Category Archives: felony

“Revenge Porn” Outlawed by the Feds?

Image result for revenge porn

Excellent article by Brian Murphy and Andrea Drusch of mcclatchydc.com discusses how congressional lawmakers are pushing to make “revenge porn” or “sextortion” a federal crime.

Tuesday, Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said they’d sponsor the new legislation to make “revenge porn” a federal crime by passing a bill very similar to a bill introduced last year by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif. Speier introduced the bill in the House again Tuesday.

According to the article, Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican who is sponsoring the bill, said he shared a sexually explicit video and text messages with a woman he was seeing after he separated from his second wife. An image from that video of a naked Barton, now 68, appeared on the internet last week, becoming the talk of his hometown and spurring debate over criminal intent.

Barton apologized last week for the leaked video, saying he should have used better judgment. He also suggested he’d been the victim of the crime of revenge porn, which is illegal under Texas’s law, but not federal law.

Barton sent the video to a woman who he saw over the span of several years. In a recorded phone conversation that the woman gave to the Washington Post, Barton asked her not to use the video to hurt his career. She said she had no intention of doing so, but the video surfaced last week from an anonymous Twitter account.

Barton took the incident to the U.S. Capitol Police, but said last week he’d heard no word that an investigation had been opened.

According to Murphy and Drusch’s article, thirty-eight states and D.C. have laws against distributing “revenge porn.” The new federal legislation would make it “unlawful to knowingly distribute a private, visual depiction of an individual’s intimate parts or of an individual engaging in sexually explicit conduct, with reckless disregard for the individual’s lack of consent to the distribution, and for other purposes.”

Murphy and Drusch wrote that North Carolina passed legislation outlawing “revenge porn” in 2015 and updated the provision in 2017. The state law makes it illegal to post nude photos online without the consent of the victim.

The FBI defines “sextortion” as “when someone threatens to distribute your private and sensitive material if you don’t provide them images of a sexual nature, sexual favors, or money.”

In short, the proposed federal legislation would establish federal criminal liability for people who share private, explicit images without consent. In order to prosecute someone under the proposed law, officials would have to prove the defendant was aware of a substantial risk that the victim expected the image would remain private and that sharing could cause harm to the victim.

“Perpetrators of exploitation who seek to humiliate and shame their victims must be held accountable,” said Harris, the former attorney general of California who prosecuted operators of “revenge porn” sites. “It is long past time for the federal government to take action to give law enforcement the tools they need to crack down on these crimes.”

The bill provides up to five years in prison and/or unspecified fines.

My opinion? Washington State has already outlawed “revenge porn” as a Class C Felony under the “Disclosing Intimate Images” statute RCW 9A.86.010. Other states have also followed suit. It appears the feds are simply catching up.

Immediately contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges for distributing suggestive content online. It’s imperative to find a competent criminal defense attorney who can possibly suppress the evidence and/or convince prosecutors and judges to reduce or dismiss these egregious charges.

Vehicle Prowl Prior Convictions

Image result for vehicle prowl

In State v. LaPointe, the WA Court of Appeals held that when a defendant pleads guilty on the same day in a single proceeding to multiple counts of misdemeanor vehicle prowling, the crime of vehicle prowling in the second degree is not elevated to a felony.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On December 9, 2013, Clifford Paul LaPointe Jr. pleaded guilty as charged by amended information to two counts of misdemeanor vehicle prowling in the second degree in July 2013 and in September 2013. LaPointe also pleaded guilty as charged by amended information to vehicle prowling in the second degree in May 2013 under a different cause number. On January 3, 2014, the court sentenced LaPointe on the convictions. The court imposed a concurrent 364-day suspended sentence.

On January 6, 2016, the State charged LaPointe with felony vehicle prowling in the second degree. The information alleged LaPointe had “previously been convicted on at least two separate occasions of the crime of vehicle prowling in the second degree, each occurring on a separate date and not having been charged in the same charging document.”

LaPointe filed a Knapstad motion to dismiss the charge of felony vehicle prowling in the second degree. He argued that under the plain and unambiguous language of RCW 9A.52.100(3), he had not been previously convicted on “two separate occasions.” LaPointe argued the record established he pleaded guilty in 2013 by amended information to the misdemeanor vehicle prowling in the second degree charges on the same day and in the same proceeding.

However, the State counter-argued the court should deny the motion to dismiss under RCW 9A.52.100(4). The State reasoned that because LaPointe pleaded guilty as charged in two amended informations to offenses that occurred on different dates, his 2013 convictions elevated the current offense to a felony.

The trial court denied LaPointe’s Knapstad motion. It reasoned that LaPointe was previously convicted on at least two separate occasions because he pleaded guilty in 2013 to misdemeanor vehicle prowling in the second degree based on separate dates of occurrence as charged in separate charging documents.

LaPointe agreed to a trial on stipulated facts (bench trial). The court convicted LaPointe of felony vehicle prowling in the second degree. The court ruled the State proved beyond a reasonable doubt that LaPointe had been previously convicted on two separate occasions of the crime of misdemeanor vehicle prowling in the second degree.

