Bellingham Police Department Conducts Distracted Driving Emphasis

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Put the cell phone away.

The Bellingham Police Department tweeted and facebooked notice that there will be a distracted driving emphasis on Friday, August 16th from 10:00am-2:00pm. Areas of emphasis are Lakeway/Ellis Streets and Holly Street to State Street.

Distracted driving — when drivers eat, put on makeup or text — causes more than 3,000 deaths a year. The National Highway Traffic Administration says it also costs $46 billion annually for everything from injuries to vehicle repairs, and of course, lost productivity due to death. With the exception of Montana and Arizona, texting while driving is illegal in every state, but unless police catch you in the act, it can be very hard to prove.

Additionally, depending on the circumstances, officers may develop probable cause to conduct a DUI investigation and/or search your vehicle for contraband or evidence of a crime.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges after being stopped for distracted driving. The charges could be dismissed if the search was pretextual and/or unlawful. Hiring a competent and credible defense attorney who is fluent in pretrial motions practice is the first and best step toward getting justice.

Summer DUI Enforcement Patrols Begin

Be ready.

As the deadliest time of the year for DUI crashes nears, police department across Washington will boost DUI patrols starting August 14th.

The Washington Traffic Commission just released data showing the deadliest time of year for DUI crashes tends to be before the Labor Day weekend. So starting today, police departments around the state will begin a nearly three-week long DUI emphasis.

About 150 departments across the state will participate in patrols between Aug. 14 and Labor Day. Between 2013 and 2017, the deadliest months for DUI crashes were August and September, when 238 and 259 people died in crashes total, according to WTSC data:

“We conduct the ‘plan before you party’ campaign during the busy summer travel time because we want everyone to get home safe,” said WTSC impaired driving program manager Mark Medalen in a press release. “Planning ahead for a safe ride is especially important for the small number of Washington drivers who mix alcohol and cannabis.”

Along with extra patrols, the WTSC is placing signs in cannabis shops around the state to remind users not to drive impaired — and not to mix cannabis with alcohol. Between 2013 and 2017, about 75 percent of drivers in fatal crashes were also using alcohol or another drug, according to WTSC.

From 2013 to 2017 nearly 75 percent of cannabis-positive drivers in fatal crashes were also positive for other drugs and/or alcohol.  Poly-drug drivers are now the most common type of impaired driver involved in fatal crashes.

Responding to this trend, traffic safety officials are improving techniques used to test drivers for impairment from cannabis. For example, in King County, the Kent Police Department is participating in a Law Enforcement Phlebotomy training and certification program.  Police officers are trained to draw and test blood, avoiding a lengthy wait in the hospital where the blood is typically drawn from the suspect.

The WTSC is advising everyone in the state to make a transportation plan before consuming alcohol or drugs, whether it’s finding a designated driver or saving money for a ride-share. Otherwise, police in just about every city in Puget Sound — plus Washington State Patrol — will be out looking to arrest DUI drivers.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are involved in DUI or any other alcohol-related criminal charges.

Court Denies “Community Caretaking” Argument

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In State v. Beach, the WA Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of a defendant’s Possession of Stolen Vehicle charges because the police failed to obtain a search warrant and the Community Custody Exception to the warrant requirement did not apply.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On November 27, 2017, a person called 911 to report a young child walking by himself. Officer Nixon responded to the 911 report, and took custody of the child. Officer Nixon decided to drive around the neighborhood to look for the child’s home.

Eventually, the officer saw a house with its front door open. He ran the license plate of the car in the driveway and learned that the car had been reported stolen. He called for backup. At that point, the officer’s interest in determining whether the child lived at the house was secondary to figuring out if this was a home invasion robbery.

Officers arrived. They surrounded the house, with one or two officers going to the back of the house in case someone tried to exit from the back door. Officers knocked loudly on the outside of the house and announced themselves for approximately 30 seconds. When there was no answer, they drew their guns and entered the house, yelling, “This is the Kent Police Department. Come out with your hands up!”

Mr. Beach and his girlfriend Ms. Hall emerged from a rear bedroom. They said that they were sleeping. The officers discovered the couple had outstanding warrants. The officers arrested Beach and Hall. While searching Beach upon arrest, the police found a key to the stolen car in the driveway.

The State charged Beach with one count of possession of a stolen vehicle. Beach moved to suppress any evidence resulting from the warrantless search.

