Category Archives: Constitutional Rights

Firearms & Terry Stops

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In State v. Tarango, the WA Court of Appeals held that the presence of a firearm in public and the presence of an individual openly carrying a handgun in a “high-risk setting,” are insufficient, standing alone, to support an investigatory stop.

BACKGROUND FACTS

At around 2:00 in the afternoon on a winter day in 2016, Mr. Matthews drove to a neighborhood grocery store in Spokane, parking his car next to a Chevrolet Suburban in which music was playing loudly. A man was sitting in the passenger seat of the Suburban, next to its female driver. When Mr. Matthews stepped out of his car and got a better look at the passenger, who later turned out to be the defendant Mr. Tarango, he noticed that Mr. Tarango was holding a gun in his right hand, resting it on his thigh. Mr. Matthews would later describe it as a semiautomatic, Glock-style gun.

As he headed into the store, Mr. Matthews called 911 to report what he had seen, providing the 911 operator with his name and telephone number. The first officer to respond saw a vehicle meeting Mr. Matthews’s description parked on the east side of the store. He called in the license plate number and waited for backup to arrive. Before other officers could arrive, however, the Suburban left the parking area, traveling west.

The Suburban was followed by an officer and once several other officers reached the vicinity, they conducted a felony stop. According to one of the officers, the driver, Lacey Hutchinson, claimed to be the vehicle’s owner. When told why she had been pulled over, she denied having firearms in the vehicle and gave consent to search it.

After officers obtained Mr. Tarango’s identification, however, they realized he was under Department of Corrections (DOC) supervision and decided to call DOC officers to perform the search.

In searching the area within reach of where Mr. Tarango had been seated, a DOC officer observed what appeared to be the grip of a firearm located behind the passenger seat, covered by a canvas bag. When the officer moved the bag to get a better view of the visible firearm—the visible firearm turned out to be a black semiautomatic—a second firearm, a revolver, fell out. Moving the bag also revealed a couple of boxes of ammunition. At that point, officers decided to terminate the search, seal the vehicle, and obtain a search warrant. A loaded Glock Model 22 and a Colt Frontier Scout revolver were recovered when the vehicle was later searched.

The State charged Mr. Tarango, who had prior felony convictions, with two counts of first degree unlawful possession of a firearm. Because Mr. Tarango had recently failed to report to his community custody officer as ordered, he was also charged with Escape from community custody.

Before trial, Mr. Tarango moved to suppress evidence obtained as a result of the traffic stop, arguing that police lacked reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. However, the trial court denied the suppression motion. Later, at trial, the jury found Mr. Tarango guilty as charged. He appealed.

ISSUE

The issue on appeal was whether a reliable informant’s tip that Mr. Tarango was seen openly holding a handgun while seated in a vehicle in a grocery store parking lot was a sufficient basis, without more, for conducting a Terry stop of the vehicle after it left the lot.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

First, the Court of Appeals held that Mr. Tarango’s motion to suppress should have been granted because officers lacked reasonable suspicion that Mr. Tarango had engaged in or was about to engage in criminal activity.

The Court reasoned that warrantless searches and seizures are per se unreasonable unless one of the few jealously and carefully drawn exceptions to the warrant requirement applies.

“A Terry investigative stop is a well-established exception,” said the Court. “The purpose of a Terry stop is to allow the police to make an intermediate response to a situation for which there is no probable cause to arrest but which calls for further investigation . . . To conduct a valid Terry stop, an officer must have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity based on specific and articulable facts known to the officer at the inception of the stop.”

Additionally, the Court of Appeals reasoned that in evaluating whether the circumstances supported a reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct, it reminded that Washington is an “open carry” state, meaning that it is legal in Washington to carry an unconcealed firearm unless the circumstances manifest an intent to intimidate another or warrant alarm for the safety of other persons.

“Since openly carrying a handgun is not only not unlawful, but is an individual right protected by the federal and state constitutions, it defies reason to contend that it can be the basis, without more, for an investigative stop.”

Here, because the officers conducting the Terry stop of the Suburban had no information that Mr. Tarango had engaged in or was about to engage in criminal activity, the officers lacked reasonable suspicion.

