Monthly Archives: December 2018

Right to Impartial Jury

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In State v. Phillips, the WA Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not violate an African-American defendant’s right to an impartial jury by dismissing a prospective juror despite the juror’s feelings that African American men are more prone to violence.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On July 1, 2016, Mr. Phillips came home late after his wife Ms. Philips was in bed asleep with their infant daughter. Ms. Philips told Mr. Phillips to leave her alone. Their daughter called 911 and reported that Mr. Phillips was hitting Ms. Philips. When Mr. Phillips saw his daughter was calling the police, he knocked the phone from her hands.

King County Sheriff’s deputies responded to the 911 call and found the house in chaos. Mr. Phillips was arrested and booked into jail. From jail, Mr. Phillips repeatedly called Mrs. Philips demanding that she get him out and expressing his anger at the police having been called. Mr. Phillips was charged with Assault in the Second Degree Domestic Violence (DV) and Tampering With a Witness.

Jury Selection

During jury selection, the trial judge asked if any of the jurors had personal experience
with domestic violence. Juror 10 was among the members who raised their hand. When asked to elaborate, he explained that his sister and his wife’s sister-in-law were both involved in abusive relationships with intimate partners.

Juror #10 also revealed an experience in college after an intramural basketball game when an African American player on the opposing team assaulted him. Juror 10 explained, “nothing came of it, but it left an emotional imprint.” He further elaborated,

“And this is an emotional truth. I don’t live this way; I don’t believe this; but I’m also aware that feelings happen in reality that black men are more prone to violence . . . It was also notable that afterwards when, you know, the gym supervisor was called and there was just a huddle on the spot, and then, of course there was denial and, you know, dismissiveness of it. And that’s another narrative; that those who are violent try to get out of it; so those are two personal emotions imprints that are there, as well.”

From these comments, both the State Prosecutor and Mr. Philips’ defense attorney asked numerous questions to Juror #10. Ultimately, neither the State nor defense counsel exercised a peremptory challenge or moved to strike Juror #10 for cause. Later, Juror #10 served on the jury.

Ultimately, the jury found Phillips guilty of second degree assault and found the State prove aggravating circumstances. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on the witness tampering charge, and it was dismissed. Mr. Philips was sentenced to 120 months.

He appealed. One of the issues was whether Juror #10 should have been struck from serving on the jury panel.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals upheld Mr. Philips’ conviction.

The Court started by giving a substantial amount of background on the issue of jury selection. It said the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution, and article 1, section 22, of the Washington Constitution, guarantee a criminal defendant the right to trial by an impartial jury.

Furthermore, in order to ensure this constitutional right, the trial court will excuse a juror for cause if the juror’s views would prevent or substantially impair the performance of his duties as a juror in accordance with his instructions and his oath. The presence of a biased juror cannot be harmless; the error requires a new trial without a showing of prejudice.

Also, at trial, either party has a statutory right to challenge a prospective juror for cause. “Actual bias is a ground for challenging a juror for cause,” said the Court of Appeals. “Actual bias occurs when there is the existence of a state of mind on the part of the juror in reference to the action, or to either party, which satisfies the court that the challenged person cannot try the issue impartially and without prejudice to the substantial rights of the party challenging.”

Furthermore, Under State v. Irby, RCW 2.36.110 and CrR 6.4 it is the judge’s duty to excuse potential jurors from  jury service if they have manifested unfitness as a juror by reason of bias, prejudice, indifference, inattention or any physical or mental defect. These court precedents, statutes and court rules give a trial judge an independent obligation to excuse a juror, regardless of inaction by counsel or the defendant.

However, the Court of Appeals ultimately reasoned that the present case was distinguishable from Irby.

Also, the Court of Appeals reasoned that defense counsel was alert to the possibility of biased jurors.

“Defense counsel actively questioned Juror #10, including questioning whether, despite juror 10’s concerns, the juror would follow the court’s instructions and base his decision on the evidence presented,” reasoned the court of Appeals. “As a result, defense counsel did not challenge Juror #10. This suggests that defense counsel observed something during voir dire that led counsel to believe Juror #10 could be fair.”

Furthermore, the Court of Appeals said it was also significant that Phillips used his peremptory challenges to strike several jurors, but had one peremptory challenge remaining when he accepted the jury, including Juror #10. “Again, this suggests that defense counsel either wanted juror 10 on the jury, or did not want one or both the next potential jurors on the panel,” said the Court of Appeals.

Consequently, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in failing to excuse Juror #10 for cause and upheld Mr. Philips’ conviction.

