Category Archives: felony

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.

Accomplices & Drive-By Shooting

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In State v. Jameison, the WA Court of Appeals held that (1) Drive-By Shooting charges may not be maintained against an accused who merely retrieves a gun from the car in which he arrived to the scene of the homicide but crouches behind another car at the time he returns fire, and (2) the defendant’s arming himself and hiding behind a car from the bullets of the other shooter does not amount to accomplice liability with the co-defendant.

BACKGROUND FACTS

This prosecution arises from a confrontation between Kwame Bates and defendant
Lashawn Jameison, on the one hand, and Anthony Williams, on the other hand, during
which skirmish Williams fired his gun and killed bystander Eduardo Villagomez. A
video partially captures the confrontation and shooting.

On the night of January 17-18, 2016, Lashawn Jameison and Kwame Bates joined
a group of five hundred young adults at the Palomino Club in Spokane to celebrate
Martin Luther King Day. Bates drove Jameison to the club in a white Toyota Camry
owned by Bates’ girlfriend, which car gains significance as events transpire. Bates
parked the Camry on Lidgerwood Street in front of a Department of Licensing building
adjacent to the club. A Chrysler parked behind the Camry on the street. We do not know
the time of night that Bates and Jameison arrived at the celebration.

The Palomino Club closed at 2 a.m. on January 18. As Lashawn Jameison and Kwame Bates exited the club at closing, another patron, Anthony Williams, shoved Sierra, a female friend of Bates. The shove began a deadly chain of events. As a result of the push, Bates and Williams argued. Jameison did not participate in the quarrel.

Williams jumped a metal fence bordering the club parking lot, retrieved a handgun from
a car parked in the adjacent Department of Licensing parking lot, and returned to the entrance of the club. Williams paced to and from the club building, the adjacent lot, and
Lidgerwood Street.

Both Kwame Bates and Lashawn Jameison, knowing that Anthony Williams possessed a firearm, returned to the white Toyota Camry and armed themselves. Both Bates and Jameison lawfully owned firearms. During this activity, other patrons of the Palomino Club departed the building and walked to their cars parked in the club parking lot, in the adjacent parking lot, and on the street.

Lashawn Jameison, with gun in hand, retreated and separated himself from Kwame Bates and Anthony Williams. Jameison hid at the rear of the Chrysler parked behind the Camry while Bates stood by a power pole near the Camry. Bates and Williams, with Williams then in the Department of Licensing parking lot, faced one another as Martin Luther King Day celebrants continued to walk to their cars. According to Bates, he “does not back down” from a fight as long as the fight is fair. Jameison crouched behind the Chrysler.

A friend of Anthony Williams drove the friend’s car into the parking lot. Williams stepped behind his friend’s vehicle and discharged his gun in Bates’ direction. The bullet missed Bates and struck Eduardo Villagomez, a bystander walking along the street. Villagomez slumped to the street. Tragically. an unsuspecting driver of a car drove over Villagomez’s stricken body. Villagomez died as a result of the bullet wound and the force of the vehicle.

After Anthony Williams’ discharge of gunfire, Kwame Bates ran from the power
pole and joined Lashawn Jameison behind the stationary Chrysler. Seconds after
Williams fired the first shot, Bates and Jameison stood, returned fire, and crouched again
behind the Chrysler. Jameison fired, at most, two shots toward Williams. Williams
returned additional shots toward Bates and Jameison. Bates rose again and returned fire as Williams entered the vehicle driven by his friend. The friend drove the vehicle from
the parking lot and club. Bates and Jameison entered the Camry and also departed the
neighborhood.

The State of Washington charged Lashawn Jameison with first degree murder by extreme indifference and, in the alternative, first degree manslaughter as the result of the
death of Eduardo Villagomez. The State acknowledged that Anthony Williams shot
Eduardo Villagomez but charged Jameison with accomplice liability. The State also
charged Jameison with fourteen counts of Drive-By Shooting as a result of Jameison’s
returning of gunfire. The fourteen charges arise from the presence of at least fourteen
club patrons in the vicinity at the time of the shooting.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Lashawn Jameison moved to dismiss the homicide charges pursuant to State v.
Knapstad. Jameison emphasized that the video of the scene and law enforcement officers’ reports and affidavits demonstrated beyond dispute that Anthony Williams killed the decedent while Jameison ducked behind a car, shielding himself from Williams’ attack. Jameison added that, because he had not fired a shot by the time Williams’ bullet struck Eduardo Villagomez and because he himself was a victim of Williams’ violence, he could not be guilty of murder even as an accomplice. Jameison posited the same arguments for the alternative charge of manslaughter.

Lashawn Jameison also moved to dismiss the Drive-By Shooting charges for insufficient evidence of recklessness. In the alternative, he argued that all but one count should be dismissed because he fired only one shot. He based the latter argument on law enforcement’s discovering, at the crime scene, only one shell casing matching his gun.

The trial court dismissed the first degree murder and first degree manslaughter
charges on the basis, in part, that Lashawn Jameison did not cause the death of Eduardo
Villagomez. The trial court also ruled that the unit of prosecution for drive-by shooting
charges was the number of shots fired by Jameison. Because of a dispute of fact as to
whether Jameison fired one or two shots, the trial court dismissed all but two of the
fourteen drive-by shooting counts.

The State requested and this court granted discretionary review of the trial court’s
dismissal of some of the pending charges. After we accepted discretionary review, this
court decided State v. Vasquez, which delineates the elements of a Drive-By Shooting prosecution. We requested that both parties address Vasquez during oral argument.

LEGAL ISSUES

  • Whether an accused, who, in response to an antagonist retrieving a gun, also arms himself and hides behind a vehicle, suffers Accomplice Liability for Homicide when, without the accused shooting his firearm, the antagonist fires his gun and the bullet strikes and kills an innocent bystander.
  • Whether the same accused may be convicted of a Drive-By Shooting when he retrieves a gun from the car in which he arrived to the scene of the homicide but crouches behind another car at the time he returns fire.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

First, the Court of Appeals described the legal mechanisms of a CrR 8.3 Motion to Dismiss and a Knapstad Motion to dismiss and reasoned that ultimately the two motions are essentially the same.