Consequently, the Court of Appeals ruled that Tarango’s motion to suppress should have been granted. The Court also reversed and dismissed his firearm possession convictions.

Please contact my office if, a friend or family member face criminal charges. Similar to the excellent defense attorney in this case, experienced attorneys routinely research, file and argue motions to suppress evidence when it is gained by unlawful search and seizure and in violation a defendant’s Constitutional rights.

Unlawful Vehicle Stops

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In United States v. Landeros, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that law enforcement officers may not extend a lawfully initiated vehicle stop because a passenger refuses to identify himself, absent reasonable suspicion that the individual has committed a criminal offense.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Early in the morning of February 9, 2016, police officer Baker pulled over a car driving 11 miles over the speed limit. The stop occurred on a road near the Pascua Yaqui Indian Reservation. Defendant Alfredo Landeros sat in the front passenger seat next to the driver. Two young women were in the back seat. The driver apologized to Officer Baker for speeding and provided identification.

Officer Baker wrote in his incident report and testified that he smelled alcohol in the car. The two women in the backseat appeared to him to be minors, and therefore subject to the underage drinking laws.  The two women—who were 21 and 19 years old—complied.

Officer Baker did not believe that Landeros was underage, and he was not. Nonetheless, Officer Baker commanded Landeros to provide identification.

Landeros refused to identify himself, and informed Officer Baker that he was not required to do so. Officer Baker then repeated his demand to see Landeros’s ID.” Landeros again refused. As a result, Officer Baker called for back-up, prolonging the stop. Officer Romero then arrived, and he too asked for Landeros’s identification. The two officers also repeatedly commanded Landeros to exit the car because he was not being compliant.

Landeros eventually did leave the car. At least several minutes passed between Officer Baker’s initial request for Landeros’s identification and his exit from the car. As Landeros exited the car, he saw for the first time pocketknives, a machete, and two open beer bottles on the floorboards by the front passenger seat. Under Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 4-251, Arizona prohibits open containers of alcohol in cars on public highways. Officer Baker then placed Landeros under arrest.

Landeros was arrested both for possessing an open container and for “failure to provide his true full name and refusal to comply with directions of police officers under Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 13-2412(A). Under that statute, it is unlawful for a person, after being advised that the person’s refusal to answer is unlawful, to fail or refuse to state the person’s true full name on request of a peace officer who has lawfully detained the person based on reasonable suspicion that the person has committed, is committing or is about to commit a crime.”

The officers handcuffed Landeros as soon as he exited the car. Officer Romero asked Landeros if he had any weapons. Landeros confirmed that he had a knife in a pocket. Officer Romero requested consent to search Landeros’s pockets, and Landeros agreed. During that search, Officer Romero found a smoking pipe and six bullets in Landeros’s pockets.

Landeros was federally indicted for possession of ammunition by a convicted felon, 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1), 924(a)(2). He moved to suppress the evidence based on the circumstances of the stop, however, the lower federal district court denied the motion. Landeros then entered into a plea agreement that preserved his right to appeal the denials of the two motions. The district court accepted the agreement and sentenced Landeros to 405 days in prison and three years of supervised release. He appealed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Ninth Circuit held that law enforcement officers may not extend a lawfully initiated vehicle stop because a passenger refuses to identify himself, absent reasonable suspicion that the individual has committed a criminal offense.

The Court reasoned held that because the lower court mistakenly approved the duration of the stop in this case based on United States v. Turvin and wrongfully disregarded Rodriguez v. United States.

“Applying Rodriguez, we shall assume that Officer Baker was permitted to prolong the initially lawful stop to ask the two women for identification, because he had reasonable suspicion they were underage. But the several minutes of additional questioning to ascertain Landeros’s identity was permissible only if it was (1) part of the stop’s “mission” or (2) supported by independent reasonable suspicion.”

The Ninth Circuit also held that any extension of the traffic stop to investigate those matters was an unlawful seizure because there was no evidence that the officer had a reasonable suspicion that the defendant was out past his curfew or drinking underage. As a result, the record does not demonstrate that Officer Baker had a reasonable suspicion that Landeros was out past his curfew or drinking underage. Any extension of the traffic stop to investigate those matters was an unlawful seizure under the Fourth Amendment.