The State argued that the warrantless search was valid under the community caretaking exception because there was real and immediate danger of an ongoing home invasion. The trial court conducted a hearing pursuant to CrR 3.6. After hearing testimony by officers, the court found that the State had not established that the officers were acting within the scope of their community caretaking function, and suppressed the evidence.

Beach moved to dismiss and the court granted the motion. The State appealed.

COURT’S RATIONALE & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Court of Appeals explained that the United States Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. Also, the WA constitution is often more protective than the Fourth Amendment, particularly where warrantless searches are concerned.

“Under our state constitution, warrantless searches are per se unreasonable unless one of the narrow exceptions to the warrant requirement applies,” said the Court. “The burden of proof is on the State to show that a warrantless search or seizure falls within one of the exceptions to the warrant requirement.”

A. Community Caretaking Exception to the Warrant Requirement.

The Court said the community caretaking function exception encompasses situations involving emergency aid, and also routine checks on health and safety. Compared with routine checks on health and safety, the emergency aid function involves circumstances of greater urgency and searches resulting in greater intrusion.

Under the health and safety check test, the State must show that (1) the officer subjectively believed someone needed health or safety assistance, (2) a reasonable person in the same situation would believe that there was a need for assistance, and (3) there was a reasonable basis to associate the need for assistance with the place searched.

Also, the State must also show that the encounter under this exception was reasonable, which depends on a balancing of the individual’s interest in freedom from police interference against the public’s interest in having the police perform a community caretaking function. Finally, the State must show that a reasonable person in the same situation would believe that there was a need for assistance.

The Court reasoned that here, there was a 911 report about a child wandering blocks away. When Nixon stopped his police car outside of the residence, the child did not indicate that he had any connection to the house. No connection between the child and the house was established until after the officers entered. “Any concern for the child was not an ongoing emergency that would merit the officers going into the home,” said the Court.

And here, the officers did not know of any requests for help from the house before they entered. They did not know anyone was unaccounted for and saw no evidence anyone had been injured. The officers did not see any broken windows, signs of forced entry, or other evidence of a break-in. Once in the doorway, Officer Nixon did not see anything in disarray inside the home that would indicate a struggle or ongoing emergency. When the officers went into the home, the house was in “fine condition.”

Consequently, the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision that the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement did not apply and suppressed the evidence.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime and police conducted their search under the “Community Caretaking” exception to the warrant requirement. Possibly, evidence obtained through the search could be suppressed and the charges dismissed.

Vacate Your Pot Conviction

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On Sunday, June 28th the Marijuana Justice Initiative was signed by Governor Jay Inslee. Consequently, many people with misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor marijuana convictions in Washington state can apply to have those convictions wiped from their records. The new law expands on the governor’s pardon offer in a few ways:
  • A pardon does not vacate a conviction.
  • People with multiple marijuana misdemeanor convictions are eligible.
  • The date of the conviction doesn’t matter.
  • The new law applies to violations of municipal ordinances, not just state law.

If you’re looking to get a conviction vacated, and none of the above limitations apply to you, the process is relatively simple:

  1. Find the court where your conviction occurred. If you’ve been convicted in multiple courts, you’ll need to apply in each court separately.
  2. Fill out the proper paperwork. The form you’ll submit is called a Motion and Declaration for Order Vacating Marijuana Conviction.
  3. File your motion with the court clerk’s office and ask to schedule a hearing. Follow their instructions from there.

Once a court vacates a conviction, the person is clear of all penalties that resulted from it, and it can’t be considered during sentencing for any subsequent conviction, according to a legislative analysis of the bill. Further, a person who has a conviction vacated can state that they have never been convicted of the crime when applying for housing or employment.

My opinion? This is excellent, progressive step toward decriminalizing low-level drug crimes. Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a drug crime. Although Washington State passed initiatives which legalized marijuana possession, it’s comforting that our politicians are moving forward with legislation that gives defendants opportunities to vacate low-level marijuana convictions.

“New Hope Act” Goes In Effect

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Reporter of the Kitsap Sun wrote an informative article stating that bipartisan legislation called the “New Hope Act” streamlines and modifies the process for people with criminal records to vacate convictions after a period of time.

Binion reports that Tarra Simmons, a Bremerton attorney who after serving a prison sentence for drug-related convictions attended law school, said the new law will not only help those who have turned their lives around but also society at large. Despite her criminal history which denied her the opportunity to take the lawyer licensing exam, the state Supreme Court intervened in 2017, allowing her to take, and pass, the test.

