Monthly Archives: November 2018

Courtroom Disruptions

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In State v. Davis, the WA Court of Appeals held that a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to question witnesses at trial was violated when the defendant was removed for being disruptive.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

On January 23, 2014, a King County Sheriff’s deputy arrested Davis for possession of a stolen Hyundai vehicle.

Two and a half weeks later, on February 11,2014, a Federal Way Police Department officer observed a Buick parked near a park-and-ride and saw Davis standing outside the car, making furtive movements. As Davis got into the car to drive away, the officer recorded the license plate. The owner had reported the vehicle as stolen. the officer then initiated a traffic stop and arrested Davis for possession of a stolen vehicle — the Buick. A search of Davis recovered crack cocaine in his shirt pocket.

On May 19, 2014, the State charged Davis with two counts of possession of a stolen vehicle, and one count of possession of a controlled substance.

Davis motioned for standby counsel – an attorney who is appointed to assist a client who has invoked his/her right to self-representation – at numerous times throughout his pretrial proceedings. His requests were denied each time.  The court stated Davis must choose between having counsel and representing himself. Davis chose to proceed without a lawyer. The case proceeded to trial.

During trial, the The State Prosecutor attempted to continue its examination of a police officer, but Davis repeatedly interrupted to make comments about the water. The trial court temporarily retired the jury. A heated discussion took place to include the following:

THE COURT: Screaming at the top of his lungs, the jury–
THE DEFENDANT: And I’m going to continue to scream. Where’s my fucking water?
(Defendant screaming simultaneously with court)
THE COURT: I need to proceed with the trial, and I am finding that he is voluntarily absenting himself from the rest of these proceedings under State v. Garza, G-A-R-Z-A, and the record should reflect that he continues to speak on top of his lungs, swearing, accusing me of all kinds of things.
THE DEFENDANT: You’re being an asshole, and I can be one, too.
THE COURT: You’re now removed from the court.
THE DEFENDANT: Good. And fuck you very much, asshole. Fuck this kangaroo court shit.

At this point, it was after three o’clock in the afternoon. In Davis’s absence, the State continued questioning a police officer who testified as to finding crack cocaine in Davis’s pocket. The State then examined the police officer who had identified the stolen Buick, initiated the traffic stop, and arrested Davis.

The court did not give Davis an opportunity to cross-examine either officer.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals ruled that although (1) Davis did not have a right to standby counsel, and (2) the court properly removed him,  it nevertheless violated his Sixth Amendment right to representation by allowing the State to examine two of its witnesses in his absence and not affording him an opportunity to cross examine the witnesses.

The court reasoned that Davis went unrepresented during the testimony of police officers and was not given the opportunity to cross-examine them.

“He did not knowingly and voluntarily waive his right to representation and agree to have an empty defense table while the State questioned two critical witnesses.”

“This remains the case despite his decision to represent himself,” reasoned the Court of Appeals. “As reflected above, cases from other jurisdictions support this conclusion. We are unaware of authority supporting a contrary result.” Accordingly, the Court of Appeals concluded that leaving Davis without representation at trial violated his Sixth Amendment right to representation and remanded for a new trial.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime. Representing yourself is rarely a good idea.

Autopsy Photos Admitted

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In State v. Whitaker, the WA Court of Appeals held that a trial court properly admitted 15 of 100 autopsy photographs over the objection of the defendant who was charged with aggravated murder. The probative value of the photographs in helping to illustrate the medical examiner’s testimony outweighed their prejudicial effect.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Mr. Whitaker was charged with helping his friend Mr. Anderson and several others kidnap and Ms. Burkheimer, who was Anderson’s ex-girlfriend. Whitaker helped to bind, hide, and transport Burkheimer. He helped to dig her grave, rob her, bury her, and destroy evidence
of her murder.

At trial, the court admitted 15 autopsy photographs during the testimony of the medical examiner. The medical examiner testified that around 100 photographs were taken during Burkheimer’s autopsy and that the 15 selected for trial showed the injuries to Burkheimer’s body, what the medical examiner looked at when he decided where the bullet exit and entry wounds were, and how Burkheimer’s injuries related to one another.

The jury found Whitaker guilty of premeditated first degree murder, with an aggravating factor of kidnapping and a firearm enhancement, and conspiracy to commit first degree murder. During the trial, Whitaker moved for a mistrial several times, alleging numerous errors were made during trial; one of the errors being whether the trial court improperly admitted the photographs of the victim’s autopsy.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Court of Appeals upheld Whitaker’s conviction and reasoned that accurate photographic representations are admissible, even if gruesome, if their probative value outweighs their prejudicial effect.

“A bloody, brutal crime cannot be explained to a jury in a lily-white manner.”