Furthermore, the Ninth Circuit rejected the government’s arguments that the defendant’s refusal to identify himself provided reasonable suspicion of the additional offenses of failure to provide identification and failure to comply with law enforcement orders.

The Court reasoned that here, the officers insisted several times that Landeros identify himself after he initially refused, and detained him while making those demands. “At the time they did so, the officers had no reasonable suspicion that Landeros had committed an offense,” said the Ninth Circuit. “Accordingly, the police could not lawfully order him to identify himself. His repeated refusal to do so thus did not, as the government claims, constitute a failure to comply with an officer’s lawful order . . .” Consequently, reasoned the Ninth Circuit, there was therefore no justification for the extension of the detention to allow the officers to press Landeros further for his identity.

The Ninth Circuit concluded that there was therefore no justification for the extension of the detention to allow the officers to press the defendant further for his identity. It reasoned that the bullets the defendant was convicted of possessing cannot be introduced at trial because he was ordered from the car as part of the unlawfully extended seizure and subsequently consented to a search of his pockets. Furthermore, because the stop was no longer lawful by the time the officers ordered the defendant to leave the car, the validity (or not) of the police officer’s order to exit the vehicle did not matter.

Good opinion.

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.

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.

Stricter Immigration Enforcement Will Not Reduce Crime

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Interesting article released from The Hill by authors Nazgol Ghandnoosh and Alex Nowrasteh claims that recent research shows that immigrants—regardless of legal status—commit property and violent crimes at lower rates than native-born citizens.

This research, conducted independently by The Sentencing Project and the Cato Institute, used different methods but arrived at the same conclusion: Immigrants are less crime-prone than native-born citizens.

Overall, non-citizens are actually slightly underrepresented in prisons, comprising six percent of the prison population compared to their seven percent of the total U.S. population.

“Effectively addressing violent and property crime requires approaching the problem with both eyes open and without fear of the facts. Law enforcement has scarce resources. Sending them on wild goose chases to round up undocumented immigrants will only deter those individuals and those close to them from reporting crimes and cooperating with investigations.”

Nazgol Ghandnoosh is a research analyst at The Sentencing Project and the co-author of the report Immigration and Public Safety. Alex Nowrasteh is an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute and a co-author of the report Criminal Immigrants: Their Numbers, Demographics, and Countries of Origin.

My opinion? This certainly is a highly politicized and hot-button topic. Hopefully, we’ll all arrive at solutions which do not unlawfully violate people’s constitutional rights, regardless of their immigration status.

Please contact me office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime; regardless of immigration status. Hiring a knowledgeable, effective and experienced criminal defense attorney is the first step toward getting justice in our courts.

Racial Profiling of Latinos in LA County

Excellent article by Joel Rubin and Ben Poston of the LA Times examines a disturbing trend. Apparently, more than two-thirds of the drivers pulled over by the Domestic Highway Enforcement Team were Latino, according to a Times analysis of Sheriff’s Department data. And sheriff’s deputies searched the vehicles of more than 3,500 drivers who turned out to have no drugs or other illegal items, the analysis found. The overwhelming majority of those were Latino.

Several of the team’s big drug busts have been dismissed in federal court as the credibility of some deputies came under fire and judges ruled that deputies violated the rights of motorists by conducting unconstitutional searches.

The Times analyzed data from every traffic stop recorded by the team from 2012 through the end of last year — more than 9,000 stops in all — and reviewed records from hundreds of court cases. Among its findings:

  • Latino drivers accounted for 69% of the deputies’ stops. Officers from the California Highway Patrol, mainly policing traffic violations on the same section of freeway, pulled over nearly 378,000 motorists during the same period; 40% of them were Latino.
  • Two-thirds of Latinos who were pulled over by the Sheriff’s Department team had their vehicles searched, while cars belonging to all other drivers were searched less than half the time.
  • Three-quarters of the team’s searches came after deputies asked motorists for consent rather than having evidence of criminal behavior. Several legal scholars said such a high rate of requests for consent is concerning because people typically feel pressured to allow a search or are unaware they can refuse.
  • Though Latinos were much more likely to be searched, deputies found drugs or other illegal items in their vehicles at a rate that was not significantly higher than that of black or white drivers.