My opinion? Bad decision.

I’ve conducted nearly 40 jury trials, which is more experience than most criminal defense attorneys have. In my experience, potential jurors have a tendency to mitigate, justify, deny, back-pedal and just plain cover up any biases they have. It’s human nature. Therefore, if any juror states they have a biases which prejudice a criminal defendant, then that juror should be excused. Period.

Unfortunately, it appears Defense Counsel also failed to strike Juror #10. That is unfortunate as well. As the judge said, however, this may have been strategic. Perhaps Defense Counsel wanted to avoid impaneling a potential juror who was actually more biased than Juror #10. We don’t know.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime. Hiring an experienced and proactive defense attorney is the first step toward gaining justice.

“School Search” Held Unconstitutional

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In State v. A.S., the WA Court of Appeals held that drugs found in a 14-year-old child’s backpack in a search conducted by the vice-principal were rightfully suppressed because the search was not reasonable when the child (1) was not a student of the school, (2) the vice principal knew nothing about the child’s history or school record, (3) there was no record of a drug problem at the school, and (4) there was no exigent circumstance to conduct the search as police officers were already on their way to the school.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On April 11, 2016, Meadowdale High School staff received information about an alleged threat involving then 14-year-old A.S., who was not a Meadowdale student. Meadowdale staff looked up A.S.’s picture using the district’s computer system so that they would be able to identify her should she appear on campus.

Later that day, the Vice-Principal of Meadowdale summonsed A.S. to his office, and later, the Principal’s office. A.S. was not very cooperative with being questioned.

At some point while A.S. was in Kniseley’s office, the Vice-Principal noticed an odor that he recognized as marijuana emanating from A.S. The Vice-Principal then searched A.S.’s backpack, which was sitting next to her, and found suspected marijuana and drug paraphernalia. A.S. did not say or do anything to resist the search of her backpack.

A.S. was later charged with possession of drug paraphernalia and possession of a controlled substance. Prior to trial, A.S. moved to suppress the evidence of the suspected marijuana and drug paraphernalia found in her backpack, arguing that the evidence was the fruit of an unlawful search and seizure. Specifically, A.S. argued that the “school search exception” to the warrant requirement did not apply to her because she was not a Meadowdale student when the Vice-Principal searched her backpack and even if the exception did apply, the search was not reasonable.

The trial court denied A.S.’s motion and, following a stipulated bench trial, convicted A.S. of both possession of drug paraphernalia and possession of a controlled substance. A.S. appealed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that under both the Washington Constitution and U.S. Constitution, a government actor must obtain a search warrant supported by probable cause to conduct a search unless an exception applies. Under pre-existing case-law, the exceptions to the warrant requirement are “‘jealously and carefully drawn.”

School Search Exception

One of these exceptions is the “school search exception,” which allows school authorities to conduct a search of a student without probable cause if the search is reasonable under all the circumstances. A search is reasonable if it is: (1) justified at its inception; and (2) reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the interference in the first place.

The Court further reasoned that under ordinary circumstances, a search of a student by a teacher or other school official will be ‘justified at its inception’ when there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated or is violating either the law or the rules of the school. And, a search will be permitted in scope “when the measures adopted are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction.

Finally, Washington courts have established the following factors from State v. Brooks and State v. McKinnon as relevant in determining whether school officials had reasonable grounds for conducting a warrantless search:

“The child’s age, history, and school record, the prevalence and seriousness of the problem in the school to which the search was directed, the exigency to make the search without delay, and the probative value and reliability of the information used as a justification for the search.”

Here,  the search was unconstitutional.

First, A.S. was not a student of the school and the Vice-Principal knew nothing about the child’s history or school record. Specifically, nothing in the record suggests that the Vice-Principal, who guessed that A.S. was middle school aged, knew anything about A.S.’s history or school record. Indeed, the Vice-Principal testified that when he looked up A.S. in the district database, he was only interested in her picture.

Furthermore, there was no evidence that drug use was a drug problem at Meadowdale. Rather, when asked whether Meadowdale had a drug problem, the Vice-Principal responded, “I don’t believe so.” He also testified that he did not deal with drugs on a regular basis as a school administrator and that Meadowdale had only “occasional incidents” on its campus involving students bringing drugs or drug paraphernalia on campus.

Additionally, there was no exigency to conduct the search without delay, given that the police had been called, and A.S.—who had been told that the police were called—gave no indication that she was trying to leave the principal’s office.