“The admission of autopsy photographs is in the sound discretion of the trial court,” said the Court of Appeals. “Photographs have probative value where they are used to illustrate or explain the testimony of the pathologist performing the autopsy. Unless it is clear from the record that the primary reason to admit gruesome photographs is to inflame the jury’s passion, appellate courts will uphold the decision of the trial court.” Furthermore, reasoned the Court, the law requires an exercise of restraint, not a preclusion simply because other less inflammatory testimonial evidence is available.

The medical examiner’s testimony explaining the photographs and his conclusions about Burkheimer’s injuries was straightforward and not inflammatory.

“There is no doubt that these photographs are disturbing,” said the court. “But this was a brutal crime, and the record does not show that the primary reason for admitting the photographs was to inflame the jury.” Rather, reasoned the Court, the photographs were admitted to support the testimony of the medical examiner. “The State did not offer all 100 of the photographs but instead selected 15 that best illustrated Burkheimer’s injuries,” said the Court. Therefore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by admitting them.

With that, the Court of Appeals upheld Mr. Whitaker’s conviction and sentence.

My opinion? The admissibility of evidence is one of the most important battles in trial practice. Courts conduct balancing tests on this issue under Evidence Rules 401, 402 and 403. Under these evidence rules, judges can admit evidence which is relevant and probative as long as the evidence is also not prejudicial to the defendant’s case.  Prejudicial evidence includes evidence which may inflame the passions of the jury. Understandably, however, the prejudicial effect can be outweighed by the probative value. In this case, the probative value of the medical examiner’s testimony outweighed the prejudicial effect these photos may have had on the jury.

Contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime involving photographic evidence which could be prejudicial to the case.

I-940 Passed By Voters

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Excellent article from Seattle Times reporter Steve Miletich informs us that Initiative 940,  the measure that would remove a 32-year-old barrier in state law that has made it virtually impossible to bring criminal charges against police officers believed to have wrongfully used deadly force, has passed with strong support.

Passage of the measure means that prosecutors will no longer have to prove law-enforcement officers acted with “evil intent” — or so-called “malice” — when considering whether to file criminal charges such as manslaughter. Washington is the only state with such restrictive language.

The measure passed with 60 percent of the vote statewide. In King County, support exceeded 70 percent.

According to Miletich, a spokesperson for the I-940 campaign said the win means “Washington becomes the first state in the nation to pass a police training and accountability measure in response to a national conversation about use of force and relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”

I-940 requires proof that a reasonable officer would have used deadly force in the same circumstance and sincerely believed the use of deadly force was warranted. I-940 also requires de-escalation and mental-health training for police; requires officers to administer first aid to a victim of deadly force; and requires independent investigations into the use of deadly force.

At one point, state legislators passed a compromise bill earlier this year that addressed concerns raised by some law-enforcement organizations about certain wording in the initiative.

I-940 proponents accepted the bill, agreeing to keep the initiative off the ballot. But the state Supreme Court agreed with a challenger that the initiative couldn’t be modified by the Legislature and must be presented to the voters in its original form.

My opinion? Excellent. It’s about time. All of us want to ensure our families, communities and law enforcement officers as safe. But last year, more people were killed in encounters with law enforcement than in 45 other states, and almost a third of those killed were experiencing a mental health crisis. No officer wants to find themselves in this situation, but right now officers in Washington aren’t provided with enough training to help them de-escalate a potentially deadly encounter.

 

“Ruse” Searches Held Unconstitutional.

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In Whalen v. McMullen, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that an officer’s warrantless entry into a home via a ruse such as by asking the homeowner for assistance in a fictitious criminal investigation, violates the Fourth Amendment. A “ruse” entry is when a known government agent misrepresents his purpose in seeking entry.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

While investigating Kathleen Whalen for fraud related to her application for social security benefits, Washington State Patrol officer McMullen gained both her cooperation and entrance into her home by requesting her assistance in a fictitious criminal investigation. During his investigation, McMullen secretly videotaped Whalen both outside and inside her home. No criminal charges were ever lodged against Whalen, but the Washington Disability Determination Services division (“DDS”) of the Washington Department of Social and Health Services (“DSHS”) used at her social security hearing the footage surreptitiously filmed inside her home.

Whalen brought suit against McMullen under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that McMullen’s entry into her home without a warrant and under false pretenses violated her Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

LEGAL ISSUES

(1) whether McMullen’s warrantless entry into Whalen’s home under false pretenses was an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment, and (2) whether it was clearly established that such an entry was a Fourth Amendment violation.

COURT’S ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSIONS

The Ninth Circuit held that McMullen violated Whalen’s Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, but agreed with the lower federal district court that McMullen had qualified immunity from suit because the right was not clearly established.

