Category Archives: Evidence

Evidence of Self-Defense

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In State v. Lee, the WA Court of Appeals held that the trial court violated the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to present a defense by excluding evidence of self-defense.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On January 25, 2015, the defendant Chevalier  Lee’s girlfriend, Danielle Spicer, visited the home of Alice Gonzalez and her husband, Louis Gonzalez -ernandez. Spicer went to the Gonzalez’s house and stayed there with Gonzalez and Gonzalez Hernandez’s’ five children while Gonzalez and Gonzalez-Hernandez ran errands. Gonzalez and Gonzalez-Hernandez returned home to find Lee at their house playing cards with their children and Spicer. Although they had not invited him, Lee had been to their home many times and was generally welcome there.

Later that evening, Lee and Spicer began arguing about whether they would spend the night with Gonzalez and Gonzalez-Hernandez or return to their respective individual residences. Lee loudly cursed at Spicer as the argument escalated. Gonzalez-Hernandez told Lee that he did not like “that kind of behavior” in his house and Lee would have to leave. Lee refused and said that he didn’t have to leave. Gonzalez-Hernandez told Lee to leave approximately three-to-five times. According to Lee, he then cursed at Gonzalez-Hernandez who “came right at” him. Gonzalez-Hernandez had his hands up. Lee was scared and hit Gonzalez-Hernandez. The two men then wrestled. Lee left after seeing the scared looks Gonzalez, Spicer, and the children had.

According to Gonzalez-Hernandez, Lee called him a “f**king b***h” and hit him in the
face. Another witness saw Lee approach Gonzalez-Hernandez and get within inches of his face. Gonzalez-Hernandez again told Lee to leave and Lee “swung at him.” After they fought for a few minutes, Gonzalez called 911 and Lee and Spicer left.

Jury Trial

At trial, the defense sought to elicit testimony from Spicer that she and Lee had witnessed
Gonzalez-Hernandez being “physical with his wife” in a separate incident four days prior to the assault. Lee’s attorney argued that this evidence would show that Lee had actual knowledge that Mr. Gonzalez-Hernandez actually had the capacity to be aggressive and/or violent. According to Lee’s defense attorney, this evidence would show Lee’s state of mind regarding his need to defend himself.

The judge sustained the City’s objection, finding the evidence was “more prejudicial than probative” and that allowing such evidence would open the door to evidence about Lee’s prior misconduct. The defense suggested it would then elicit testimony that Lee “had prior information that Mr. Gonzalez-Hernandez had been known to be aggressive.” The trial court sustained the City’s objection to this evidence, finding it “more prejudicial than probative of anything.”

In fact, during Lee’s testimony, Lee stated that he “had reason to be scared of Gonzalez-Hernandez already,” to which the City objected and the court sustained. Neither the City nor the court stated any specific grounds for this objection or ruling.

A jury found Lee guilty of Assault Fourth Degree. He appealed to the Pierce County Superior Court which affirmed the conviction. The WA Court of Appeals granted Lee’s motion for discretionary review.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals held that the trial court violated Lee’s Sixth Amendment right to present a defense by excluding evidence of self-defense.

The Court agreed with Lee that evidence he had witnessed regarding Gonzalez-Hernandez’s recent violent behavior was critical to his defense because it both increased the likelihood he had a subjective fear of Gonzalez-Hernandez and it made his fear more objectively reasonable, thus strengthening his self-defense argument.

The Court of Appeals reasoned that self-defense is a complete defense under RCW 9A.16.020. A defense of self-defense requires proof (1) that the defendant had a subjective fear of imminent danger of bodily harm, (2) that this belief was objectively reasonable, and (3) that the defendant exercised no more force than was reasonably necessary. The City has the burden of proving the absence of self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Court further reasoned that evidence of self-defense is evaluated from the standpoint of the reasonably prudent person, knowing all the defendant knows and seeing all the defendant sees. This standard incorporates both objective and subjective elements. The subjective portion requires the jury to stand in the shoes of the defendant and consider all the facts and circumstances known to him or her; the objective portion requires the jury to use this information to determine what a reasonably prudent person similarly situated would have done.

Also, said the Court, a fact finder evaluates self-defense from the defendant’s point of view as conditions appeared to him at the time of the act. For the subjective portion of the self-defense test, jurors must place themselves in the shoes of the defendant and evaluate self-defense in light of all that the defendant knew at the time. All facts and circumstances known to the defendant should be placed before the jury. Thus, reasoned the court, under ER 404(B) and ER 405 (B), where a defendant claims self-defense, a victim’s prior acts of violence known to the defendant are admissible to establish a defendant’s reason for apprehension and his basis for acting in self-defense.

ER 404(B)

To determine whether a specific act should be admissible under rule 404(B), the trial court must (1) find by a preponderance of the evidence that the misconduct occurred, (2) identify the purpose for which the evidence is sought to be introduced, (3) determine whether the evidence is relevant to prove an element of the crime charged, and (4) weigh the probative value against the prejudicial effect. The trial court is required to conduct an ER 404(b) analysis on the record.

“In this case, Lee sought to admit evidence of Gonzalez Hernandez’s prior acts of violence
to prove that Lee had knowledge of those acts, giving him reason to fear Gonzalez-Hernandez,” said the Court.

Furthermore, the Court reasoned that evidence that Lee had witnessed Gonzalez-Hernandez being “physical” with his wife four days before the incident was relevant to Lee’s state of mind. “The evidence would allow the jury to assess Lee’s reason to fear
bodily harm from the victim,” said the Court.

Finally, the Court weighed the probative value of Gonzalez-Hernandez’s history of violence against its prejudicial effect. “Because the evidence in this case was relevant and otherwise admissible, the trial court should only exclude it if the City showed that the evidence was so prejudicial as to disrupt the fairness of the fact-finding process at trial,” said the Court. “Here, the proffered evidence went to Lee’s complete defense. Its probative value is to allow Lee to present a defense.”