Next, and interestingly, the Court of Appeals engaged a semi-esoteric discussion on how to handle criminal cases involving the accomplice liability of co-defendants who give more than one version of events.

“We struggle in the abstract with what assay to employ when adjudging what reasonable inferences we may deduce from established facts,” said the Court. “Therefore, we first comb for definitions and synonyms for our key word ‘inference.'” The Court elaborated that our state high court has defined an “inference” as a logical deduction or conclusion from an established fact. for example, State v. Aten refers to a “reasonable and logical” inference, again suggesting that a permissible inference must be logical.

“Based on these definitions, we must summon logic, common sense, and experience in surmising additional or circumstantial facts from already established or direct facts. We hope that our experience coincides with common sense and our common sense abides logic.”

The Court further reasoned that when evidence is equally consistent with two hypotheses, the evidence tends to prove neither. We will not infer a circumstance when no more than a possibility is shown,” said the Court. “We are not justified in inferring, from mere possibilities the existence of facts.”

Moreover, the Court said that Washington law, if not the federal constitution, demands that inferences in the criminal setting be based only on likelihood, not possibility. When an inference supports an element of the crime, due process requires the presumed fact to flow more likely than not from proof of the basic fact. “Whether an inference meets the appropriate standard must be determined on a case-by-case basis in light of the particular evidence presented to the jury in each case.”

The Court concluded that we should not draw an inference that Lashawn Jameison agreed
to fight with Anthony Williams. “No evidence directly confirms that Jameison concurred in Williams shooting at Jameison’s direction. Experience, common sense and logic easily depict Williams acting on his own without any consent from Jameison or Bates.”

The Court of Appeals also said the State in essence portrays Lashawn Jameison and Anthony Williams as agreeing to a duel. “The totality of the undisputed facts, however, leads one to conclude that Jameison never consented to a duel,” said the Court. “Jameison retrieved his firearm only after Williams grabbed his weapon and in order to defend himself. He could have, but never did, shoot at Williams before Williams first shot in his direction.

HOMICIDE & ACCOMPLICE LIABILITY

The Court of Appeals described the accomplice liability statute. In short, a person is an accomplice of another person in the commission of a crime if, with knowledge that it will promote or facilitate the commission of the crime, he or she: (i) solicits, commands, encourages, or requests such other person to commit it; or (ii) aids or agrees to aid such other person in planning or committing it; or (iii) his or her conduct is expressly declared by law to establish his or her complicity.

The Court of Appeals held that under Washington case law, an accomplice must associate himself with the principal’s criminal undertaking, participate in it as something he desires to bring about, and seek by his action to make it succeed. Presence and knowledge alone are insufficient, absent evidence from which a readiness to assist or an intent to encourage could be inferred, to support a finding of accomplice liability.

Consequently, the Court of Appeals held that Lashawn Jameison never sought to assist Anthony Williams. “He never directly encouraged Williams to shoot either himself or Kwame Bates,” said the Court. Furthermore, the Court reasoned that Williams wanted to shoot or wound Bates or Jameison. Jameison did not seek this goal. Jameison and Williams acted as antagonists. “They entered any fight from opposite poles.”

“We find that the conduct of Jameison in arming himself and hiding behind a car from the bullets of Anthony Williams ineptly fulfills the meaning of “encouragement” and his situation borders on victimhood. In turn, imposing criminal liability on Jameison conflicts with general principles of accomplice liability and disserves policies behind imposing accomplice liability.”

DRIVE-BY SHOOTING

On this issue, the Court of Appeals addressed what constitutes the “immediate area” of a motor vehicle that transported the shooter.

The Court reasoned that under Drive-By Shooting statute, a person is guilty of drive-by shooting when he or she recklessly discharges a firearm in a manner which creates a substantial risk of death or serious physical injury to another person and the discharge is either from a motor vehicle or from the “immediate area” of a motor vehicle that was used to transport the shooter or the firearm, or both, to the scene of the discharge.

The Court also turned to State v. Vasquez and State v. Rodgers in fashioning language to assist in measuring the “immediate area” in individual circumstances. In State v. Vasquez, the Court ruled that “immediate area” was either inside the vehicle or from within a few feet or yards of the vehicle. Also, the crime of Drive-By Shooting applies to a shooter who is either inside a vehicle or within easy or immediate reach of the vehicle.

“In State v. Rodgers, the Supreme Court held two blocks did not fall within the immediate area. In State v. Vasquez, we held that a distance of sixty-three feet did not qualify as the immediate area.”

Consequently, the Court reasoned that here, When Lashawn Jameison fired his responding shots, Jameison likely stood closer than sixty-three feet of the Toyota Camry, the car in which he traveled to the Palomino Club.

“We hold that Jameison did not stand within the immediate area,” said the Court. “The obstacle of an additional car and a telephone pole stood between Jameison and the Camry. The Camry was not within his immediate reach. Jameison stood more than a few feet or yards from the Camry.”

CONCLUSION

With that, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the murder and manslaughter charges and twelve of fourteen drive-by shooting charges brought against Lashawn Jameison.

My opinion? This is an  excellent decision from the Court of Appeals. It is well written, and clarifies important definitions and legal terms applied to accomplice liability and Drive-By Shooting. Great opinion.

Celebrate the Fourth of July Responsibly

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When celebrating holidays, many people gather with friends and family, decorating their homes and enjoying time together. However, some holiday celebrations often include consuming substances like illegal drugs and alcohol.

In 2016, Americans spent more than $1 billion on cold beverages for their Fourth of July celebrations. That amount was higher than what was spent on burgers and hotdogs, combined. According to CNBC, the Fourth of July is the country’s largest beer-drinking holiday. The popular holiday also surpassed New Year’s as the most dangerous holiday of the year, especially when it comes to traveling on the roadways. According to the Los Angeles Times, there was an average of 127 fatal car crashes each year on July 4 between 2008 and 2012. Of those who died, 41 percent of people had elevated blood alcohol levels.

So how did the day that was meant to celebrate America’s birthday become a day where people choose to drink? The Fourth of July is a federal holiday, which means that most businesses are closed and the employees of those businesses get to enjoy the day off. Jeffrey Spring, a spokesman for the Automobile Club of Southern California, told the Los Angeles Times that it’s more than just celebrating a day off of work. “They tend to try to cram a lot into these weekends and that’s where they get into trouble,” Spring said. In other words, a paid holiday is taken to new heights due to the excitement of having a free day to themselves.