A. Whether the Officer’s Conduct Violated the Constitution.

The Ninth Circuit explained that the Fourth Amendment, made applicable to the states through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, instructs that the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.

“Without question, the home is accorded the full range of Fourth Amendment protections,” said the Court, citing Lewis v. United States. “Indeed, at the very core’ of the Fourth Amendment ‘stands the right of a man to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion.”

Furthermore, the Court reasoned that a Fourth Amendment “search” occurs when a government agent obtains information by physically intruding on a constitutionally protected area. The Court distinguished between “undercover” entries, where a person invites a government agent who is concealing that he is a government agent into her home, and “ruse” entries, where a known government agent misrepresents his purpose in seeking entry. The former does not violate the Fourth Amendment, as long as the undercover agent does not exceed the scope of his invitation while inside the home.

However, it also reasoned that a ruse entry – one when the suspect is informed that the person seeking entry is a government agent but is misinformed as to the purpose for which the agent seeks entr – cannot be justified by consent. This is because access gained by a government agent, known to be such by the person with whom the agent is dealing, violates the Fourth Amendment’s bar against unreasonable searches and seizures if such entry was acquired by affirmative or deliberate misrepresentation of the nature of the government’s investigation.

In this case, McMullen identified himself as a law enforcement officer and requested Whalen’s assistance in a fictitious investigation, gaining entry into her home using this ruse.

“McMullen appealed to Whalen’s trust in law enforcement and her sense of civic duty to assist him in his “identity theft” investigation. McMullen’s description of an identity theft investigation was perfectly plausible, and Whalen readily agreed to cooperate. But there was no identify theft investigation underway. McMullen lied to Whalen about his real purpose—to investigate her for possible social security fraud. Whalen’s consent to McMullen’s entry into her home is vitiated by his deception.”

Consequently, reasoned the Court, it was entirely immaterial that McMullen could have lawfully searched Whalen’s home by securing her consent without using a ruse. “His argument is akin to justifying a warrantless search on the ground that a warrant would have been issued if one had been sought,” said the Court. Regardless of whether Whalen would have consented to McMullen’s entry into her home if he had not used a ruse, she did not validly consent here.

“Once we add to this the fact that McMullen videotaped his entire visit, any illusion that this was not a Fourth Amendment search evaporates. McMullen had two cameras running while he was talking with Whalen, and at least one of the cameras captured his entire visit inside her home. Of course it was a search: not only was McMullen there to observe Whalen, but he had also been asked specifically to seek evidence concerning Whalen’s use of an electric wheelchair, how wheelchair accessible the house was, were the wheelchairs used, were clothes on them, etc.”

With that, the Ninth Circuit concluded that McMullen’s entry into Whalen’s home without consent or a warrant in the course of a civil fraud investigation related to Whalen’s benefits claim was an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment.

B. Whether the Violation Was “Clearly Established.”

Here, the Ninth Circuit reasoned that in order to hold McMullen personally liable under § 1983, Whalen’s right to be free from a search in this context must have been clearly established. To be clearly established, the contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right.

“The right Whalen asserts was not clearly established,” said the Court. “Therefore, officer McMullen was entitled to qualified immunity from this suit.”

My opinion? Good decision, mostly. I’m happy to see the Ninth found that the officer’s ruse violated Ms. Whalen’s constitutional rights. And although I would’ve liked to see the Ninth Circuit award Ms. Whalen damages for the violation of her rights, the reality is that it’s extremely difficult to succeed on suing police for misconduct.

Rape Kit Backlog Resolved

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Survivors of sexual assaults in Washington state can now track the progress of their kits being analyzed through a new online portal.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that the Washington State Patrol has implemented this week the online tracking system for sexual assault kits to allow survivors, as well as lawyers, medical staff and law enforcement to follow the testing process.

The state completed an inventory of untested sexual assault kits last month, counting 6,460 kits that had not yet been submitted by law enforcement agencies across the state for lab testing. The oldest untested kit dated back to 1982.
Larry Hebert, director of the patrol’s forensic laboratory services bureau, says a kit can take four to six weeks to process.
My opinion? This is a great development in the right direction. Alleged victims who believed they were sexually assaulted should be encouraged to get rape kit examinations as soon as possible; and should also have assurances that the evidence will be handled quickly. Oftentimes, a sexual assault allegations come down to  “He said / She said” arguments with very little to virtually no proof of sexual assault. Rape kit exams help solve this problem.
Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with sexual assault. It’s imperative to find a qualified and competent defense attorney who can navigate the investigations, argue pretrial motions, conduct witness interviews and possibly go to trial.