And finally, the odor of marijuana alone did not create an exigent circumstance, particularly where the Vice-Principal had no other reason to believe that A.S. used marijuana or that her backpack would contain marijuana. For these same reasons, the search of A.S.’s backpack was not justified at its inception.

My opinion? Good decision. In an educational context, school officials have a substantial interest in maintaining discipline and order on school grounds. However, the search conducted in this case did not promote that interest.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime involving a questionable search by the authorities. Hiring a competent, experienced and knowledgeable defense attorney is the first step toward gaining justice.

Fentanyl Is the Deadliest Drug

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Excellent article by  of USA Today discussed a recent report from the from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finding that Fentanyl is now the deadliest drug in America, with more than 18,000 overdose deaths in 2016, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

It’s the first time the synthetic opioid has been the nation’s deadliest drug. From 2012 to 2015, heroin topped the list.

For those who don’t know, fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 80-100 times stronger than morphine. Pharmaceutical fentanyl was developed for pain management treatment of cancer patients, applied in a patch on the skin. Because of its powerful opioid properties, Fentanyl is also diverted for abuse. Fentanyl is added to heroin to increase its potency, or be disguised as highly potent heroin. Many users believe that they are purchasing heroin and actually don’t know that they are purchasing fentanyl – which often results in overdose deaths.

On average, in each year from 2013 to 2016, the rate of overdose deaths from Fentanyl increased by about 113 percent  a year.  The report said fentanyl was responsible for 29 percent of all overdose deaths in 2016, up from just 4 percent in 2011.

Overall, more than 63,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2016, according to the report, which was prepared by the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  That’s an average of 174 deaths  a day.

The study also said many people who die from overdoses have multiple drugs in their system. “We’ve had a tendency to think of these drugs in isolation,” Dr. Holly Hedegaard, lead author of the report, told HuffPost. “It’s not really what’s happening.”

As an example, roughly 40 percent of people listed as dying of a cocaine overdose also had fentanyl in their system.

After fentanyl, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine were the deadliest drugs in 2016. After declines earlier in the decade, the report said, overdose deaths from both cocaine and methamphetamine were starting to rise again.

The study said illegal drugs such as fentanyl and heroin were the primary causes of unintentional overdoses, while prescription drugs such as oxycodone tended to be used in suicide overdoses.

Drug abuse is terribly destructive and deeply affects addicts, families and society. However, please contact my office if you, a friend or family members are charged with a drug crime. The Fourth Amendment guarantees the right against unlawful search and seizure. Perhaps some well-argued pretrial motions can become part of an aggressive defense against pending drug charges.

Shackled in Court

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In State v. Lundstrom, the WA Court of Appeals held that a trial court’s failure to state why a jailed defendant must wear shackles, handcuffs and other restraints to court violates a defendant’s due process rights.

BACKGROUND FACTS

The State charged Lundstrom with two counts of unlawful possession of a controlled
substance. At a pretrial hearing, Lundstrom appeared in restraints. Before the proceeding ended, defense counsel took exception to Mr. Lundstrom appearing in court with 5-point restraint shackles.

The trial court did not respond to defense counsel’s statement or concerns.

Lundstrom subsequently filed a motion objecting to the restraints and requesting removal of the shackles. The motion included a certified statement from defense counsel, which stated that he had made a public disclosure request with the Clallam County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) for their policies and discovered that CCSO policy 15.106.1 required all inmates to be brought to court in full restraints (waist chain, cuffs, and leg irons) for their first appearance. There is no record showing whether Lundstrom noted the motion for hearing before the trial court, whether the trial court held a hearing on the motion, or whether the trial court ruled on the motion. Ultimately, however, Lundstrom pleaded guilty to two counts of unlawful possession of a controlled substance.

On appeal, Lundstrom argued that his pretrial restraint violated his due process rights because the trial court failed to make an individualized determination on the necessity of the restraints.

COURT’S ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals agreed with Mr. Lundstrom.

It reasoned that under the  WA Constitution, the accused shall have the right to appear and defend in person. That right includes the use of not only his mental but his physical faculties unfettered, and unless some impelling necessity demands the restraint of a prisoner to secure the safety of others and his own custody, the binding of the prisoner in irons is a plain violation of the constitutional guaranty.

Additionally, under State v. Damon, the Washington Supreme Court has long recognized that a prisoner is entitled to be brought into the presence of the court free from restraints.

“Restraints are disfavored because they may interfere with important constitutional rights, including the presumption of innocence, privilege of testifying in one’s own behalf, and right to consult with counsel during trial.”