Consequently, the Court ruled that the City failed to demonstrate that evidence of Gonzalez-Hernandez’s prior violent conduct known to Lee would be so prejudicial as to outweigh Lee’s Sixth Amendment right to present his defense. “This type of evidence should be heard by a jury so it can assess the reasonableness of Lee’s actions,” said the Court.

With that, the Court of Appeals reversed Lee’s conviction.

My opinion? Good decision. Under the Sixth Amendment, citizens have a right to an adequate defense. Under Washington statute, self-defense is a complete defense. Therefore, suppressing evidence which proves self-defense violates the Sixth Amendment.

Don’t Search My Tent!

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In State v. Pippin, the WA Court of Appeals held that a person has a constitutional privacy interest in a tent that is unlawfully erected on public property.

BACKGROUND

Mr. Pippin was a homeless man, living in a tent-like structure on public land in Vancouver. As part of an attempt to notify individuals of a new camping ordinance which prohibits camping on public land without permission, police officers approached Pippin’s tent and requested that he come out. Because Pippin did not come out after an uncertain amount of time and because of noises they heard in the tent, the officers felt they were in danger. One officer lifted a flap of Pippin’s tent to look inside. In the tent, the officers observed a bag of methamphetamine. Pippin was charged with unlawful possession of a controlled substance.

He moved to suppress the evidence derived from the officer basically lifting the flap and looking into the tent, arguing that it was an unconstitutional search under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution and article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution. The Court granted his motion and dismissed  the charge.

The State appealed on arguments that (1) the trial court erred in determining that Pippin had a privacy interest in his tent under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution, and (2) if Pippin’s tent is entitled to constitutional privacy protection, the trial court erred in concluding that the officers’ act of opening and looking into the tent was not justified as a protective sweep or through exigent circumstances based on officer safety.

COURT’S ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSIONS

In the published portion of this opinion, the Court of Appeals held that Pippin’s tent and its contents were entitled to constitutional privacy protection under article I, section 7 of the WA Constitution.

The Court reasoned that Article I, section 7 of the WA Constitution mandates that “no person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law.” It then analyzed different cases under the WA Supreme Court. In short, prior opinions have held that the State unreasonably intruded into a person’s private affairs when it obtained long distance telephone toll records through a pen register, examined the contents of a defendant’s trash placed on the curb for pickup, randomly checked hotel registries to determine who were guests at a hotel, attached a global positioning system tracking device to a defendant’s vehicle, and read through text messages on a cell phone.

The Court’s analysis focused on (1) the historical protections afforded to the privacy interest, (2) the nature of information potentially revealed from the intrusion, and (3) the implications of recognizing or not recognizing the asserted privacy interest.

“Pippin’s tent allowed him one of the most fundamental activities which most individuals enjoy in private—sleeping under the comfort of a roof and enclosure. The tent also gave him a modicum of separation and refuge from the eyes of the world: a shred of space to exercise autonomy over the personal. These artifacts of the personal could be the same as with any of us, whether in physical or electronic form: reading material, personal letters, signs of political or religious belief, photographs, sexual material, and hints of hopes, fears, and desire. These speak to one’s most personal and intimate matters.”

The Court further reasoned that the temporary nature of Pippin’s tent does not undermine any privacy interest, nor does the flimsy and vulnerable nature of an improvised structure leave it less worthy of privacy protections. “For the homeless, those may often be the only refuge for the private in the world as it is,” said the Court.

Under the case law above, Pippin’s tent was the sort of closed-off space that typically shelters the intimate and discrete details of personal life protected by article I, section 7.

The court concluded by saying that all three examined factors—the historical protections, the intimate details revealed from a search, and the implications of recognizing the interest—weigh in favor of finding that Pippin’s tent functioned as part of his private affairs worthy of protection from unreasonable intrusions.

“Accordingly, we hold that Pippin’s tent and its contents fell among those “privacy interests which citizens of this state . . . should be entitled to hold, safe from governmental trespass absent a warrant. As such, Pippin’s tent and contents are protected under article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution.”

In the unpublished portion of the opinion, the Court held that because the State failed to show that an arrest was taking place, the protective sweep exception does not apply.

My opinion? Excellent decision. The homeless have rights, too. Just because one lives in a tent without a front door to knock on, doesn’t mean that police can intrude on one’s public affairs. There was no “exigent circumstance” or “officer safety issue” justifying the intrusion. Good opinion.

“Furtive Movements”

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In State v. Weyand, the WA Supreme Court held that officers lacked sufficient facts to justify a Terry stop of the defendant. Walking quickly while looking up and down the street at 2:40 a.m. is an innocuous act, which cannot justify intruding into people’s private affairs.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On December 22, 2012, at 2:40 in the morning, Corporal Bryce Henry saw a car parked near 95 Cullum Avenue in Richland, Washington, that had not been there 20 minutes prior. The area is known for extensive drug history. Corporal Henry did not recognize the car and ran the license plate through an I/LEADS (Intergraph Law Enforcement Automated System) database. However, that license plate search revealed nothing of consequence about the vehicle or its registered owner.

After parking his car, Corporal Henry saw Weyand and another male leave 95 Cullum. As the men walked quickly toward the car, they looked up and down the street. The driver looked around once more before getting into the car. Weyand got into the passenger seat. Based on these observations and Corporal Henry’s knowledge of the extensive drug history at 95 Cullum, he conducted a Terry stop of the car.

After stopping Weyand, Corporal Henry observed that Weyand’s eyes were red and glassy and his pupils were constricted. Corporal Henry is a drug recognition expert and believed that Weyand was under the influence of a narcotic. When Corporal Henry ran Weyand’ s name, he discovered an outstanding warrant and arrested Weyand. Corporal Henry searched Weyand incident to that arrest and found a capped syringe. Corporal Henry advised Weyand of his Miranda3 rights, and Weyand admitted that the substance in the syringe was heroin that he had bought from a resident inside 95 Cullum.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

The State charged Weyand with one count of unlawful possession of a controlled substance. Weyand moved to suppress all evidence and statements under Criminal Rules (CrR) 3.5 and 3.6 and to dismiss the case against him. Weyand argued that the officer did not have sufficient individualized suspicion to conduct the investigatory stop.