Some advice? Please remember that beneath all the celebration, the Fourth of July is more than just about alcoholic drinks and setting off fireworks. In 1776, the thirteen American colonies declared themselves independent from the British Empire, thus the United States of America was born. Also known as Independence Day, the day celebrates the birth of the country. It can be commemorated in speeches presented by politicians, celebrities hosting private events, or military personnel saluting the United States at noon on the holiday by shooting off a rifle.

The Fourth of July is important to celebrate for its historical significance. This holiday is a time to remind people not only of the hard work and dedication it took to become the country that the United States is today, but to encourage people to live their lives to their fullest potential.

Don’t let the Fourth of July become a catalyst for illegal behavior.

However, please call my office if you, a friend or family member consume intoxicants this Fourth of July and later find yourselves facing criminal charges. It’s imperative to hire responsive and experienced defense counsel when contacted by law enforcement.

Search Within Curtilage

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In Collins v. Virginia, the United States Supreme Court held that officers may not enter the curtilage of a house without a search warrant in order to remove the tarp from a motorcycle in order to confirm that the motorcycle was stolen.

BACKGROUND FACTS

During the investigation of two traffic incidents involving an orange and black motorcycle with an extended frame, Officer David Rhodes learned that the motorcycle likely was stolen and in the possession of petitioner Ryan Collins. Officer Rhodes discovered photographs on Collins’ Facebook profile of an orange and black motorcycle parked in the driveway of a house, drove to the house, and parked on the street. From there, he could see what appeared to be the motorcycle under a white tarp parked in the same location as the motorcycle in the photograph.

Without a search warrant, Office Rhodes walked to the top of the driveway, removed the tarp, confirmed that the motorcycle was stolen by running the license plate and vehicle identification numbers, took a photograph of the uncovered motorcycle, replaced the tarp, and returned to his car to wait for Collins. When Collins returned, Officer Rhodes arrested him.

Collins was indicted by a Virginia grand jury for receiving stolen property. He filed a pretrial motion to suppress the evidence that Officer Rhodes had obtained as a result of the warrantless search of the motorcycle on the grounds that Officer Rhodes violated the Fourth Amendment when he trespassed on the house’s curtilage to conduct a search. The trial court denied Collins’ motion to suppress the evidence. Collins was convicted as charged. The Virginia Court of Appeals affirmed. The Virginia State Supreme Court also affirmed, holding that the warrantless search was justified under the Fourth Amendment’s automobile exception to the warrant requirement.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Supreme Court held the automobile exception to the warrant requirement does not permit the warrantless entry of a home or its curtilage in order to search a vehicle therein.

“This case arises at the intersection of two components of the Court’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence: the automobile exception to the warrant requirement and the protection extended to the curtilage of a home.”

Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the Court. First, the court discussed the automobile exception to the warrant requirement. Basically, under the exception, a vehicle may be searched without a warrant when the evidence or contraband may possibly be removed from the scene due to the mobility of a vehicle and it is not practical to secure a warrant without jeopardizing the potential evidence.  For instance, the automobile exception allows an officer to make a warrantless traffic stop and search a truck of a vehicle when gun parts were observed in plain view on the front seat of the vehicle.

Here, the Supreme Court emphasized that the automobile exception rationales applied only to automobiles and not to houses, and therefore supported their different treatment as a constitutional matter. “When these justifications are present, officers may search an automobile without a warrant so long as they have probable cause,” said the Court.

The court also discussed “curtilage.” In short, curtilage includes the area immediately surrounding a dwelling, and it counts as part of the home for many legal purposes, including searches. “Curtilage—the area immediately surrounding and associated with the home—is considered part of the home itself for Fourth Amendment purposes,” said the Court. Thus, when an officer physically intrudes on the curtilage to gather evidence, a Fourth Amendment search has occurred and is presumptively unreasonable absent a warrant.

Consequently, the court reasoned that the part of the driveway where Collins’ motorcycle was parked and subsequently searched is curtilage:

“When Officer Rhodes searched the motorcycle, it was parked inside a partially enclosed top portion of the driveway that abuts the house. Just like the front porch, side garden, or area outside the front window, that enclosure constitutes an area adjacent to the home and to which the activity of home life extends.” Jardines, 569 U. S., at 6, 7.”

The Court also reasoned because the scope of the automobile exception extends no further than the automobile itself, it did not justify Officer Rhodes’ invasion of the curtilage. “Nothing in this Court’s case law suggests that the automobile exception gives an officer the right to enter a home or its curtilage to access a vehicle without a warrant,” said the Court. “Such an expansion would both undervalue the core Fourth Amendment protection afforded to the home and its curtilage and untether the exception from the justifications underlying it.”

This Court also reasoned that just as an officer must have a lawful right of access to any contraband he discovers in plain view in order to seize it without a warrant, and just as an officer must have a lawful right of access in order to arrest a person in his home, so, too, an officer must have a lawful right of access to a vehicle in order to search it pursuant to the automobile exception. “To allow otherwise would unmoor the exception from its justifications, render hollow the core Fourth Amendment protection the Constitution extends to the house and its curtilage, and transform what was meant to be an exception into a tool with far broader application,” said the Court.

Furthermore, the Court disagreed with Virginia’s proposed bright line rule for an automobile exception that would not permit warrantless entry only of the house itself or another fixed structure, e.g., a garage, inside the curtilage. “This Court has long been clear that curtilage is afforded constitutional protection, and creating a carve-out for certain types of curtilage seems more likely to create confusion than does uniform application of the Court’s doctrine,” said the Court. “Virginia’s rule also rests on a mistaken premise, for the ability to observe inside curtilage from a lawful vantage point is not the same as the right to enter curtilage without a warrant to search for information not otherwise accessible.”

Finally, the Court held that Virginia’s rule automatically would grant constitutional rights to those persons with the financial means to afford residences with garages but deprive those persons without such resources of any individualized consideration as to whether the areas in which they store their vehicles qualify as curtilage.

With that, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded Collins’ conviction for receiving stolen property.