From top to bottom: L.A. County Sheriff’s Deputies search a motorist’s suitcase. Also a deputy uses a device for measuring density to search for hidden drugs and clutches some tools he uses to perform vehicle searches. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department said that racial profiling plays no role in the deputies’ work and that they base their stops only on a person’s driving and other impartial factors.

In December, Sheriff Jim McDonnell heaped praise on the team, ticking off its accomplishments in a lengthy statement. “The importance of this mission cannot be overstated,” the sheriff said.

But several legal and law enforcement experts said the department’s own records strongly suggest the deputies are violating the civil rights of Latinos by racially profiling, whether intentionally or not.

“When they say, ‘We’re getting all these drugs out of here,’ they are not taking into account the cost,” said David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who studies racial profiling by police. “They are sacrificing their own legitimacy in the community as a whole and the Latino community in particular.”

Kimberly Fuentes, research director for the California League of United Latin American Citizens, described The Times’ findings as “extremely disturbing and troubling” and said the advocacy organization would demand a meeting with Sheriff’s Department officials.

“These findings risk tarnishing any trust between the Sheriff’s Department and the Latino community,” Fuentes said.

My opinion? A pullover and search of your vehicle is unlawful if the reason for the pullover/search is racial profiling. Racial profiling is the practice of targeting individuals for police or security detention based on their race or ethnicity in the belief that certain minority groups are more likely to engage in unlawful behavior. Examples of racial profiling by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies are illustrated in legal settlements and data collected by governmental agencies and private groups, suggesting that minorities are disproportionately the subject of routine traffic stops and other security-related practices.

Also, pretextual searches are also unlawful. Pretext is an excuse to do something or say something that is not accurate. Pretexts may be based on a half-truth or developed in the context of a misleading fabrication. Pretexts have been used to conceal the true purpose or rationale behind actions and words. A pretextual search and arrest by law enforcement officers is one carried out for illegal purposes such as to conduct an unjustified search and seizure.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member was charged with a crime after being racially profiled and/or pulled over for unlawful pretext. I provide zealous representation to all defendants facing these circumstances.

Jury Bias

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In United States v. Kecheczian, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided a trial court mistakenly  allowed a juror to decide an aggravated identity theft and possession of unauthorized access devices case, when the juror admitted during jury selection that she had her social security number previously stolen and she was unable to explicitly state that she could put her personal biases aside.

BACKGROUND FACTS

After receiving a tip that Mr. Kechedzian was linked to a fugitive operating a large credit card fraud ring, federal agents conducted a trash pull from Kechedzian’s residence. In his trash, they found two counterfeit credit cards and, based on this, the agents obtained a search warrant. The resulting search of Kechedzian’s residence and cars uncovered two USB drives containing 1,451 stolen credit card numbers in text files, a Bluetooth-enabled “skimming device” commonly used to steal credit card information from gas station pumps, and several cards with stolen data re-encoded on the magnetic strips. Bank records revealed that many of the stolen card numbers had been used fraudulently at gas stations and other retail establishments across the United States.

Kechedzian was charged with two counts of possession of 15 or more Unauthorized Access Devices and two counts of Aggravated Identity Theft. The case proceeded to trial. At the beginning of jury selection, the federal district court judge read a general statement of the case, laying out the charges against Kechedzian. The judge then asked the following:

“Does anyone feel, just based on the charges in this case, based on what this case is about, that they could not be fair and impartial to both sides? Does anyone feel that way at this point in time?”

Juror # 3 raised her hand. From there, she informed the court she was a past victim of identity fraud. Furthermore, she did not know whether she could put aside her biases. Later, at sidebar, defense counsel sought to have Juror # 3 excused for cause. However, the judge denied the motion.

“I think at the end of the day she confirmed or committed to the principles of the presumption of innocence and burden of proof,” said the judge. “I would deny the motion.” Consequently, Juror # 3 sat on Kechedzian’s jury.