After the hearing, the court concluded that the seizure was a lawful investigative stop. According to the court, Corporal Henry had reasonable suspicion to believe that Weyand was involved in criminal activity. The court found Weyand’s case distinct from State v. Doughty, because in this case there was actual evidence of drug activity at, as well as known drug users frequenting, 95 Cullum.

The court additionally found that Weyand knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waived his Miranda rights; thus, all post-Miranda statements were admissible at trial. Weyand waived his right to a jury trial and agreed to submit the case to a stipulated facts trial. Finding that Weyand possessed a loaded syringe that contained heroin, the court found Weyand guilty of unlawful possession of a controlled substance.

Weyand appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction. It reasoned that the totality of the circumstances, coupled with the officer’s training and experience, showed that the officer had a reasonable, articulable suspicion that justified the stop. Those circumstances included “the long history of drug activity at 95 Cullum, the time of night, the 20 minute stop at the house, the brisk walking, and the glances up and down the street.”

LEGAL ISSUE

Whether the specific facts that led to the Terry stop would lead an objective person to form a reasonable suspicion that Weyand was engaged in criminal activity.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court held that officers lacked sufficient facts to justify a Terry stop of the defendant. It reasoned that under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution, an officer generally may not seize a person without a warrant. There are, however, a few carefully drawn exceptions to the warrant requirement. The State bears the burden to show that a warrantless search or seizure falls into one of the narrowly drawn exceptions.

One of these exceptions is the Terry investigative stop. The Terry exception allows an officer to briefly detain a person for questioning, without a warrant, if the officer has reasonable suspicion that the person is or is about to be engaged in criminal activity. An officer may also briefly frisk the person if the officer has reasonable safety concerns to justify the protective frisk.

The Court found that the totality of the circumstances did not justify a warrantless seizure. It reasoned that in order 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. To evaluate the reasonableness of the officer’s suspicion, Courts look at the totality of the circumstances known to the officer. The totality of circumstances includes the officer’s training and experience, the location of the stop, the conduct of the person detained, the purpose of the stop, and the amount of physical intrusion on the suspect’s liberty. The suspicion must be individualized to the person being stopped.

“Here, the trial court’s decision rested primarily on evidence that 95 Cullum was a
known drug location,” said the Court. “However, Corporal Henry did not observe current activity that would lead a reasonable observer to believe that criminal activity was taking place or about to take place in the residence.”

Furtive Movements

Also, the Court reasoned that reliance on ‘furtive movements’ as the basis for a Terry stop can be problematic. “Case law has not precisely defined such movements, and courts too often accept the label without questioning the breadth of the term.” It explained that ‘furtive movements’ are vague generalizations of what might be perceived as suspicious activity which does not provide a legal ( or factual) basis for a Terry stop.”

The Court quoted Judge Richard Posner in recognizing that “furtive movements,” standing alone, are a vague and unreliable indicator of criminality:

“Whether you stand still or move, drive above, below, or at the speed limit, you will be described by the police as acting suspiciously should they wish to stop or arrest you. Such subjective, promiscuous appeals to an ineffable intuition should not be credited.”

With that, the WA Supreme Court reasoned that simply labeling a suspect’s action a “furtive movement,” without explaining how it gives rise to a reasonable and articulable suspicion, is not sufficient to justify a Terry stop. Furthermore, reasoned the Court, police cannot justify a suspicion of criminal conduct based only on a person’s location in a high crime area:

“It is beyond dispute that many members of our society live, work, and spend their waking hours in high crime areas, a description that can be applied to parts of many of our cities. That does not automatically make those individuals proper subjects for criminal investigation.”

Consequently, the WA Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and hold that walking quickly and looking around, even after leaving a house with extensive drug history at 2:40 in the morning, is not enough to create a reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity justifying a Terry stop.

My opinion? Excellent decision. I’m very impressed the Court addressed the term “furtive movements” and put it in perspective. Law enforcement officers regularly use this catch-phrase to describe suspicious behavior allowing them stop/search/seize people. Although officer safety is a primary concern and a very good reason to search people who are already in police custody and making “furtive movements” in the presence of officers, it cannot be a basis for stopping and searching people who are simply going about their business walking down the street. Great decision.

Invalid Search Warrant

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In State v. Youngs, the WA Court of Appeals suppressed evidence of the defendant’s blood test collected after a search warrant because the search warrant application did not contain sufficient facts to establish that the suspect was driving the car.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In the early morning hours of May 15, 2013, a Washington State Patrol Trooper arrested Youngs after driving a car involved in a rollover collision. The judge issued the warrant based on the Affidavit in Support of Search Warrant for Evidence of a Driving While Under the Influence of Intoxicants (DUI).

This affidavit is a largely preprinted form to which the law enforcement officer may add information.

Following the blood draw, the State charged Youngs with DUI. Youngs moved to suppress evidence obtained under authority of the warrant. The district court denied the motion. Youngs then agreed to a stipulated bench trial based on the police report and blood alcohol report. The district court found Youngs guilty and sentenced him.

Youngs sought review in the superior court. The Court affirmed based on the content in the state trooper’s affidavit. Eventually, the WA Court of Appeals granted Youngs’s appeal.

ISSUE

The question was whether the trooper’s search warrant affidavit had sufficient facts for a judge to make an independent decision whether there was probable cause that the defendant was driving.

COURT’S DECISION & ANALYSIS

 

The Court decided that although the factual information concerning intoxication is sufficient and unchallenged in this case, the factual information to establish driving is insufficient.