Justice Roberts, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsberg, Breyer, Kagan and Gorsuch joined the majority opinion.  Justice Thomas also filed a concurring opinion. Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member’s house is searched by law enforcement officers who don’t have a search warrant. It’s quite possible to suppress evidence based on an unlawful search and get any criminal charges dismissed.

Vehicular Homicide

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In State v. Frahm, the WA Court of Appeals held the defendant was properly convicted of vehicular homicide for the death of a Good Samaritan who was struck by another vehicle while rendering assistance to the occupant of the vehicle that was initially struck by the defendant’s vehicle. The defendant’s rear-ending of the first vehicle proximately caused the death of the Good Samaritan.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Shortly before dawn on December 7, 2014, a Ford F-150 truck driven by Frahm rear-ended a Honda CR-V sport utility vehicle (SUV) driven by Steven Klase. The impact caused the SUV to spin out of control, strike a concrete barrier in the freeway median, and come to rest partially blocking the left and middle lanes of I-205. Klase sustained serious injuries and remained in his vehicle. Frahm fled the scene.

An eyewitness, Richard Irvine, stopped his vehicle on the right shoulder. Irvine activated
his vehicle’s emergency flashers, exited his vehicle, and crossed the freeway on foot. Seeing Klase’s injuries, Irvine called 911. While Irvine spoke with a 911 dispatcher, a Honda Odyssey minivan driven by Fredy Dela Cruz-Moreno approached in the left lane. Cruz-Moreno’s minivan struck Klase’s vehicle and propelled it into Irvine. As a result, Irvine died.

Later that same day, Frahm, the registered owner of the F-150, contacted police to report
his vehicle as stolen. When the police later recovered Frahm’s truck, it had front end damage. The police processed the vehicle, and Frahm’s DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) matched DNA taken from the deployed airbag.

The police interrogated Frahm, and he maintained both that his truck had been stolen and that he had not been driving at the time of the accident. In February 2015, a witness, Dusty Nielsen, contacted the police. Nielsen provided an alibi for Frahm for the time of the accident. Nielsen lied. Frahm had not been with Nielsen the night of the accident. The two men did not know each other until they met in jail, after the accident.

When questioned by police about discrepancies in his story, Nielsen recanted. He insisted that he alone came up with the idea to provide the false alibi. The State charged Frahm with six crimes: vehicular homicide, manslaughter in the first degree, vehicular assault, hit and run, false reporting, and conspiracy to commit perjury in the first degree.

At trial, and without objection, the State played an unredacted recording of Frahm’s
interrogation by the police. During the interrogation, the police repeatedly accused Frahm of lying. Frahm admitted to drinking the night before the accident but iterated that somebody stole his truck, and that he was not the driver at the time of the accident.

The jury convicted Frahm of vehicular homicide, vehicular assault, hit and run, false
reporting, and conspiracy to commit perjury. Frahm appealed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

First, the Court of Appeals held that sufficient evidence supported Frahm’s Vehicular Homicide conviction. It reasoned that a driver is guilty of vehicular homicide when the death of any person ensues within three years as a proximate result of injury proximately caused by the driving of any vehicle by any person. Furthermore, “legal causation” involves a determination of whether liability should attach as a matter of law given the existence of cause in fact.

“If the factual elements of the tort are proved, determination of legal liability will be dependent on ‘mixed considerations of logic, common sense, justice, policy, and precedent,” said the Court.

The Court further reasoned that a defendant’s conduct is a proximate cause of harm to another if, in direct sequence, unbroken by any new independent cause, it produces the harm, and without it the harm would not have happened. Here, the issue was whether any rational jury could find the essential elements of the crime of Vehicular Homicide beyond a reasonable doubt.

“Although this specific victim may not have been foreseeable, the general field of danger was clearly foreseeable. And the record as a whole supports that a reasonable jury could find beyond a reasonable doubt that Frahm’s rear-ending Klase’s vehicle proximately caused Irvine’s death.”

Second, the Court of Appeals held that sufficient evidence supports the charge of Conspiracy to Commit Perjury.

The Court said a person is guilty of conspiracy if, with the intent to commit a crime, he or she agrees with one or more persons to engage in or cause the performance of such [criminal] conduct, and any one of them takes a substantial step in pursuance of such agreement. Consequently, making “materially false” statements to police who are conducting investigations is a crime.

“Nielsen and Frahm met in jail,” said the Court of Appeals. “They hatched the plan to provide Frahm with a false alibi.” The Court further explained that Frahm provided Nielsen with the details necessary to make the lie appear more credible, including a description of his truck’s interior on the night of the accident. “When viewing the evidence and its reasonable inferences in a light most favorable to the State, sufficient evidence supports Frahm’s conspiracy conviction,” said the Court.

Finally, the Court rejected Frahm’s arguments that his defense counsel was ineffective and his speedy trial rights were violated. With that, the Court of Appeals upheld Frahm’s convictions.

My opinion? First, my sympathies to all parties involved. This case is tragic for all sides. Second, this case presents an interesting blend of criminal and tort law – specifically, negligence – which is not typically seen in everyday court. Issues of duty, breach of duty, proximate cause and damages rarely arise in criminal statutes. Typically, the State need only probe intent and not negligence. However, the specific language of the vehicular homicide statute includes criminal liability for negligent acts.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges. Hiring competent counsel is the first step toward achieving a just result in court.

Expert Witnesses & Meth

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In State v. Richmond, the WA Court of Appeals held that a defense expert witness’s proposed testimony regarding the effects of methamphetamine was properly barred at trial because the expert never met or examined the victim and increased aggression is only one possible effect of methamphetamine ingestion.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Dennis Higginbotham went to Joseph Richmond’s property with two other individuals, Veronica Dresp and Lonnie Zackuse. Ms. Dresp was Mr. Richmond’s estranged girlfriend. Ms. Dresp had asked Mr. Higginbotham and Ms. Zackuse to accompany her to Mr. Richmond’s property so that she could remove some of her belongings.

A verbal argument ensued between Mr. Richmond and Mr. Higginbotham. After the verbal argument, Mr. Richmond went into his house. His return to the house was a relief. It appeared the hostility had come to an end.

