Harsher Prosecutions & Stricter Sentences

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Today, CNN Reporter Laura Jarrett broke the story that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has a new directive for federal prosecutors across the country: charge suspects with the most serious offense you can prove.

Friday’s announcement follows a line of several other significant departures from Obama-era domestic policies at the Justice Department, but this decision crystalized Sessions’ position in the criminal justice realm.
In a brief one-and-a-half-page memo, Sessions outlined his new instructions for charging decisions in federal cases, saying that his new first principle is “that prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense.”
“The most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences,” Sessions later adds.
While the federal sentencing guidelines are advisory — and take into account everything from a defendant’s criminal history to cooperation with authorities — some judges have felt handcuffed by mandatory minimums, which provide a statutory sentencing minimum of months below which the judge cannot depart.
The move was harshly criticized by the New York University School of Law Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute focused on democracy and justice.
“The Trump administration is returning to archaic and deeply-flawed policies,” Inimai Chettiar, the center’s justice program director, said Friday. “Sessions is leaving little to no room for prosecutors to use their judgment and determine what criminal charges best fit the crime.”
“That approach is what led to this mess of mass incarceration,” she added. “It exploded the prison population, didn’t help public safety, and cost taxpayers billions in enforcement and incarceration costs.”
Sessions also formally withdrew a signature part of Attorney General Eric Holder’s “Smart on Crime” initiative, which sought to target the most serious crimes and reduce the number of defendants charged with non-violent drug offenses that would otherwise trigger mandatory minimum sentences.
“We must ensure that our most severe mandatory minimum penalties are reserved for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers,” Holder wrote in a 2013 memo. “In some cases, mandatory minimum and recidivist enhancements statutes have resulted in unduly harsh sentences and perceived or actual disparities that do not reflect our Principles of Federal Prosecution.”
As a result, during the Obama era, federal prosecutors were instructed not to charge someone for a drug crime that would trigger a mandatory minimum sentence if certain specific factors were met: (a) the relevant conduct didn’t involve death, violence, a threat of violence or possession of a weapon; (b) the defendant wasn’t an organizer, leader or manager of others within a criminal organization; (c) there were no ties to large-scale drug trafficking operations; and (d) the defendant didn’t have a “significant” criminal history (i.e., prior convictions).
All of those charging factors are now gone under Sessions’ reign and not surprising, as he has previously telegraphed his desire to prosecute more federal cases generally.
My opinion? We’re bringing back the War on Drugs. As it stands, the federal government typically prosecutes only the most serious offenses, and does so with what can seem to be a crushing investigation and avalanche of evidence. Their resources are vast. Mounting a defense can feel daunting.
Here, the effects of Session’s decision will most immediately be felt in the context of drug crimes. Federal mandatory minimums can be harsh because the sentences are dictated based on drug type and quantity.
Said differently, Sessions decision could bring back the War on Drugs. His actions are already embracing it’s worst features: confidential informants, harsh plea bargains and long sentences.

Proposed Law Evicts Suspected Meth Users From Hotels

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Interesting article by Marilyn Napier of the Skagit Valley Herald reported that a new state law proposed by the Skagit County Prosecuting Attorney will allow local governments to evict residents from certain buildings contaminated by methamphetamine, even without evidence of manufacturing. The new law takes effect on July 23, 2017.

State House Bill 1757 was created by the problems that arose at Burlington’s Sterling Motor Inn. Apparently, the hotel was found to have widespread high levels of methamphetamine contamination. As a result, the City of Burlington wanted residents of the motel to evacuate because the level of contamination was considered unsafe. Although the residents, some of whom had lived at the motel for years, left voluntarily, the city and Skagit County did not have the legal authority to evict them.

Because of the Clandestine Drug Lab law, the Skagit County Public Health Department was unable to evict the residents because the law required that there be evidence of drug manufacturing.

THE PROPONENTS.

Skagit County Prosecuting Attorney Rich Weyrich and the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys wrote the bill, which was sponsored by Rep. Dave Hayes, R-Camano Island, and was passed by both the state House and state Senate in mid-April.