The Court reasoned that a judge may only issue a search warrant upon probable cause. The warrant must be supported by an affidavit identifying the place to be searched and the items to be seized. The affidavit must contain sufficient facts to convince an ordinary person that the defendant is probably engaged in criminal activity.

Furthermore, the Court reasoned that judges must evaluate the relevant affidavit “‘in a commonsense manner, rather than hypertechnically, and any doubts are resolved in favor of the warrant. Thus, a “negligent or innocent mistake” in drafting the affidavit will not void it. Also, judges may draw reasonable inferences from the stated facts.

However, the Court also reasoned that inferences alone, without an otherwise substantial basis of facts, are insufficient. The affidavit may provide summary statements so long as it also expresses the facts and circumstances underlying that summary.

Here, the Court found technical problems with the affidavit. For example, one problem is that the preprinted language in the form—”ceased driving/was found in physical control of a motor vehicle” — suggests that it is intended to apply to two different crimes. One crime is “Driving While Under the Influence under RCW 46.61.502, while the other is “Physical Control of Vehicle While Under the Influence under RCW 46.61.504, which is a totally separate and different crime with different elements for the State to prove:

The Court said that unlike the act of driving, which may be readily observed, “physical control” is a conclusion drawn from other facts. For example, a police officer may reach this conclusion based on the defendant’s proximity to the vehicle, possession of keys to it, or similar observable circumstances.  Because the magistrate must independently determine whether probable cause exists, he or she cannot simply accept such a conclusion without supporting allegations. Therefore, ruled the Court, the statements in the search warrant affidavit are conclusory, general, and insufficient to support probable cause that Youngs was driving the vehicle.

With that, the Court reversed Youngs’ conviction and remanded the case back to the district court with directions to suppress the evidence obtained by the warrant.

My opinion? Excellent decision. Sure, it’s sometimes safe to assume that the sole driver of a car involved in a collision is, in fact, the driver. However, it muddies the waters even further when law enforcement officers issuing search warrants fail to clarify whether the crime of straight DUI or Physical Control DUI took place. These crimes are very different. One crimes involves officers seeing the defendant drive (straight DUI) while the other crime does not (Physical Control DUI). Combined with the fact that there was missing information regarding the defendant’s driving at all, this combination of errors makes for an ineffective search warrant.

Again, good decision.

Drug-Sniffing Dogs

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In United States v. Gorman, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Fourth Amendment was violated when an officer unreasonably prolonged an initial traffic stop and radioed for a drug-sniffing dog after because he thought there were drugs in the car.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In January 2013, a police officer stopped Straughn Gorman on Interstate-80 outside Wells, Nevada for a minor traffic infraction. The officer thought Gorman might be carrying drug money. Acting on this concern, he unsuccessfully attempted to summon a drug-sniffing dog and then prolonged Gorman’s roadside detention, which lasted nearly half an hour, as he conducted a non-routine records check.

Unable to justify searching the vehicle, he questioned Gorman further and finally released him without a citation.

Undeterred, the officer then developed the bright idea of contacting the sheriff’s office in Elko, a city further along Gorman’s route, to request that one of their officers stop Gorman a second time. The first officer conveyed his suspicions that Gorman was carrying drug money, described Gorman’s vehicle and direction of travel, and reported that his traffic stop had provided no basis for a search. “You’re going to need a dog,” he said. A second officer, who had a dog with him, then made a special trip to the highway to intercept Gorman’s vehicle.

The second officer saw Gorman and eventually believed he had found a traffic reason to pull him over. Following the second stop, the second officer performed a series of redundant record checks and conducted a dog sniff. The dog signaled the odor of drugs or drug-tainted currency. On the basis of the dog’s alert, the second officer obtained a search warrant, searched the vehicle, and found $167,070 in cash in various interior compartments.

No criminal charges arising from this incident were ever brought against Gorman. Instead, the government attempted to appropriate the seized money through civil forfeiture. Civil forfeiture allows law enforcement officials to “seize . . . property without any predeprivation judicial process and to obtain forfeiture of the property even when the owner is personally innocent.” Leonard v. Texas, 137 S. Ct. 847, 847 (2017).

Gorman contested the forfeiture by arguing that the coordinated stops violated the Fourth Amendment. He prevailed. The federal district court ordered that his money be returned and also awarded him attorneys’ fees. The Government appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals (1) affirmed the lower court’s order granting claimant’s motion to suppress evidence seized pursuant to a traffic stop; (2) affirmed the award of attorneys’ fees; and (3) held that the search of claimant’s vehicle following coordinated traffic stops violated the Constitution.

The Court of Appeals held that the first stop of claimant’s vehicle was unreasonably prolonged in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The court reasoned that the Supreme Court has made clear that traffic stops can last only as long as is reasonably necessary to carry out the “mission” of the stop, unless police have an independent reason to detain the motorist longer. The “mission” of a stop includes “determining whether to issue a traffic ticket” and “checking the driver’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the automobile’s registration and proof of insurance.” Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609, 1615 (2015).

Additionally, the Court held that the dog sniff and search of claimant’s vehicle during the coordinated second vehicle stop followed directly in an unbroken causal chain of events from that constitutional violation; and consequently, the seized currency from the second stop was the “fruit of the poisonous tree” and was properly suppressed under the exclusionary rule.

Finally, the Court held that none of the exceptions to the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine – the “independent source” exception, the “inevitable discovery” exception, and the “attenuated basis” exception – applied to claimant’s case.

Good decision.

“Rough Estimates” Can’t Support a Conviction for Property Crimes.

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In State v. Williams, the WA Court of Appeals decided that a victim’s “rough estimate” regarding the value of stolen property of “roughly $800” will not support a conviction for possession of property in the second degree. While the owner of a chattel may testify to its market value without being qualified as an expert on valuation, the owner must testify to an adequate basis of his opinion of value to support a conviction.