Simmons, who is now the executive director of Civil Survival, an organization that helps people negotiate the hurdles as they reintegrate into society after leaving jail and prison, noted the measure received strong bipartisan support.

“People who have spent some time in prison need a chance to get their lives back on track,” Rep. Drew Hanson, D-Bainbridge Island, sponsor of the measure, said in a statement. “This bill removes some of the barriers that are preventing people from rebuilding their lives and gives them hope for a second chance.” Rep. Michelle Cauldier, R-Port Orchard, also sponsored the measure.

Previously, multiple felony convictions for some offenses could be vacated, but only one misdemeanor. The new law allows multiple misdemeanors to be vacated. The new law also adds some felony offenses to the list of convictions that can be vacated. Depending on the crime, there is a waiting period of three, five and 10 years of good behavior and repayment of legal fees a person must complete before petitioning to have their convictions vacated.

Fines Increase for Carpool Cheaters

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A new state law that increases fines for carpool lane cheaters goes into effect Sunday.

The base fine will go up by $50, meaning a first-time violator on freeways or in electronic toll lanes will be fined $186. Second-time violators within two years will receive a fine of $336.

Those trying to trick troopers with a dummy or mannequin will have an extra $200 added to their tickets.

The Washington State Patrol has said high-occupancy vehicle lane cheating is the top complaint by commuters in Seattle’s King County. Last year in King County alone, troopers handed out more than 11,000 tickets to violators caught in the carpool lane.

Carpool violators aren’t an uncommon sight. During an emphasis patrol last September, the Washington State Patrol cited 1,671 drivers in three counties within a week. One driver was caught three times.

HERO Program

Drivers can report HOV, HOT lane or ferry line violators online or by calling at 1-877-764-HERO. We will then mail educational materials about HOV, HOT lane and ferry line usage to the registered owner of the vehicle that was seen violating.

First-time HOV lane violators are sent an educational brochure. Second-time HOV lane violators are sent a letter from WSDOT. Third-time HOV lane violators are sent a letter from the Washington State Patrol.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are pulled over for HOV lane violations.

Federal Government Seeks Death Penalty

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Reporter of the New York Times wrote a compelling article stating the federal government will resume executions of death row inmates after a nearly two-decade hiatus, countering a broad national shift away from the death penalty as public support for capital punishment has dwindled.

Attorney General William P. Barr announced that five men convicted of murdering children will be executed in December and January at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, and additional executions will be scheduled later. The announcement reversed what had been essentially a moratorium on the federal death penalty since 2003.

Prosecutors still seek the death penalty in some federal cases, including for Dylann S. Roof, the avowed white supremacist who gunned down nine African-American churchgoers in 2015, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber. Both were convicted and sentenced to death.

President Trump has long supported the death penalty, declaring last year that drug dealers should be executed. By applying it to inmates convicted of murdering children, he may make a more politically powerful argument for it amid diminishing public support.

But public attitudes toward the death penalty have changed in the ensuing decades. Support for it went from nearly 80 percent in 1996 to a two-decade low three years ago, when just under half of Americans polled backed it for people convicted of murder, according to the Pew Research Center. Public backing of capital punishment ticked back up to 54 percent last year, the center found.

Capital punishment fell out of favor as researchers questioned whether it deterred people from committing heinous crimes and as more defense lawyers proved that their clients had been wrongfully convicted. Fewer than two dozen executions have occurred annually in the United States in recent years, down from a high of 98 in 1999, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Civil rights advocates have also noted the racial disparity among inmates on death row and argued that capital punishment was disproportionately applied to black men.

“The death penalty is plagued by racial bias and geographic bias,” said Cassandra Stubbs, director of the Capital Punishment Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. “Junk science has played an outsized role in who gets the death penalty and who does not,” she added, pointing to instances of experts overstating hair or fingerprint evidence in court testimony.

SUPREME COURT WEIGHS IN

Benner reports that the U.S. Supreme Court term that ended last month featured several bitter clashes over whether inmates can challenge the use of the chemicals used in lethal injections on the grounds that they can cause intense pain.

In 2015, the Supreme Court examined whether lethal injection was unconstitutionally cruel punishment. The justices upheld the use of lethal injection, but in a dissent, Justice Stephen G. Breyer urged the Supreme Court to take a fresh look at the constitutionality of the death penalty.

He said there was evidence that innocent people had been executed, that death row exonerations were frequent, that death sentences were imposed arbitrarily and that the capital justice system was warped by racial discrimination and politics.