The jury ultimately returned a guilty verdict, and Kechedzian was sentenced to 65 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release. The district court also ordered $114,134.76 in restitution. Kechedzian timely appealed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & DECISION

The Court of Appeals began by saying the Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants a verdict by an impartial jury, and the bias or prejudice of even a single juror is enough to violate that guarantee. Accordingly, the presence of a biased juror cannot be harmless. The error requires a new trial without a showing of actual prejudice.  And any doubts regarding bias must be resolved against the juror. One important mechanism for ensuring impartiality is voir dire, which enables the parties to probe potential jurors for prejudice. After voir dire, counsel may challenge a prospective juror for cause, and a partial or biased juror should be removed if there is a showing of either implied or actual bias.

“Here, Kechedzian alleges bias under both theories,” said the Court.

Actual Bias Analysis

It explained that actual bias is the more common ground for excusing jurors for cause. Actual bias is the existence of a state of mind that leads to an inference that the person will not act with entire impartiality. Actual bias involves an inability to act impartially or a refusal to weigh the evidence properly It can be revealed through a juror’s express answers during voir dire, but it can also be revealed by circumstantial evidence during questioning.

The Court said that in contrast, implied bias is presumed only in extraordinary cases. “In analyzing implied bias, we look to whether an average person in the position of the juror in controversy would be prejudiced.”

Implied Bias Analysis

This Court described “implied bias” as applying to those extreme situations where the relationship between a prospective juror and some aspect of the litigation is such that it is highly unlikely that the average person could remain impartial in his deliberations under the circumstances.  Furthermore, the implied bias inquiry is an objective one. Even if a juror states or believes that she can be impartial, the court may find implied bias based on the circumstances.

The Court noted that here, although Juror # 3 was previously a victim of identity theft, this is not the type of “extreme” situation where we find implied bias. “Thus, we focus our analysis on the actual bias inquiry,” said the Court.

The Court reasoned that Juror #3 was ultimately asked if she could set aside her feelings, and act impartially and fairly to both sides of the case. She responded: “I believe so, yes.” The Court said that statement—“I believe so, yes”—appears somewhat equivocal. However, none of Juror #3’s equivocal statements could be understood as affirmative statements of impartiality. The Court reasoned that here, Juror #3 explicitly noted that she was unsure if she could put her personal biases aside.

“A juror can understand the presumption of innocence and burden of proof, yet still let personal prejudice infect her ability to be impartial.”

“When a juror is unable to state that she will serve fairly and impartially despite being asked repeatedly for such assurances, we can have no confidence that the juror will lay aside her biases or her prejudicial personal experiences and render a fair and impartial verdict,” said the Court. “Because this is precisely what occurred here, the district court was obligated to excuse Juror #3 for cause under an actual bias theory.”

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for a new trial.

My opinion? Good decision. In my trial experience, potential jurors who have suffered as victims of crime tend to be pro-prosecution. A potential juror who does not know if they can be fair or impartial should be excused for cause. Period.

Inadmissible & Irrelevant Evidence

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In State v. Burnam, the WA Court of Appeals held that the trial court correctly excluded evidence that the woman the defendant killed had four years earlier dated a man accused of murder and that she had hid the murder weapon.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Mr. Burnam was charged with first degree murder or, in the alternative, second degree murder and interfering with the reporting of domestic violence. As trial approached, Mr. Burnam wanted to testify in support of his self-defense claim. He also wanted to testify that the victim Ms. Sweet had been involved in a prior homicide.

Apparently, four years earlier, Ms. Sweet dated a man accused of murder and she had hid the murder weapon, which was a firearm. Sometime after the homicide, Ms. Sweet briefly gave the firearm away and then attempted to get it back. When law enforcement questioned her, she was evasive and misleading. She was charged and convicted of first degree rendering criminal assistance by means of concealing, altering, or destroying the gun.

Mr. Burnam claimed that this was character evidence and asked the court to analyze its admissibility under ER 404(b). Under this evidence rule, evidence of prior acts can be admissible for certain other reasons, including motive, opportunity, and intent

Mr. Burnam made a lengthy offer of proof in support of his motion. He argued that the evidence would help establish the reasonableness of his fear of serious harm or death during his struggle with Ms. Sweet. He repeatedly asserted the jury should know that Ms. Sweet was involved with a homicide or capable of being involved with a person who had committed a homicide.

Despite defense counsel’s offer of proof, the court nevertheless excluded all evidence of the homicide case that Ms. Sweet was involved in.