FACTS & BACKGROUND

In May 2014, the Spokane Police Department received calls complaining of a man stalking through backyards in a west Spokane neighborhood. On May 6, 2014, one caller, Brad Dawson, observed the man carrying two sports duffel bags and possibly a screwdriver. Also on May 6, 2014, someone burglarized the home of David and Joan Nelson.

Joan Nelson’s brother, John Johnston, drove through the neighborhood in an attempt to apprehend the burglar. After inspecting five homes, Johnston espied a kneeling gentleman, with two duffels bags astride, employing a screwdriver to pry open a lock on a storage facility. The man fled when Johnston yelled.

Johnston called 911 and tracked the fleer as the fleer scattered from yard to yard and hid in changing locations. Johnston kept contact on his cellphone with Spokane police. Spokane police officers arrived and apprehended the burglar, Leibert Williams. Law enforcement officers found a duffel bag, a Bluetooth speaker, a laptop, running shoes, a jacket, and two rings belonging to Adam Macomber in the possession of Williams. Days earlier, Macomber had discovered the property missing from his apartment.

The State of Washington charged Leibert Williams with five crimes: (1) residential burglary, (2) second degree burglary, (3) attempted second degree burglary, (4) attempted theft of a motor vehicle, and (5) possession of stolen property in the second degree. The State added the final charge near the date of trial.

During trial, Macomber identified those items missing from his apartment. However, he only gave “rough estimates” of $800 for the value of his items.

The State presented no other testimony of the value of stolen goods. And the trial court denied a request by Leibert Williams for a lesser included offense instruction with regard to second degree possession of stolen property.

The jury found Williams guilty of first degree criminal trespass, attempted second degree burglary, vehicle prowling, and second degree possession of stolen property. The jury acquitted Williams of residential burglary.

Williams’ appeal concerns the possession of stolen property conviction.

ANALYSIS & CONCLUSION

The Court reasoned that Macomber’s testimony failed to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the value of his stolen property exceeded $750 when Macomber said, “I could give a rough estimate . . .  I would say roughly $800.”

It further reasoned that “value” for the purposes of theft means the market value of the property at the time and in the approximate area of the theft. “Market value” is the price which a well-informed buyer would pay to a well-informed seller, when neither is obliged to enter into the transaction. In a prosecution, value need not be proved by direct evidence. Rather, the jury may draw reasonable inferences from the evidence, including changes in the condition of the property that affect its value.

Here, Adam Macomber testified to a “rough estimate” value of the stolen goods to be $800, a figure close to the minimum amount required to convict of $750. He listed the property taken from him, but did not describe the condition of the property when stolen. He also failed to disclose the purchase date or the purchase price of each item.

“Macomber did not testify to the basis of his opinion of value. For all we know, he used the purchase price of the goods, the replacement cost of the goods, or some intrinsic value to himself.”

With that, the Court decided that the proper remedy for the insufficiency of evidence was to dismiss the charge for possession of stolen property in the second degree. This somewhat extreme measure was partially based on the trial court’s refused to instruct the jury on the lesser included offense of third degree possession: “This court lacks authority to direct the entry of judgment of the lesser included offense if the jury was not instructed on that offense.”

My opinion? Good decision. My heart goes out to the victim, however, courts need more than mere “rough estimates” when it comes to assigning a value to property. Indeed, property crimes are assigned a seriousness level – from simple misdemeanors through Class A felonies – by identifying the value of the property which was stolen or destroyed. These are not small matters. There’s a big difference between felonies and misdemeanors. Therefore, it’s extremely important to be specific and correct on these matters.

 

Opening the Door

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In State v. Wafford, the WA Court of Appeals that a defendant’s counsel “opened the door” to suppressed evidence during opening statement, and that the proper remedy was to admit evidence that the court had previously ruled inadmissible.

FACTS & BACKGROUND

The incidents began years before. In 2005, T.H.’s mother heard that eight-year-old T.H. had told a friend that something inappropriate happened with Mr. Wafford. After reporting to police, T.H.’s mother took T.H. to be interviewed at Dawson Place, the Snohomish County Center for Child Advocacy. There, a child forensic interview specialist talked with T.H., and their conversation was video-recorded. T.H. did not make a specific disclosure of sexual abuse by Wafford, though she did appear to nod affirmatively in response to one question about inappropriate sexual contact. The State did not investigate further or charge Wafford.

However, Mr. Wafford continued to sexually abuse H.F. as well as her sister T.H. Eventually, the State charged Wafford with crimes against both T.H. and H.F.  As to T.H., Wafford was charged with first degree rape of a child, first degree child molestation, and first degree incest. As to H.F., Wafford was charged with first degree rape of a child, first degree child molestation, and third degree child molestation.

PRE-TRIAL SUPPRESSION OF VIDEO INTERVIEW

Before trial, the court conducted a child hearsay hearing at which it concluded that the 2005 recorded interview of T.H. was inadmissible. The court reasoned that because T.H. never actually described an act of sexual contact, her statements were not admissible under the child hearsay statute.

TRIAL

During defense counsel’s opening statement, she referred explicitly to the video of T.H.’s interview: “Mariyah brought both H.F. and T.H. to Dawson Place in 2005. Nova Robinson interviewed on video T.H., but T.H. denied that anything was happening to her.” The State did not object.

After opening remarks, the State requested that the court admit the interview video that had been previously excluded. The State argued that when defense counsel mentioned the video, she opened the door to its admission. The court found that defense counsel opened the door and admitted a portion of the video. Ultimately, the jury found Wafford guilty of first degree child molestation of T.H., but was unable to reach a verdict on the remaining counts. The court sentenced Wafford to 68 months in prison.

Wafford appealed on the argument that, as a matter of law, comments made by counsel during opening statements cannot open the door to otherwise inadmissible evidence.

ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSION

The Court reasoned that (1) a party who introduces evidence of questionable admissibility may open the door to rebuttal with evidence that would otherwise be inadmissible, and (2) a party who is the first to raise a particular subject at trial may open the door to evidence offered to explain, clarify, or contradict the party’s evidence. State v. Jones, citing 5 KARL B. TEGLAND, WASHINGTON PRACTICE: EVIDENCE LAW AND PRACTICE § 103.14, at 66-67 (5th ed.2007).