“But a defendant’s right to be in court free from restraints is not limitless,” said the Court of Appeals. “The right may yield to courtroom safety, security, and decorum. A defendant may be restrained if necessary to prevent injury, disorderly conduct, or escape.”

Furthermore, the trial court abused its discretion and committed constitutional error when it failed to address the issue of Lundstrom’s pretrial restraint. By failing to do so and allowing Lundstrom to be restrained, the trial court failed to exercise its discretion and effectively deferred the decision to the jail’s policy. As a result, the trial court abused its discretion and committed constitutional error by failing to make an individualized inquiry into the necessity for pretrial restraints when Lundstrom took exception to the use of pretrial restraints. Therefore, Lundstrom’s due process rights were violated by his pretrial restraints.

Interestingly, Lundstrom was not trying to overturn his conviction or seek any other remedy due to the violation of his due process rights. He only wanted the Court of Appeals to address his claim as a matter of continuing and substantial public interest.

“Generally, we do not consider claims that are moot or present only abstract questions,” said the Court of Appeals. However, we have the discretion to decide an issue if the question is one of continuing and substantial public interest.”

My opinion? Good decision. It’s harsh to see defendants in handcuffs and chains. Indeed, it’s unconstitutional. And for the most part, shackling defendants at court hearings is unnecessary unless there’s reason to believe the defendant may escape or harm others.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges.

Was The House a Dwelling?

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In State v. Hall, the WA Court of Appeals upheld a defendant’s criminal conviction for Residential Burglary despite his arguments that the house was not a dwelling.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In October 2014, Mr. Fredson moved his elderly mother Myrtle from her home to live near him because she had been having health problems. Myrtle had lived in the house since 1986, but by 2014 had difficulty managing her affairs.

Myrtle left furniture throughout the house, beds in each bedroom, appliances, clothes, and personal belongings in the home she moved away from. However, nobody lived in the house. After Myrtle went to live with her son Mr. Fredson, she visited the prior house once or twice a week.

Over time, unknown people broke windows and broke down doors in order to get inside
the house. Lloyd eventually boarded up the windows and secured the broken front door to keep people out. He also posted no trespassing and warning signs throughout the property.

On February 2, 2016, Mr. Fredson and Myrtle went to her home to check on it. Mr. Fredson suspected that someone was inside the house and called the sheriff. Officers responded and arrested the Defendant Mr. Hall as he came out of the house. Hall was carrying a backpack that contained items that Mr. Fredson and Myrtle identified as possessions that she had left in the house.

The State charged Mr. Hall with Residential Burglary, Third Degree Theft, and Making or Having Burglary Tools. A jury found him guilty of all three counts.

Mr. Hall appealed his residential burglary conviction. He argues that the evidence was insufficient to prove that the unoccupied house that he burglarized was a “dwelling,” as required to convict for Residential Burglary.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that a person commits Residential Burglary “if, with intent to commit a crime against a person or property therein, the person enters or remains unlawfully in a dwelling.” A “dwelling” is legally defined as “any building or structure which is used or ordinarily used by a person for lodging.” Whether a building is a dwelling turns on all relevant factors and is generally a matter for the jury to decide.

Here, however, the Court ruled that the fact that nobody had leaved in a house for 15 months prior to the burglary, that the windows had been boarded up and the broken front door had been secured, and there was no evidence of a plan for someone to resume living in the residence at the time of the burglary, did not prevent the house from being a “dwelling.”

Other factors supported a finding that the house constituted a dwelling included that the house had been used for lodging for almost 30 years, the house had never been used for anything other than lodging, the house was fully furnished with furniture in every room and appliances, and the owner of the house left clothing and personal belongings in the house. Finally, the owner, who was forced to leave because of age-related health problems, continued to regard the house as her abode.

Consequently, the Court of Appeals upheld Mr. Hall’s conviction.

My opinion? These type of cases are tough to defend. People have difficulty justifying the intrusion of any home, regardless of whether anyone lived in the home or not. Years ago, I conducted a jury trial on a Burglary case involving similar facts. My Client was a scrapper who wandered upon a long-abandoned house. The house was extremely decrepit, its front door was removed and no furniture was in the house. Although the jury ultimately acquitted Client of Burglary, they nevertheless found him guilty of the lesser crime of Criminal Trespass First Degree, a gross misdemeanor. This was a victory under the circumstances. Did I mention these types of cases are tough to defend?

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime. It’s important to hire an assertive, experienced and effective attorney who knows the law.