In State v. Boyd, the WA Court of Appeals held that a prosecutor improperly disrespects defense counsel by using “bla, bla, bla” to describe opposing counsel’s argument. This phrase is both disrespectful and dismissive.
In February 1998, when he was 23 years old, Jayson Boyd had sex with a 15 year old. In 1999, he pleaded guilty to rape of a child in the third degree. He was required to register as a sex offender under RCW 9A.44.130 and RCW 9A.44.140. Since his conviction in 1999, Boyd has been convicted of failure to register as a sex offender three times.
Boyd is homeless, has a ninth or tenth grade education, and is mentally ill. At the time of his crime in 1998, homeless sex offenders were not required to register as sex offenders because they did not have addresses. The legislature subsequently amended the statute to require homeless sex offenders who lacked a fixed address to update the county sheriff weekly, in person, of their whereabouts.
Boyd largely complied with the registration requirement but pleaded guilty to
crimes of failure to register in 2009, 2010, and 2013.
In March 2015, the State charged Boyd with failure to register as a sex offender between January 27, 2015 and February 10, 2015. The court ordered a competency evaluation after Boyd rambled incoherently during a pretrial hearing. A month later, after Boyd was found competent to stand trial, the court held another hearing. At that hearing, the court issued a scheduling order, which Boyd signed, setting the next hearing date for November 6, 2015. While explaining the order to Boyd, however, the court misspoke—it told Boyd that he needed to appear on December 6, 2015. After Boyd failed to appear on November 6, 2015, the Prosecutor added a charge for bail jumping.
During closing arguments, the Prosecutor appeared to have given a mocking and deragatory tone. After the jury retired to deliberate, Boyd’s defense attorney moved for a mistrial based on prosecutorial misconduct:
“During the prosecutor’s first closing argument, it was normal in tone, very even and level. And the rebuttal closing argument after I had given my closing, she started out and then repeatedly throughout that closing argument, either pretending she was me or Mr. Boyd, but was kind of in a sing-song tone, a complaining child-like type tone of voice when mentioning the barriers that my client faces as a homeless person and saying “bla, bla, bla,” and this was something that was repeated throughout the closing argument. And so I’d be making a motion for a mistrial based on—based on the prosecutor’s tone of
voice during the closing argument.”
The trial court denied the motion, explaining: “I did not hear what I consider to be a mocking or derogatory tone.” While the trial court agreed that the prosecutor used a different tone than her normal speech tone, it concluded that “having listened to many, many, many closing arguments, there was nothing in the tone that I heard that was derogatory or mocking or anything that grabbed my attention as being out of line, inappropriate or unprofessional.”
Boyd was convicted by a jury as charged and sentenced to 45 months in prison.
On appeal, one of the issues was whether the trial court abused its discretion by denying Boyd’s motion for a mistrial based on prosecutorial misconduct.
COURT’S ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSIONS
The Court of Appeals said that the inquiry on prosecutorial misconduct consists of two prongs: (1) whether the prosecutor’s comments were improper and (2) if so, whether the improper comments caused prejudice. To show prejudice, the defendant must show a substantial likelihood that the prosecutor’s statements affected the jury’s verdict. The defendant bears the burden of showing that the comments were improper or prejudicial.
Here, the prosecutor’s references to Boyd’s “barriers” and chaotic life are not improper remarks about his homelessness, poverty, or mental illness because they rebut the very defense advanced by Boyd’s counsel—that complying with the law was “too much” for him because of his “barriers.” But we find that the prosecutor impugned defense counsel by stating “And again, Boyd’s Defense Counsel talks about chaos in his life, barriers, bla, bla, bla. No evidence of that.”
“Using ‘bla, bla, bla’ to refer to an opposing counsel’s argument is both disrespectful and dismissive. Although the statement does not imply deception or dishonesty like ‘crock,’ it implies that the arguments are unworthy of consideration and may be dismissed offhand. We find the statement was improper.”
Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals was not convinced that the Prosecutor’s statements during trial affected the jury’s verdict. “The court did not abuse its discretion by denying Boyd’s motion for a mistrial,” said the Court, and upheld Boyd’s conviction and sentence.
Justice Becker’s dissent focused on how poverty issues negatively impact justice as homelessness applies to offenders who have a duty to register:
“Our (failure to register) statute has grown steadily harsher, especially as applied to homeless offenders. I believe it is time to reconsider the ex post facto analysis of the statute in light of the changes since State v. Ward. I would join the jurisdictions holding that frequent in-person reporting requirements render a registration statute so punitive that applying it retroactively violates the constitution. I would reverse Boyd’s conviction and remand for dismissal with prejudice.”
My opinion? “Bl bla bla” issues aside, I agree with the dissenting Justice Becker when she says that frequent in-person reporting requirements render a registration statute so punitive that applying it retroactively violates the constitution. Being homeless is difficult enough by itself. Requiring homeless people to register under Washington’s rigorous “Duty to Register” statute is incredibly difficult, if not nearly impossible, for homeless people to follow and obey. As a a result, the law unequally punishes sex offenders for being homeless. That’s simply not fair.