Unfortunately, this turned out not to be true. Instead, Mr. Richmond ran out of his house, armed with a two-by-four piece of lumber that was nearly four feet in length. Mr. Richmond and Mr. Higginbotham then started exchanging more words. Mr. Richmond warned Mr. Higginbotham not to come any closer to him. When Mr. Higginbotham took a step forward, Mr. Richmond struck Mr. Higginbotham with the two-by-four. According to Ms. Dresp and Ms. Zackuse, Mr. Richmond held the two-by-four like a baseball bat and swung it at Mr. Higginbotham’s head. After he was hit, Mr. Higginbotham spun around and fell face first on the ground.

When emergency personnel arrived at the scene, it was determined Mr. Higginbotham had suffered severe head trauma. He was unconscious and eventually transported to
Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. He died shortly thereafter.

Mr. Richmond was charged with second degree murder.

Mr. Richmond lodged a self-defense theory against the State’s murder charges. In support of this theory, Mr. Richmond sought to introduce testimony from several experts. One of the experts was David Predmore. Mr. Predmore was offered to testify about the general effects of methamphetamine consumption on human behavior. According to the defense, this testimony was relevant because high levels of methamphetamine had been found in Mr. Higginbotham’s system at the time of his death.

Although Mr. Richmond was not aware of Mr. Higginbotham’s methamphetamine consumption at the time of the assault, the defense theorized that Mr. Predmore’s testimony was relevant to corroborate Mr. Richmond’s claim that Mr. Higginbotham was behaving aggressively the night of the attack. However, the trial court excluded Mr. Predmore’s testimony as speculative and irrelevant. The jury convicted Mr. Richmond of second degree murder. He appealed.

ISSUE

On appeal, the issue was whether the trial court violated Mr. Richmond’s constitutional right to present a defense by excluding his expert’s testimony.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

“Mr. Richmond argues the trial court violated his constitutional right to present a
defense by excluding expert testimony,” said the Court of Appeals. “We disagree.”

The Court of Appeals reasoned that Evidence Rule 702 governs the admissibility of expert testimony. “Under this rule, a witness may provide expert opinion testimony to the jury if (1) the witness is qualified as an expert, and (2) the witness’s testimony would help the trier of fact,” said the Court of Appeals.

“Expert testimony is helpful if it concerns matters beyond the common knowledge of the average layperson and does not mislead the jury. A proposed expert’s testimony is not helpful or relevant if it is based on speculation.”

Furthermore, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the trial court properly excluded Mr. Predmore’s proposed testimony regarding the effects of methamphetamine because it was not shown to be potentially helpful to the jury. “Mr. Predmore had never met or examined Mr. Higginbotham. He had no basis to assess how Mr. Higginbotham’s body may have processed methamphetamine,” said the Court of Appeals. It further reasoned that according to Mr. Predmore’s proposed testimony, methamphetamine can have a wide range of effects. Increased aggression is only one possibility. “It is therefore nothing but speculation to connect Mr. Higginbotham’s methamphetamine use with Mr. Richmond’s claim of victim aggression,” said the Court of Appeals. “The evidence was properly excluded, consistent with long standing case law.”

With that, the Court of Appeals upheld the conviction.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime after responding in self-defense. Hiring competent and experienced counsel is the first step toward receiving a just resolution.

Gun Safes Are Searchable

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In State v. Witkowski, the WA Court of Appeals held that a police search warrant for firearms located in a residence allows officers to search a locked gun safe.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On October 27, 2015, Deputy Martin Zurfluh obtained a search warrant to search the Respondents’ property, including their residence, for evidence of possession of stolen property and utility theft. The search warrant was limited to a stolen power meter and its accessories. An arrest warrant for Witkowski was also issued.

On October 29, officers executed the search and arrest warrants. After this search, Deputy Zurfluh requested an addendum to the search warrant. In his affidavit, Deputy Zurfluh explained that after entering the Respondents’ residence, police found drug paraphernalia, ammunition, one locked gun safe, one unlocked gun safe, a rifle case, and surveillance cameras. Deputy Zurfluh knew that the Respondents were felons and were prohibited from possessing firearms or ammunition.

The search warrant addendum authorized police to search at the Respondents’ street address for evidence of unlawful possession of a firearm, identity theft, unlawful possession of a controlled substance, and unlawful use of drug paraphernalia. The warrant addendum defined the area to be searched for this evidence as the main residence, a shed, and any vehicles and outbuildings at the street address.

The addendum authorized the seizure of evidence including,

  1. firearms, firearms parts, and accessories, including but not limited to rifles, shotguns, handguns, ammunition, scopes, cases, cleaning kits, and holsters
  2. Surveillance Systems used or intended to be used in the furtherance of any of the above listed crimes.
  3. Any item used as a container for #1.

Notably, the addendum did not identify either of the gun safes as items to be seized.

When executing the warrant addendum, officers opened the locked gun safe. They found 11 loaded rifles and shotguns with their serial numbers filed off, a handgun, a police scanner, a large quantity of cash, ammunition, and cameras.

After the search, the State charged Respondents with numerous counts including first degree unlawful possession of a firearm. Witkowski was additionally charged with seven counts of possession of a stolen firearm.

The superior court suppressed the evidence found inside the gun safes under the Fourth Amendment. It ruled that the addendum to the warrant did not include the gun safes or containers for firearms and that gun safes are not “personal effects,” so that the search of the safes did not fall within the scope of the search warrant.

The superior court later denied the State’s motions for reconsideration. The State filed motions for discretionary review to the Court of Appeals.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court reasoned that a lawful search of fixed premises generally extends to the entire area in which the object of the search may be found and is not limited by the possibility that separate acts of entry or opening may be required to complete the search. Thus, a warrant that authorizes an officer to search a home for illegal weapons also provides authority to open closets, chests, drawers, and containers in which the weapon might be found.

“Here, the warrant addendum listed the objects of the search as including firearms and firearm accessories,” said the Court of Appeals.  “And Deputy Zurfluh testified that he suspected the close-to refrigerator-sized, locked safe contained firearms because he had found ammunition in the home.” The Court emphasized that Deputy Zurfluh also testified that in his experience, a tall, upright safe would be used to store guns. “Under the rule expressed in United State v. Ross, because one object of the search was “firearms,” the premises search warrant addendum authorized the search of the locked gun safe as an area in which the object of the search was likely to be found.”

Additionally, the Court of Appeals emphasized that numerous Washington cases have also expressed the Fourth Amendment rule that a premises warrant authorizes a search of containers in a residence that could reasonably contain the object of the search.