“This takes away the idea that you have to have evidence of manufacturing meth. Now you just have to show that there is meth residue present,” Weyrich said. Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bill April 25.

Burlington Mayor Steve Sexton said he doesn’t think the Sterling Motor Inn incident is going to be the last time the city deals with a contaminated property.

“I think that (the law) is what it takes for Skagit County to do the job they should do in situations like that,” he said. “This is what the county said they needed.”

A BLIGHT IN THE COMMUNITY.

Apparently, the state health department reported that about 60 percent of the rooms did not have fire safety measures, such as working smoke detectors. Violations also included rodent infestation in the laundry room, storage shed and the electrical panel room.

Beyond the failed health inspection, the motel had been the center of about 200 calls to police in 2015, a number that had continued to increase since 2009. According to police, officers had been called for weapon offenses, domestic violence, drug deals, prostitution, burglary and assault. Harrison added the law is good news for the public.

My opinion? This law is questionably unconstitutional. Although governments can pass laws for public safety reasons, they cannot make laws which violate people’s constitutional rights. Here, an “automatic eviction” lacking due process – or based on evidence which was obtained through unlawful search and seizure – might end up patently violating people’s individual rights. We’ll see what happens.

For more information on Search and Seizure, please refer to my Legal Guide titled, Search & Seizure: Basic Issues Regarding Their Search for Weapons, Drugs, Firearms and Other Contraband.

“Incentivized” Informants

Image result for incentivized informants

Very interesting op-ed piece from Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project discusses how Senate Bill 5038 rightfully confronts and addresses the issue of false testimony by “incentivized” confidential informants in criminal cases.

State Senate Bill 5038 adds to key advances that Washington has already made over the years to improve the administration of justice. “Incentivized” informants are people who are often used by the government in criminal prosecutions to provide information or evidence against defendants in exchange for an explicit promise or expectation of a personal benefit.

“Benefits include anything from reduced or eliminated jail time to improved living conditions behind bars to monetary rewards,” says Scheck. “Recognizing both the value of this testimony to the state and the risk that a witness will be tempted to give false testimony in order to benefit personally, this bill outlines specific information that must be learned and turned over to the defense in the discovery process before trial.” This, says Scheck, will ensure that all parties have an opportunity to properly scrutinize the informant.

“The reality is, some informants lie,” said Scheck. “When they do, they undermine the integrity and the truth-seeking function of our justice system.” In support of his argument, Scheck cited these facts:

• False testimony by incentivized witnesses is a leading cause of wrongful conviction in capital cases nationally, a contributing factor in nearly half of such exonerations.

Of 349 DNA-based exonerations, 17 percent involved an incentivized witness.

• In Tulia, Texas, 46 innocent people were convicted of drug charges based on the testimony of a single, lying informant.

• Ten Washington state wrongful conviction cases listed on the National Registry of Exonerations involved the use of incentivized testimony.

Scheck believes these numbers demonstrate that this is a national problem, requiring all states to look closely at the safeguards needed to regulate this system. SB 5038 addresses an information gap in the system that will improve accuracy and protect constitutional rights. Prosecutors have a responsibility to know and disclose this information.

In this year alone, in addition to Washington, four states are considering proposals to strengthen or establish new frameworks for assessing informant testimony. Notably, while some proposals go further than others, all of these proposed reforms impose new disclosure requirements around incentivized informants.”

My opinion? For far too long, the world of incentivized informants has been an evidentiary black hole. The testimony of jailhouse snitches, confidential informants and co-defendants should immediately be treated as suspect. Every year that passes without these reforms puts more innocent people at risk and strikes at the heart of the credibility of our justice system. A healthy justice system demands that we ensure that the strongest protections are in place for the innocent.



Alexander F. Ransom

Attorney at Law
Criminal Defense Lawyer

119 North Commercial St.
Suite #1420
Bellingham, WA 98225

Phone: (360) 746-2642
Fax: (360) 746-2949

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