At trial, Mr. Burnam testified he responded in self-defense to Ms. Sweet. Despite his testimony, the jury found Mr. Burnam guilty of first degree murder and interfering with the reporting of domestic violence. Mr. Burnam appealed on arguments that the court should have admitted evidence that Ms. Sweet was involved in a murder from four years ago.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that both the United States Constitution and the Washington Constitution guarantee the right to present testimony in one’s defense. Furthermore, a defendant’s right to an opportunity to be heard in his defense, including the rights to examine witnesses against him and to offer testimony, is basic in our system of jurisprudence. However, defendants can present only relevant evidence and have no constitutional right to present irrelevant evidence. If relevant, the burden is on the State to show the evidence is so prejudicial as to disrupt the fairness of the fact-finding process at trial.

Admissibility of Self-Defense Evidence.

The Court further reasoned that in considering a claim of self-defense, the jury must take into account all of the facts and circumstances known to the defendant.

“Because the vital question is the reasonableness of the defendant’s apprehension of danger, the jury must stand as nearly as practicable in the shoes of the defendant, and from this point of view determine the character of the act,” said the Court. “Thus, such evidence is admissible to show the defendant’s reason for fear and the basis for acting in self-defense.”

Moreover, evidence of a victim’s violent actions may be admissible to show the defendant’s state of mind at the time of the crime and to indicate whether he had reason to fear bodily harm. Thus, a defendant may, in addition to the character evidence, show specific acts of the victim which are not too remote and of which the defendant had knowledge at the time of the crime with which he is charged. Evidence of specific acts may be admissible for the limited purpose of showing the defendant had a reasonable apprehension of danger.

Finally, the court reasoned that an offer of proof should (1) inform the trial court of the legal theory under which the offered evidence is admissible, (2) inform the trial judge of the specific nature of the offered evidence so the court can judge its admissibility, and (3) create an adequate record for appellate review.

The Court of Appelas concluded that Mr. Burnam’s offer of proof failed to inform the trial judge of the specific nature of the offered evidence.

“Mr. Burnam’s offer of proof was lengthy but repeatedly vague on the specific nature of the offered evidence.”

The Court further concluded that Ms. Sweet merely pleaded guilty to rendering criminal assistance by disposing of a firearm used previously in a homicide. Nevertheless, rendering criminal assistance is a nonviolent felony.

“The mere fact that Ms. Sweet dated a man accused of murder and hid the murder weapon does not strongly imply that Ms. Sweet was violent. The prejudicial effect of excluding this questionable evidence is minimal. We conclude the trial court did not violate Mr. Burnam’s constitutional right to present a defense when it excluded this evidence.”

Consequently, the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision to exclude evidence that Ms. Sweet was indirectly involved in a homicide from four years earlier.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are involved in cases involving assault or self-defense. Generally speaking, evidence that the victim had prior bad acts and/or had violent tendencies is admissible. However, court must undergo a balancing test under the evidence rules to determine if the evidence being offered is relevant, probative and/or unfairly prejudicial. This case was fairly straightforward in determining that the dead victim’s prior conviction for a non-violent crime was irrelevant.

Pretext Traffic Stop

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In State v. Hendricks, the WA Court of Appeals held that a traffic stop for Failure to Transfer Title was not unlawfully pretextual because the stop was initiated based upon running license plates as vehicles passed him and the deputy did not recognize the vehicle’s occupants until after initiating the traffic stop.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Ms. Ciulla was named as a protected party in a no contact order issued against
Hendricks. On September 8, 2016, the State charged Hendricks with violation of a no contact order, alleging that he knowingly had contact with Ciulla. Hendricks filed a CrR 3.6 motion to suppress evidence seized from the traffic stop leading to his arrest, asserting that there was no lawful basis for the traffic stop.

At the CrR 3.6 hearing, Clallam County Sheriff’s Deputy Federline testified that he
was on duty on the evening of September 7, 2016 when he saw a Mazda pickup truck and ran the license plate of the vehicle. Upon his check of the truck’s license plate, Deputy Federline found that more than 15 days had passed since ownership of the vehicle had changed, but the title had not been transferred.