“In sum, federal and state precedent applying the Fourth Amendment show that when police execute a premises warrant, they are authorized to search locked containers where the objects of the search are likely to be found. Thus, the superior court here erred under the Fourth Amendment when it suppressed the evidence in the locked gun safe as exceeding the scope of the warrant addendum.”

With that, the Court of Appeals reversed the Superior Court’s suppression of the evidence and remanded back to the trial court for further proceedings.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges involving searches of persons, vehicles and property. Hiring competent criminal defense counsel is the first step toward getting charges reduced or dismissed.

Felony Harassment (DV)

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In State v. Horn, the WA Court of Appeals held that the trial court’s refusal to admit evidence of the defendant’s and the victim’s engagement and trip taken after the date of a domestic violence offense did not violate the defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Horn and Ms. Oubre became romantically involved while Oubre was estranged from another man with whom she had had a relationship. Horn and Oubre began openly dating in January 2015.

In January 2015, Horn and Oubre were at Oubre’s residence drinking alcoholic beverages. While Oubre was using her cellphone, Horn grew angry and accused her of texting the man with whom she had been involved. According to Oubre, she had never seen him have “an episode like this before.” Horn grabbed Oubre’s night shirt and ripped it open, hitting her on the chest in the process.

Scared that the downstairs neighbor would hear the scuffle, Oubre and Horn went to Horn’s home. Once they arrived and got out of the car, Oubre told Horn that she was going to leave, but Horn grabbed her. They began wrestling when Horn pushed her against a wall and down into a flower bed. He bit her multiple times. Oubre did not call the police.

On August 7, 2015, Horn and Oubre were together at her home. Oubre was on her cell phone playing a game. Horn grew aggressive, believing that Oubre was texting an ex-boyfriend. A violent exchange occurred between Horn and Oubre. Horn straddled Oubre on the bed, pointed a gun at himself and Oubre, and gave numerous threats against her life.

Later, Oubre went to the hospital. She spoke with the police while at the hospital, and Horn was then arrested. Among other offenses, Horn was charged with domestic violence felony harassment based on the August incident. Horn posted bail on August 20, 2015.

Oubre and Horn got engaged on September 5 and took a trip together.

Horn was later charged with violating a no-contact order, to which he pled guilty. As part of the events related to that charge, videotape evidence showed Horn naked while jumping on top of Oubre’s car.

Before trial on the felony harassment charge, the State sought to introduce evidence of
the January 2015 incident under ER 404(b) to show that Horn’s threat to kill Oubre in August 2015 placed her in reasonable fear that the threat would be carried out. One of the elements of felony harassment is that the victim be placed in reasonable fear that a threat will be carried out.

Before trial, both the State and defense counsel argued over whether the evidence of the January 2015 incident should be admitted. The defense objected and in the alternative argued that if the State was permitted to introduce this evidence, the defense should be able to introduce evidence of Oubre and Horn’s engagement and trip after August 2015. In the defense’s view, this evidence showed that Oubre did not have a reasonable fear that Horn would carry out his threat to kill her on August 7.

The State opposed the admission of evidence of their engagement and trip because “it triggers a bunch of things,” including Horn’s later violation of a no-contact order where he was naked and jumping on top of Oubre’s vehicle. The State also did not believe the evidence was relevant to whether Oubre was fearful in August 2015.

The jury found Horn guilty of two counts of fourth degree assault, unlawful possession of
a firearm, and domestic violence felony harassment. Horn appealed. He argued that his Sixth Amendment right to present his defense was violated because the trial court did not admit evidence of Oubre and Horn’s engagement and trip taken after the August 2015 incident.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

“We review a Sixth Amendment right to present a defense claim under a three-step test,” said the Court of Appeals. First, the evidence that a defendant desires to introduce must be of at least minimal relevance. A defendant only has a right to present evidence that is relevant. Second, if relevant, the burden shifts to the State to show that the relevant evidence is so prejudicial as to disrupt the fairness of the fact-finding process at trial. Third, the State’s interest in excluding prejudicial evidence must also be balanced against the defendant’s need for the information sought, and relevant information can be withheld only if the State’s interest outweighs the defendant’s need.

The Court reasoned that to show a violation of the right to present a defense, the excluded evidence, that of Horn and Oubre’s engagement and trip, must first be of at least minimal relevance. Evidence is relevant if it has any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence. The threshold to admit relevant evidence is very low.

Impeachment evidence is relevant if: (1) it tends to cast doubt on the credibility of the person being impeached and (2) the credibility of the person being impeached is a fact of consequence to the action.

The court reasoned that here, Oubre’s subsequent engagement and trip with Horn thus would be relevant, if at all, to impeach her testimony that she feared Horn at the time he threatened to kill her.

“With the frightening nature of the threats and violence against Oubre on August 7 and the passage of nearly a month until their engagement, Oubre’s change of heart casts little doubt on her testimony that on August 7, in the face of repeated violence and death threats, she feared for her life.”

The court said that for these reasons, especially in combination with the cycles of violence and reconciliation in domestic violence relationahips, the evidence of Oubre’s engagement to and trip with Horn was not relevant.

“The trial court’s exclusion of that evidence was neither manifestly unreasonable, based on untenable grounds, nor based on untenable reasons,” said the Court of Appeals. “Thus, under the abuse of discretion standard, the exclusion of this evidence did not deprive Horn of his right to present a defense.” Furthermore, because Horn does not meet the first requirement of the three-step test, his claim that the trial court deprived him of the right to present a defense fails.

With that, the Court of Appeals ruled that Horn’s right to present a defense was not violated. Therefore, his convictions were affirmed.

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

Warrantless Search & “Community Caretaking”

Image result for police search home without warrant

In State v. Boisselle, the WA Court of Appeals held that the officers’ warrantless entry into a duplex was lawful as the officers were worried that someone might be injured or dead inside, the officers were unable to locate the individuals who were believed to being living in the duplex, the officers did not intend to conduct a criminal investigation inside the duplex, and from the time the officers arrived at the duplex, until entry, the officers individually and collectively worked to ascertain the situation.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In July 2014, Michael Boisselle encountered Brandon Zomalt, an old acquaintance. Zomalt told Boisselle that he was homeless, had nowhere to sleep, and that he needed assistance obtaining a food handler’s permit in order to secure a job. Boisselle offered to let Zomalt stay with him in his duplex unit. With Boisselle’s assistance, Zomalt received his food handler’s permit and began working at a nearby restaurant. However, Zomalt was fired after one week for fighting at work.