With that background, the Court addressed Wafford’s argument that because a comment made during an opening statement  is not evidence, it cannot open the door pursuant to State v. Whelchel and  Corson v. Corson.

However, the Court distinguished these cases. First, it reasoned that Whelchel does not support the broad proposition that opening statements cannot open the door because the evidence in question in Whelchel was admissible when the parties made opening statements. Second, the Corson case was distinguishable because in that case the trial court wrongfully admitted irrelevant and prejudicial evidence in response to an improper opening statement when other more effective means of ensuring a fair proceeding are available. Consequently, the Corson case did not hold that opening statements can never open the door to otherwise inadmissible evidence.

Next, the Court rejected Wafford’s argument that comments made during opening statements cannot open the door. First, such a rule would be contrary to the general rule permitting trial courts the discretion to determine the admissibility of evidence. Second, whether the issue arises from the statement of counsel or the testimony of a witness is immaterial to the question faced by the trial judge: to what extent, if any, has the statement compromised the fairness of the trial and what, if any, response is appropriate:

“In answering this question, the trial judge should have a range of options at his or her disposal. A judge may admonish the jury to disregard certain statements or reiterate its instruction that opening statements are not evidence. The judge may allow testimony about otherwise inadmissible evidence, while continuing to exclude the exhibit or document which contains the evidence. Or the judge may find that a party has opened the door to otherwise inadmissible evidence. The appropriate response is that, which in the discretion of the trial judge, best restores fairness to the proceeding.”

Finally, the Court rejected Wafford’s argument that the trial court mistakenly admitted the recording because it was inadmissible hearsay and therefore incompetent evidence.  Under ER 801(d)(1)(ii), a statement is not hearsay if “the declarant testifies at the trial or hearing and is subject to cross examination concerning the statement, and the statement is… consistent with the declarant’s testimony and is offered to rebut an express or implied charge against the declarant of recent fabrication or improper influence or motive. . . .” Here, however, the victim testified. The court concluded her affirmation of Wafford’s unlawful sexual conduct was consistent with her testimony and is thus not hearsay under ER 801(d)(1).

With that, the Court upheld Wafford’s conviction and sentencing.

My opinion?

It is well settled in Washington that a party that introduces evidence of questionable admissibility runs the risk of “opening the door” to the admission of otherwise inadmissible evidence by an opposing party.

For this reason, it is mandatory that attorneys exercise extreme discretion with their comments and questions during trial. Defense attorneys must avoid discussing evidence they work so hard to suppress. Not only can one “open the door” during direct and cross examination of witnesses, but also opening statements.

State v. Armstrong: Prosecutor Not Obligated to Bring Video Evidence

Image result for ampm video crime scene video

Some Clients are concerned why can’t make the Prosecution obtain video surveillance evidence from crime scenes. This recent case explains why.

In State v. Armstrong, the WA Supreme Court held that the Prosecutor’s failure to obtain a copy of the AM/PM store’s surveillance video prior to the store’s destruction of the video pursuant to the store’s policy, did not violate the defendant’s due process rights.

FACTS & BACKGROUND

A no-contact order existed prohibiting Defendant Dennis Armstrong from contacting his former partner, Nadia Karavan. Nonetheless, on April 20, 2014, they agreed to meet at a bus stop in violation of the No-Contact Order. As the two talked, Armstrong became angry. He yelled and hit the wall of the bus stop shelter. Armstrong then hit Karavan twice in the face with an open fist.

After a brief struggle, Karavan ran to a nearby AM/PM gas station, and Armstrong followed her. According to the store clerk, Todd Hawkins, the two exchanged words. Armstrong followed Karavan around the store for several minutes, and Karavan asked Hawkins to call the police several times. When Hawkins finally called the police, Armstrong left the store.

Officers responded to the 911 call. Officer Martin noticed that Karavan had a slightly swollen, red abrasion on the side of her face.

Armstrong denied spending time inside the AM/PM. In response, the officers told Armstrong that surveillance video from the AM/PM would show what really happened. The officers repeatedly emphasized the video and told Armstrong that he should “tell the truth” because they had the “whole thing on video.”

The State charged Armstrong with a domestic violence felony violation of a court order.

Before trial and again during trial, Armstrong moved to discharge his counsel. One of his reasons was that counsel failed to give him the surveillance video as he requested. The prosecutor told the court that the State had never possessed the video. The court denied Armstrong’s motions.

At trial, Hawkins (the AM/PM employee) testified that there were about 16 cameras around the store: a few of which covered the gas pumps and one that may have shown a slight, low view shot of the bus stop. Although Hawkins testified that police had requested surveillance video from AM/PM in the past, no officer requested footage from the night of this incident. Hawkins had previously reviewed the video from that night and testified that it showed what he described in his testimony, but per AM/PM policy, the video had since been destroyed.

At trial, the officers gave various reasons why they never collected the video. Officer Martin testified that she heard Officer Elliot ask about the video, but she assumed it was the responsibility of someone else at the scene to investigate the video. Officer Rodriguez testified that he never viewed the video. He simply followed Officer Elliot’s lead when the two were questioning Armstrong. Officer Elliot was unavailable to testify at trial. Detective Rande Christiansen, who had been assigned to do the follow-up investigation on the case, testified that he did not investigate any video from the AM/PM because he did not know such video existed.

The jury returned a general guilty verdict despite the lack of surveillance video evidence.

On appeal – and with other arguments, Armstrong claimed that the police violated his right to due process because they failed to collect video surveillance from the AM/PM after using that video as a tool when interviewing Armstrong at the scene.

ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS.

Ultimately, the Court held that Armstrong failed to show that the police acted in bad faith when they did not collect video surveillance that was only potentially useful evidence.