When the truck passed, Deputy Federline also saw that the truck’s back license plate was partially obscured by a trailer hitch. Deputy Federline conducted a traffic stop of the truck. When Deputy Federline made contact with the vehicle’s occupants, he recognized Ciulla in the front passenger seat and Hendricks in the back seat. Deputy Federline arrested Hendricks. Following this testimony, Hendricks argued that Deputy Federline lacked authority to stop the truck based either on a failure to timely transfer title or on an obscured license plate.

The trial court denied Hendricks’s motion to suppress. Following the trial court’s denial of his CrR 3.6 suppression motion, Hendricks waived his right to a jury trial, and the matter proceeded to bench trial on a stipulated record. The trial court found Hendricks guilty of violation of no contact order. The trial court also found that Hendricks committed his offense against a family or household member. Hendricks appealed from his conviction.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution generally prohibit searches and seizures absent a warrant or a recognized exception to the warrant requirement. One such exception to the warrant requirement is an investigative stop as set forth in Terry v. Ohio, a landmark search and seizure case which applies to traffic violations. Also, a law enforcement officer may conduct a warrantless traffic stop if the officer has a reasonable and articulable suspicion that a traffic violation has occurred or is occurring.

The court rejected Hendricks’s arguments that the failure to comply with RCW 46.12.650(5)(a)’s requirement of transferring title within 15 days of delivery of a vehicle does not constitute a traffic infraction under RCW 46.63.020 because the failure to timely transfer title is not a parking, standing, stopping, or pedestrian offense.

“The plain language of RCW 46.63.020 shows that the legislature intended to treat the failure to timely register a vehicle’s title as a traffic infraction and, thus, the trial court correctly concluded that Deputy Federline had an articulable suspicion justifying his stop of the vehicle in which Hendricks was riding as a passenger.”

Next, the Court of Appeals addressed whether the stop was unlawfully pretextual.

Pretextual Traffic Stops

The Court reasoned that Article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution prohibits pretextual traffic stops. State v. Ladson, 138 Wn.2d at 358. A pretextual traffic stop occurs when a law enforcement officer  stops a vehicle in order to conduct a speculative criminal investigation unrelated to enforcement of the traffic code. Ladson, 138 Wn.2d at 349. Whether a given stop is pretextual depends on the totality of the circumstances, “including both the subjective intent of the officer as well as the objective reasonableness of the officer’s behavior.” Ladson, 138 Wn.2d at 359. A traffic stop is not pretextual even where the officer has an additional motivation for conducting the stop apart from a suspected traffic violation, so long as the officer’s purported motive in investigating a suspected traffic violation was an actual, conscious, and independent reason for the stop. State v.
Arreola, 176 Wn.2d 284, 299-300, 290 P.3d 983 (2012).

“Hendricks suggests that Deputy Federline had suspected the vehicle’s occupants of being
involved in drug activity and used the failure to timely transfer title as a pretext to investigate the vehicle and its occupants for drug related offenses,” said the Court. “This is pure speculation without any support in the record.”

The Court reasoned that Deputy Federline was the only witness at the CrR 3.6 hearing. Furthermore, the deputy testified that he was parked at an intersection running the license plates of southbound traveling vehicles when he saw the vehicle at issue. Deputy Federline began to initiate his traffic stop after finding that the title to the vehicle at issue was not timely transferred following a change in ownership. Finally, Deputy Federline recognized Hendricks and Ciulla only after initiating the traffic stop and contacting the driver of the vehicle.

“In short, Hendricks fails to identify any evidence in the record that would have supported a claim that Deputy Federline’s traffic stop was a pretext to investigate a crime unrelated to a suspected traffic infraction.”

Consequently, the Court held that because the record lacked of any evidence supporting a claim that Deputy Federline conducted a pretextual traffic stop, Hendricks can show neither deficient performance nor resulting prejudice from defense counsel’s decision to decline raising the issue at the CrR 3.6 hearing.  Accordingly, the Court of Appeals affirmed Hendrick’s conviction.

Contact my office if you, a friend or family member was contacted by police under circumstances which appear unlawfully pretextual. Despite the above case, Washington case law protects the rights of those who appear to be searched and seized under fabricated pretenses.