But only Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined Justice Breyer’s dissent, and there have been no signs that a majority of the justices have qualms about the constitutionality of the death penalty. To the contrary, the court’s five more conservative members have expressed frustration with what they say is litigation gamesmanship used by opponents of capital punishment to put off executions.

More broadly, they have noted that the punishment is contemplated in the Fifth and 14th Amendments, which call for grand juries in federal cases involving “a capital or other infamous crime” and say that no person may be deprived “of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.”

Overcoming Implicit Bias

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In State v. Berhe, the WA Supreme Court held that a trial court failed to adequately oversee allegations of racism and implicit bias among jurors deliberating in a Shoreline man’s first degree murder and first degree assault trial in 2016.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

In 2016, a King County jury convicted Tomas Berhe, then 31, of murder and assault in a shooting in Seattle’s Eastlake neighborhood. Mr. Behre is African-American. He was convicted of killing 21-year-old Everett Williams, whom Berhe thought had shot his cousin. A second man who was in the Eastlake alley with Williams was also shot.

After the trial concluded with a guilty verdict in early 2016, the sixth juror contacted both defense attorneys and the court with concern, according to the opinion. Weeks later, Berhe asked the judge for a new trial and requested an evidentiary hearing to investigate the allegations of racial bias, among other concerns.

In a written declaration presented by the defense, the sixth juror said she was the only African American on the jury in the trial of an African American defendant and described being the last holdout among four jurors who had initially leaned against conviction.

By the trial’s end, the sixth juror said she only agreed to vote for a guilty verdict because she felt “emotionally and mentally exhausted from the personal and implicit race-based derision from other jurors,” the opinion quotes the declaration as saying.

The juror said others had mocked her as stupid and illogical when she suggested that Berhe could have taken the murder weapon from someone else. She described two jurors as taunting her, saying that she would “let him walk,” and said she felt mocked after several jurors interpreted something she’d said as commentary on police misconduct toward African Americans.

Responding to the defense’s declaration, prosecutors sent questions to several jurors asking if they themselves, or another juror, had done anything to the sixth juror that was motivated by racial bias during deliberations. Results were not conclusive, and the Superior Court judge found insufficient evidence of juror misconduct and denied a request for a new trial.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

First, the WA Supreme Court described how racial bias harms trial verdicts:

“Unlike isolated incidents of juror misbehavior, racial bias is a common and pervasive evil that causes systemic harm to the administration of justice. Also unlike other types of juror misconduct, racial bias is uniquely difficult to identify.”

Second, the Court reasoned that Courts must carefully oversee any inquiry into whether explicit or implicit racial bias influenced a jury verdict.

“Rather than permitting the parties alone to investigate allegations of racial bias, once a claim of racial bias is raised, inquiries into the influence of that racial bias on a jury’s verdict must be conducted under the court’s supervision and on the record,” said the Court. “Therefore, as soon as any party becomes aware that there are sufficient facts to support allegations that racial bias was a factor in the verdict, the court and opposing counsel must be notified.”

Third, the Court reasoned that the unique challenge of assessing implicit racial bias requires a searching inquiry before a court can decide whether an evidentiary hearing is needed. “Implicit racial bias is a unique problem that requires tailored solutions,” said the Court. “Therefore, when it is alleged that racial bias was a factor in the verdict, the trial court must oversee and conduct a thorough investigation that is tailored to the specific allegations presented before deciding whether to hold an evidentiary hearing and before ruling on a defendant’s motion for a new trial,” said the Court.

The Court concluded that the trial court abused its discretion by failing to exercise adequate oversight over the investigations into juror 6’s allegations of racial bias and by failing to conduct a sufficient inquiry before denying Berhe’s motion for a new trial without an evidentiaiy hearing. “We therefore vacate the trial court’s order denying Berhe’s motion for a new trial and remand for further proceedings.”

My opinion? Excellent decision. Groundbreaking, even. In what could be a first-of-its-kind rule nationwide, the judges’ opinion establishes procedures for trial court judges to investigate implicit racial bias reported during jury deliberations.

This isn’t the first time our Supreme Court has openly exercised judicial activism. In April, the state Supreme Court published General Rule 37, a rule for courts saying that challenges during jury selection based on implicit, institutional and unconscious race and ethnic biases should be rejected, she noted. Now, similar protection from bias extends into the jury room.

Excellent decision.

Drunk Bicycling

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Great article by traffic reporter Doug Dahl of the Bellingham Herald reveals that it’s legal to text while riding bike on a public road. In short, Washington’s distracted driving law applies to any person that is driving a motor vehicle on a public highway.”