The Court reasoned that under the Fourteenth Amendment to the federal constitution, criminal prosecutions must conform with prevailing notions of fundamental fairness, and criminal defendants must have a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense. Consequently, the prosecution has a duty to disclose material exculpatory evidence to the defense and a related duty to preserve such evidence for use by the defense.

The court also reasoned that although the State is required to preserve all potentially material and favorable evidence, this rule does not require police to search for exculpatory evidence. And in order to be material exculpatory evidence – that is, evidence which has value to the defense of which can alter or shift a fact-finder’s decision on guilt or innocence – the evidence must both possess an exculpatory value that was apparent before it was destroyed and be of such a nature that the defendant would be unable to obtain comparable evidence by other reasonably available means.

Finally, the court reasoned that the police’s failure to preserve “potentially useful evidence” was not a denial of due process unless the suspect can show bad faith by the State. The presence or absence of bad faith turns on the police’s knowledge of the exculpatory value of the evidence at the time it was lost or destroyed. Also, acting in compliance with its established policy regarding the evidence at issue is determinative of the State’s good faith.

“Armstrong asserts that the video surveillance was potentially useful evidence,” said the Court. “Therefore, he must show that the police acted in bad faith.” According to Armstrong, the police acted in bad faith because they told him during the interview that they were going to collect the video but they never actually collected it. Armstrong describes this as the police acting with an “extreme cavalier attitude” toward preserving potentially useful evidence. The Court further reasoned that beyond this failure to collect the video, Armstrong offers no evidence of bad faith, such as improper motive.

“Armstrong has failed to show that the police acted in bad faith when they failed to collect the surveillance video from the AM/PM. The testimony of the officers indicates that the video went uncollected due to mere oversight. Armstrong has presented no evidence that the police had an improper motive. At most, Armstrong has shown that the investigation was incomplete or perhaps negligently conducted, but that is not enough to show bad faith.”

With that, the Court upheld his conviction.

My opinion? I understand the Court’s opinion insofar as the Prosecution should not be burdened with providing exculpatory evidence, especially if that evidence is unimportant – or not material – to the larger issues of guilt.

However, I would object to the AM/PM employee  discussing the  video as facts that are not admitted into evidence. Under this objection when the attorney claims that “the question assumes facts not in evidence,” what he is really saying is that the facts that are being presented to the witness are presumably not yet in evidence and therefore, how can this witness properly answer the question if those facts have not been put before this jury? These kinds of questions

Backpage.com Evidence Admitted at Trial as “Business Record.”

Image result for backpage escorts

In State v. Butler, the WA Court of Appeals decided a trial court rightfully admitted business records connecting showing the defendant used Backpage.com to facilitate the commercial sexual abuse of a minor because the State’s failure to provide the written notice of the evidence did not prejudice the defendant, who was given the business records months before trial.

BACKGROUND FACTS

N.C. was 14 years old when she first met 22-year-old defendant Ivory Butler. One day, N.C. skipped school and spent the day with Butler. N.C.’s mother found out she had skipped school and punished her. N.C. ran away from home, and Butler picked her up. He took her to a motel room and arranged for her to meet men at the motel for sex. She gave the money she received to Butler. N.C. continued selling sexual services and giving the money to Butler.

Detective Raymond Unsworth found Internet ads on Backpage.com for female escort services with Butler’s phone number listed as the contact number. The ads included photographs of the body, but not the face, of a young woman. The ads alluded to sexual services that would be provided, with the prices that would be charged.

An undercover detective responded to the Backpage ads by contacting Butler’s phone number. The detective, posing as a customer, arranged to obtain sexual services for $300 from a woman in room 201 of the New Horizon Motel. Police found N.C. in that room, together with a disposable cellphone under the mattress, condoms in a Crown Royal bag, and a knife in the bedside table drawer.

In Butler’s phone, the contact name assigned to the disposable phone found in the motel room was “Money Baby Money Baby.” Text messages between Butler’s phone and the disposable phone found in the motel room included details about providing sexual services for money. The messages also included instructions from Butler to N.C. to discard the phone in the toilet if the police came. Butler was arrested and charged under RCW 9.68A.101 with promoting commercial sexual abuse of a minor.

The Trial Exhibits

At trial, the State sought to admit three exhibits. Exhibits #3 and #4 relate to Backpage ads for escort services. Exhibit #5 was the certification from the Backpage records custodian. Detective Unsworth testified that he found the ads on Backpage’s public website. Each ad included photographs of a young woman, information about the sexual services that could be provided, the price, and Butler’s telephone number as the contact.

Exhibits #3 and #4 compiled the ads that were online, more photographs that Detective Unsworth had not seen online, the date each ad was posted, and the poster’s fictitious name, mailing address, and e-mail address. Backpage provided the certification from its records custodian in response to a search warrant for business records.

The State provided these exhibits to Butler months before trial as part of discovery. The trial court admitted the exhibits over Butler’s objection.

The jury found Butler guilty as charged. On Appeal, Butler argues the Exhibits #3, #4 and #5 were wrongfully admitted.

COURT’S ANALYSIS AND DECISION

Butler argues Exhibits #3, #4 and #5 were inadmissible because the State did not give proper notice under RCW 10.96.030(3). This statute contains an exception to the general rule requiring witness testimony to admit business records. To ensure the opposing party has a fair opportunity to challenge the business records and certification, the statute provides in part:

“A party intending to offer a record into evidence under this section must provide written notice of that intention to all adverse parties, and must make the record and affidavit, declaration, or certification available for inspection sufficiently in advance of their offer into evidence to provide an adverse party with a fair opportunity to challenge them.”

The court reasoned that approaching these issues is similar to approaching the child hearsay rule: basically, cases addressing the child hearsay statute have upheld the admission of statements without prior notice “so long as the adverse party had or was offered an opportunity to prepare to challenge the statements.”