Zomalt was addicted to alcohol and methamphetamine. He also had a history of violence. Several people, including Zomalt’s mother and two of his former girlfriends, had been granted protection orders against him. After losing his job, Zomalt drank throughout the day. Boisselle did not feel safe around Zomalt and avoided him when possible.

The tension in the house culminated into a confrontation. Apparently, Zomalt began to behave strangely. He also drank heavily. One night, Boiselle and Zomalt were home. According to Boiselle, Zomalt held him hostage in their home and threatened Boiselle with a firearm. Later that night, Boiselle managed to reach the gun. He fired the weapon at Boiselle, apparently in self-defense. No witnesses summoned police or heard the firearm.

On September 1, 2014, South Sound 911 dispatch received an anonymous telephone call from an individual who reported that “somebody by the name of Mike” stated that he shot someone at the duplex. Shortly thereafter, the Puyallup Police Department anonymous tip line received a telephone call from an individual who reported that “Mike” had “shot someone” and “possibly killed him, and it was in self-defense.” Deputies Ryan Olivarez and Fredrick Wiggins were dispatched to the scene.

Olivarez and Wiggins knocked on the door of the duplex but received no response. There was, however, a dog inside that was barking aggressively. The deputies walked around the outside of the duplex and attempted to look inside, but all of the windows were closed and covered with blinds. There was a light on in the upstairs western bedroom. The deputies smelled a foul odor coming from the house and the garage. Olivarez thought that “something about it just seemed off’ and was concerned with “trying to figure out if someone needed help.” Olivarez and Wiggins then contacted the neighbors in order to gather more information. Two neighbors informed the deputies that they had not seen anyone coming or going from the duplex for about “four or five days.”

With no person apparently able to consent to a police entry of the unit and believing that they did not have a sufficient basis to obtain a search warrant, Adamson and Clarkson made a joint decision to force entry into the duplex. Clarkson broke through the front door. An animal control officer secured the dog. The officers then performed a security sweep of the duplex, looking for anyone who was hurt. Adamson and Clarkson searched the second floor of the duplex while Wiggins and Olivarez searched the first floor. The officers checked all of the rooms, looking in closets and other large spaces for a person or a body but ignoring drawers and other areas where a person could not fit.

Sergeant Clarkson believed that the smell was coming from inside of the garage and was consistent with a dead body. Once all of the rooms inside the duplex had been checked, deputies Wiggins and Olivarez forced entry into the garage from inside of the duplex. Once inside the garage, all four officers could see a large, rolled up carpet with a shoe sticking out and maggots pouring out of the bottom. Sergeant Clarkson opened the garage door using the automatic door opener and all four officers went around to the outside of the garage for a clear view of the carpet. From outside of the house, the officers saw an arm hanging out of the front end of the carpet. Clarkson told the other officers that “this is a crime scene now,” and that “it’s time we have to seal this off.” None of the officers collected evidence or touched the carpet.

Boisselle was charged with second degree murder and unlawful possession of a firearm. Before trial, he argued a CrR 3.6 motion to suppress. The judge denied the motion. At trial he was convicted of both charges.

On appeal, and among other issues Boisselle contends that the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress the search of his home.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that the United States Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. “The Fourth Amendment does not prohibit ‘reasonable’ warrantless searches and seizures,” said the Court. Furthermore, the Court said the analysis under the Fourth Amendment focuses on whether the police have acted reasonably under the circumstances.

Additionally, the Court explained that Article 1, section 7 of the Washington Constitution is more protective than the Fourth Amendment, particularly where warrantless searches are concerned. “Article 1, section 7 provides that ‘no person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law,'” said the Court.  The WA Constitution also prohibits any disturbance of an individual’s private affairs without authority of law. The Court said this language prohibits unreasonable searches.

However, the Court also explained that a search conducted pursuant to a police officer’s community caretaking function is one exception to the warrant requirement; and the community caretaking function was first announced by the United States Supreme Court in Cady v. Dombrowski. From there, subsequent Washington cases have expanded the community caretaking function exception to encompass not only the search and seizure of automobiles, but also situations involving either emergency aid or routine checks on health and safety.

Here, the court reasoned the police officers rightfully conducted a community caretaking search under the circumstances:

“In any event, the record establishes that the officers acted promptly given the circumstances. From the moment they arrived at the duplex, until entry, the officers individually and collectively began to ascertain the situation at hand. This included checking doors and windows to determine whether anyone was inside the duplex, contacting both the owner of the duplex and the individual listed on the lease in attempts to obtain consent to enter, questioning neighbors, and contacting animal control.”

The Court emphasized that, ultimately, the officers reached a point where two things were clear: (1) obtaining consent to enter was not possible as no person entitled to consent could be identified, and (2) there was nothing further the officers could do to discern the welfare of any person inside the unit absent entry. “At this point, the officers reasonably concluded that forcible entry was necessary to determine the need for and to render assistance. Given the circumstances, this was an immediate response to a likely emergency,” said the Court.

Finally, the Court reasoned the officers’ warrantless search of the duplex was justified pursuant to the community caretaking function exception as considered by a majority of the Supreme Court in State v. Smith.

“Accordingly, the trial court did not err by denying Boisselle’s motion to suppress,” said the Court of Appeals. With that – and following discussion of other issues – the Court of Appeals affirmed Mr. Boisselle’s conviction.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member is charged with a crime involving a search and seizure issue. Under the law, we are entitled to protections from unlawful searches of our homes, cars and persons.

Jail Mail

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In State v. Irby, the WA Court of Appeals held that an inmate’s 6th Amendment rights were violated and has case was prejudiced when jail guards opened and read his confidential “jail mail” letters written to his defense attorney.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In April 2005, Irby was charged with one count of burglary in the second degree, alleged to have occurred on March 6, 2005, and the following counts alleged to have occurred on March 8, 2005: one count of aggravated murder in the first degree with an alternative allegation of first degree felony murder, one count of burglary in the first degree, one count of robbery in the first degree, three counts of unlawful possession of a firearm in the first degree, and one count of attempting to elude a police vehicle. The latter charges arose out of a robbery and bludgeoning death.