“Since a bike isn’t a motor vehicle, this law, as I understand it, doesn’t apply,” says Mr. Dahl. “When it comes to texting (arguably one of the more dangerous behaviors on the road) cyclists get a pass.”

Mr. Dahl is correct. While some states do have laws against cycling while impaired, Washington is not one of those states. In City of Montesano vs. Wells, the WA Court of Appeals reversed the conviction of a man charged with DUI while riding a bicycle and held the original intent of DUI laws did not include bicycles. The Court reasoned that because bicycles do not have the force and speed of cars, a drunk bicyclist is not capable of causing the tremendous “carnage and slaughter” associated with impaired driving.

My opinion? Although it’s not a wise decision to text while cycling, police cannot stop or arrest bicyclists for this traffic offense alone. In State v. Ladson, the WA Supreme Court held that our State Constitution forbid the use of pretext as a justification for a warrantless search or seizure. Applied here, in other words, police cannot pull you over to conduct an unlawful pretext search for weapons, drugs or any other contraband if they see you merely texting while riding a bicycle.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are pulled over, searched and/or arrested for texting while riding a bicycle.

Self-Defense in Jail

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In State v. Tullar, the WA Court of Appeals held that a defendant was entitled to a self-defense instruction even though he did not testify that he feared his opponent would badly beat him. The defendant may establish his subjective fear by circumstantial evidence through the testimony of others.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

On December 31, 2017, a correctional officer  Millward was making his welfare checks on inmates at the Okanogan County jail.  He came across Johnathan Cook’s cell. Officer Millward saw Cook facing away from the door, and Officer Millward could tell something was wrong. Officer Millward asked Cook to turn around, and he noticed bruising and a laceration on Cook’s face, a bloodstained shirt, and bruising on his ear. Officer Millward took Cook to get medical attention. Cook was diagnosed with a fractured nose and a fractured left eye socket.

Mr. Cook said he was assaulted by fellow inmate Brandon Tullar.

Jail authorities confronted Tullar, who denied fighting Cook. Despite his denials, there were noticeable marks on Tullar’s hands and his elbow, as well as red marks on his neck.  The State charged Tullar with assault in the second degree. Tullar asserted the defenses of self-defense and mutual combat.

Tullar’s case went to trial. He withdrew his claim of self-defense and proceeded with the defense of mutual combat. He then called two fellow inmates who witnessed the fight. According to both inmates, Cook and Tullar were arguing, and Cook challenged Tullar to a fight. Cook and Tullar then went upstairs to Cook’s cell, with Tullar going first. Once inside the cell, Cook hit Tullar from behind. Cook put Tullar in a chokehold, but Tullar escaped. They exchanged punches until Cook gave up.

Despite the testimony from witnesses, the trial court denied Tullar’s jury instruction for self-defense because Tullar did not testify. The trial court also noted that self-defense was inconsistent with mutual combat. The jury found Tullar guilty of assault in the second degree. Tullar timely appealed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals gave background on Washington’s self-defense laws. In Washington, the use of force is lawful when used by a person about to be injured, provided that the force used is not more than necessary. Because self-defense is a lawful act, it negates the mental state and the “unlawful force” elements of second degree assault. Importantly, the Court also reasoned that self-defense does not require testimony from the defendant.

“Evidence of self-defense may come from whatever source and the evidence does not need to be the defendant’s own testimony.”

Here, Tullar’s witnesses testified that Cook hit Tullar from behind and then put him in a chokehold. From this, a trier of fact could infer that Tullar reasonably feared that if he did not fight back, he would be rendered unconscious. Additionally, Tullar’s witnesses testified that Tullar stopped fighting when Cook gave up. From this, a trier of fact could find that Tullar used no more force than necessary. A self-defense instruction was warranted to let the finder of fact determine whether it believed Cook or whether it believed Tullar’s witnesses.

“The trial court’s decision to not instruct the jury on self-defense virtually guaranteed Tullar’s conviction,” said the Court of Appeals. “The trial court’s refusal to give a self-defense instruction thus prejudiced Tullar.”

Consequently, the Court of Appeals reversed Tullar’s conviction.

My opinion? Good decision. Self-defense is a substantive defense which can guarantee a full acquittal if the court allows the instruction at trial. It shouldn’t matter whether the defendant testifies if trustworthy witnesses can testify and lay the groundwork for the defense. Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges and self-defense is a viable defense.