Here, Butler argued the State was required to provide a separate written notice to inform him that it intended to rely on RCW 10.96.030 for admission of the business records. But months before trial, the State provided the certification of the Backpage records custodian, together with the Backpage business records. Mid-trial, the State also offered to produce the custodian for live testimony and a defense interview. This allowed Butler ample opportunity to prepare to challenge the records. With that, the Court denied Butler’s arguments:

“Consistent with the cases addressing the child hearsay statute, we conclude the lack of written notice required by RCW 10.96.030 did not cause any prejudice to Butler. He had ample opportunity to prepare to challenge the business records when the State provided all of the proposed business records and the certification from the records custodian months prior to trial.”

Moreover, the Court reasoned that the State offered to call the records custodian as a witness and to allow Butler to interview the custodian. However, Butler declined to request a continuance to interview the witness.

Finally, the Court of appeals rejected arguments that the Backpage ads bolstered N.C.’s testimony tying Butler to the Backpage evidence. The Court reasoned that even without the admission of the Backpage ads, overwhelming evidence links Butler to his exploitation of N.C.:

“The physical evidence, text messages, jail phone calls, testimony from N.C., and successful undercover sting operation provide overwhelming evidence that Butler promoted the prostitution of N.C.”

Consequently, the Court concluded that the lack of written notice required by RCW 10.96.030 did not cause prejudice to Butler. Overwhelming evidence supported Butler’s guilt.

Prostitution Evidence Admitted During Defendant’s Assault Trial.

Image result for abused prostitutes

In State v. Woods, the WA Court of Appeals held that evidence that the defendant prostituted the victim was properly admitted in his prosecution for second degree assault by strangulation. These prior acts were necessary to explain to the jury why the victim was fearful of seeking help from her family or from the police.

BACKGROUND FACTS.

The Defendant Euran Woods and victim BrittanyEnglund began their volatile relationship in 2009. At that time, Woods and Englund sold drugs together and Englund herself was addicted to drugs. As Englund’s drug addiction grew, so did her dependency on Woods— who exploited this dependency to isolate Englund from her friends and family. In addition to being emotionally abusive, Woods physically abused Englund throughout their relationship.

In 2011, Woods began forcing Englund to prostitute herself. He conditioned Englund to comply with his demands by convincing her that her life of prostitution was only temporary and that one day they would both have normal jobs and be happy together.

Englund argued with Woods regarding the prostitution several times. On one occasion in August of 2011, Woods strangled Englund until she passed out. Englund did not inform the police or her family of the abuse or prostitution both out of fear that Woods would retaliate and because she felt that Woods loved her and was sorry.

However, Woods strangled Englund again in September of 2011 after she discovered  he had been taking suggestive pictures with other women. Woods threw Englund across the room, kicked her, stomped on her, and strangled her until she passed out. Woods later apologized to Englund, who decided to not call the police.

In April of 2012, Woods again assaulted Englund. Her mother drove her to the hospital. Englund disclosed the 2011 assaults for the first time during a subsequent interview with a police detective.

THE CHARGES, JURY TRIAL & BASIS FOR APPEAL.

Woods was charged with one count of assault in the second degree for the September 2011 strangulation, with a special allegation of domestic violence pursuant to RCW 10.99.020.

During trial, the court admitted evidence of the August 2011 strangulation and the prostitution evidence. It determined that such evidence was admissible because it aided the jurors in understanding the nature of the relationship, motive, and intent, and helped to illuminate the victim’s state of mind.  The trial court also noted that—in matters dealing with domestic violence—testimony regarding prior assaults may assist the jury in understanding the dynamics of the domestic violence relationship and in assessing the victim’s credibility.

The jury found Woods guilty. He timely appealed. Although his attorney filed an Anders brief on arguments that the appeal was frivolous, the WA Court of Appeals nevertheless granted review to resolve the issues presented.

THE COURT’S REASONING AND CONCLUSION.

ER 404(b) Evidence

The Court of Appeals illustrated that under ER 404(b), evidence of a defendant’s prior bad act is not admissible to prove the defendant’s character and to show action in conformity therewith. However, such evidence may be admissible for other purposes, depending on its relevance and the balancing of its probative value and danger of unfair prejudice. For evidence of a prior bad act to be admissible, a trial judge must (1) find by a preponderance of the evidence that the misconduct occurred, (2) identify the purpose for which the evidence is sought to be introduced, (3) determine whether the evidence is relevant to prove an element of the crime charged, and (4) weigh the probative value against the prejudicial effect.

Under this analysis, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the trial court’s rulings herein werecorrect. Englund’s testimony as to how Woods forced her into prostitution and why she was unable to escape was necessary for the jurors to understand the dynamics of this domestic violence relationship. Furthermore, Woods’ forced prostitution of Englund was a source of shame and fear for Englund and was an important factor in understanding why she refused to seek help from her friends, family, and the police.

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

The Court illustrated how Constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel is established only when the defendant shows that (1) counsel’s performance, when considered in light of all the circumstances, fell below an objectively reasonable standard of performance, and (2) there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s deficient performance, the result of the proceeding would have been different.

Under this analysis, the Court rejected Wood’s arguments that his counsel was ineffective for failing to object to the admission of the prostitution evidence.  It reasoned there was nothing objectionable about this evidence because it was properly admitted pursuant to ER 404(b). Moreover, Woods’ counsel expressly deferred an objection to the prostitution evidence after stating that he viewed that evidence as presenting a valuable area for cross examination: “Rather, the record demonstrates that a tactical decision was made.”

Woods also believed he received ineffective assistance of counsel because his attorney failed to request a limiting instruction regarding the prostitution evidence. However, the Court of Appeals held this was also a strategic decision on the part of Woods’ defense attorney: “Defense counsel argued to the jury that Woods did not cause Englund’s injuries. Rather, he posited, those injuries could have been a result of Englund’s prostitution.” Thus, deficient performance was not established.

With that, the COurt of Appeals held that Woods was not prejudiced and upheld his conviction.