In January 2007, a jury found Irby guilty of murder in the first degree with aggravating circumstances, felony murder in the first degree, and burglary in the first degree. Four years later, the Washington Supreme Court reversed the judgment of conviction and remanded the cause for a new trial in light of the court’s determination that Irby’s due process rights had been violated during jury selection. See State v. Irby, 170 Wn.2d 874, 246 P.3d 796 (2011).

Irby’s retrial was held in 2013. The State prosecuted the same charges that were brought during the first trial and Irby was convicted as charged. Notably, at the retrial, Irby was allowed to proceed pro se. He also voluntarily absented himself from the trial. We subsequently reversed the judgment of conviction and remanded the cause for yet another new trial because the trial judge had erroneously seated a juror who had demonstrated actual bias against Irby during voir dire.

In March 2016, pretrial proceedings began for Irby’s third trial. He was represented by a public defender. In mid-March, the State filed an amended information charging Irby with one count of premeditated murder in the first degree and one count of burglary in the first degree. Two days later, Irby appeared in court and was arraigned on the charges. He entered pleas of not guilty.

In mid-March and again in late March, Irby requested to represent himself. Following a colloquy with the trial court in mid-April, Irby’s request was granted. Four months later, Irby filed a pro se motion to dismiss the charges against him. In his motion, Irby alleged misconduct by jail guards, claiming that (during the period of time during which his public defender represented him) they had improperly opened outgoing mail containing privileged legal communication intended for his attorney.

The trial court denied Irby’s motion. The trial court did determine that the jail guards had violated Irby’s right to counsel by opening and reading privileged attorney-client communications. Although Irby argued that the trial court’s determination mandated that a presumption of prejudice be imposed, the trial court placed on Irby the burden of proving prejudice and concluded that he did not do so.

One month later, Irby informed the trial court that he had decided not to attend the trial and waived his right to be present at trial.

After a jury was selected without Irby’s participation, the evidentiary stage of Irby’s third trial began. Irby did not attend the trial. The State presented its case in chief and gave closing argument. No defense or closing argument were presented on Irby’s behalf.

The jury returned verdicts finding Irby guilty as charged. Irby was sentenced to concurrent terms of incarceration of 388 months for the murder in the first degree conviction and 54 months for the burglary in the first degree conviction.

ISSUES

1. Did a State actor participate in the infringing conduct alleged by the defendant?

2. If so, did the State actor(s) infringe upon a Sixth Amendment right of the defendant?

3. If so, was there prejudice to the defendant? That is, did the State fail to overcome the presumption of prejudice arising from the infringement by not proving the absence of prejudice beyond a reasonable doubt?

4. If so, what is the appropriate remedy to select and apply, considering the totality of the circumstances present, including the degree of prejudice to the defendant’s right to a fair trial and the degree of nefariousness of the conduct by the State actor(s)?

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

First, the Court of Appeals decided  the “State actors” engaged in misconduct.

“Irby’s motion to dismiss alleged that the confrontation between himself and the State involved conduct by jail guards employed by the county jail in which he was being housed,” said the Court of Appeals. “Thus, Irby established that the conduct underlying his claim involved State actors.”

Second, the Court decided  that the jail guards’ conduct infringed upon his Sixth Amendment right.

“Plainly, a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to assistance of counsel is violated when the State intrudes into a privileged attorney-client communication,” said the Court of Appeals.

The court reasoned that here, Irby’s motion to dismiss—and accompanying exhibits and addendum—alleged that he had sent 14 pieces of confidential correspondence containing privileged information to his attorney that, he argued, had been improperly opened and read by jail guards in the Skagit County Jail. The correspondence constituted Irby’s handwritten statements on both a “Public Defender Request Form” and jail kites—multi-purpose request forms available to inmates in the Skagit County Jail.

Prior to sending the correspondence, Irby folded each piece of paper in half, sealed each piece of paper with tape, and written on the outward facing side, “CONFIDENTIAL,” and “ATTORNEY BOX.” Consequently, the Court of Appeals said the folded and taped pieces of paper were intended to be confidential and included privileged attorney-client information. “Thus, the aforementioned correspondence from Irby to his counsel contained privileged attorney-client information protected by the Sixth Amendment.”

Third, the Court of Appeals held that the  jail guards’ opening and reading of Irby’s privileged attorney-client correspondence infringed upon his Sixth Amendment right to counsel. The parties do not dispute the trial court’s finding that jail guards had opened and read Irby’s privileged attorney-client communications. “Thus, the jail guards—and therefore the State—infringed on Irby’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel. This constitutes misconduct, within the meaning of CrR 8.3.

Finally, the Court of Appeals decided Irby was prejudiced by the misconduct:

“More than half a century ago, our Supreme Court ruled that, when State actors pry into a defendant’s privileged attorney-client communications, prejudice to the defendant must be presumed . . . We must assume that information gained by the sheriff was transmitted to the prosecutor and therefore there is no way to isolate the prejudice resulting from an eavesdropping activity, such as this.”

The Court of Appeals further reasoned that recently, our Supreme Court in Pena Fuentes reaffirmed this ruling and, in light of a State actor’s eavesdropping on privileged attorney-client communications, imposed a presumption of prejudice.

Furthermore, because the State actors here at issue—jail guards—infringed upon Irby’s Sixth Amendment right, prejudice must be presumed. Thus, the trial court erred by not imposing a presumption of prejudice after it determined that the jail guards had opened and read Irby’s communications containing privileged attorney-client information.

With that, the Court of Appeals reversed the order denying Irby’s motion to dismiss and remanded this matter for an evidentiary hearing with instructions to the trial court.

My opinion? Excellent decision by the Court of Appeals. It most certainly violates a defendant’s constitutional rights for state actors like jailers, law enforcement and Prosecutors to read mail from an inmate intended for an attorney.

Contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges and are incarcerated awaiting trial. Being in jail is never wise if it can be avoided. Chances are, a qualified and competent attorney can argue for personal release, lowered bail or convince the judge to release the defendant to a family member who is willing to supervise the defendant’s whereabouts.