On appeal, LaPointe contends the court erred in denying his Knapstad motion to dismiss the felony charge of vehicle prowling in the second degree.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

On review, the Court of Appeals gave some necessary background. It explained that in 2013, the Washington State Senate proposed an amendment to RCW 9A.52.100 to elevate the crime of misdemeanor vehicle prowling in the second degree to a felony upon a third or subsequent conviction. Afterward, the Washington State House of Representatives amended Senate Bill 5053 to define when a third or subsequent conviction elevates vehicle prowling in the second degree to a felony.

Next, the Court turned to LaPointe’s arguments regarding statutory interpretation. “LaPointe argues that under the plain and unambiguous language of RCW 9A.52.100(3), the court erred in denying his Knapstad motion to dismiss the felony charge because he had not been previously convicted on two separate occasions,” said the Court. “The State asserts that under RCW 9A.52.100(4), LaPointe was previously convicted on two separate occasions because he was not charged in the same information and the crimes occurred on different dates.”

The Court of Appeals reasoned that when interpreting a statute, the fundamental goal is to ascertain and carry out the intent of the legislature:

“We seek to determine legislative intent solely from the plain language of the statute. The plain meaning of a statutory provision is to be discerned from the ordinary meaning of the language at issue.”

The court further explained that it derives legislative intent from the plain language of the statute by considering the text of the provision in question, the context of the statute in which the provision is found, related provisions, and the statutory scheme as a whole.

“We do not analyze individual subsections in isolation from the other sections of the statute when doing so would undermine the overall statutory purpose,” said the Court. “We must also interpret and construe a statute to harmonize and give effect to the language used in the statute with no portion rendered meaningless or superfluous and assume the legislature means exactly what it says.”

It reasoned that in this case, the defendant was convicted of two counts of vehicle prowling in the second degree under King County Cause No. 13-1-13980-1, and one count of vehicle prowling in the second degree under King County Cause No. 13-1-12822-1. These convictions are each based on separate dates of occurrence. The convictions under 13-1-13980-1 were charged in a charging document that is separate from the charging document in 13-1-12822-1. The two cause numbers were sentenced on the same date to give the defendant the benefit of presumptively concurrent sentences.

“The State’s argument that by identifying two situations that do not count as convictions for purposes of charging a felony in RCW 9A.52.100(4), the legislature has defined “separate occasions” that elevate the crime to a felony, is the inverse of what the language actually says,” said the Court. “RCW 9A.52.100(4) states that multiple counts of vehicle prowling either charged in the same information or ‘based on the same date of occurrence’ do not count as separate offenses for the purposes of charging as a felony:

“Multiple counts of vehicle prowling (a) charged in the same charging document do not count as separate offenses for the purposes of charging as a felony based on previous convictions for vehicle prowling in the second degree and (b) based on the same date of occurrence do not count as separate offenses for the purposes of charging as a felony based on previous convictions for vehicle prowling in the second degree.”

“The State’s argument also relies on a logical fallacy,” said the Court. “The proposition that ‘A implies B’ is not the equivalent of ‘non-A implies non-B,’ and neither proposition follows logically from the other.”  In other words, said the Court, identifying two situations that do not count as separate offenses does not mean the inverse—that pleading guilty on the same day in the same proceeding to multiple charges that occurred on different days in two different cause numbers elevates the crime to a felony.

The Court reasoned that because neither a plain reading of the statutory scheme as a whole nor legislative history clearly resolves the ambiguity, under the rule of lenity, it interpreted the statute to mean that when a defendant pleads guilty on the same day in a single proceeding to multiple counts of misdemeanor vehicle prowling as charged by amended information in two different cause numbers, the crime of vehicle prowling in the second degree is not elevated to a felony.

With that, the Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s denial of LaPointe’s Knapstad motion to dismiss and also reversed his conviction of felony vehicle prowling in the second degree.

Corpus Delicti & Drugs

Image result for “8-ball” coke

In State v. Hotchkiss, the WA Court of Appeals held that, despite the corpus delicti defense, the discovery of 8.1 grams of methamphetamine and $2,150 in cash during a search of the defendant’s home, provided sufficient corroborating evidence of possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Law enforcement officers executed a search warrant on Hotchkiss’s residence in Vancouver. During the search, Hotchkiss admitted that he had an “8-ball” – approximately 3.8 grams – of methamphetamine in a safe and provided the officers with the code. He also stated that he procured about one 8-ball of methamphetamine every day and broke it down, and estimated that he had about 10 customers. Inside the safe, officers found 8.1 grams of methamphetamine and $2,150 in cash.

The State charged Hotchkiss with possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver – methamphetamine. At a bench trial, officers testified about finding the methamphetamine and cash and about Hotchkiss’s statement that he had 10 methamphetamine customers. After the State rested, Hotchkiss requested that the trial court disregard the testimony regarding his incriminating statement under the corpus delicti rule because there was insufficient evidence corroborating his statement. The court reserved its ruling on the corpus delicti issue.

Hotchkiss then testified that he and a woman who lived with him used three or four grams of methamphetamine per day. He also testified that the cash in the safe came from other people living at his residence, who paid rent of $1,150 per month in cash, and from his employment. He claimed that any statement he made to the officers about selling methamphetamine referred to his actions 20 years earlier.

On rebuttal, an officer with extensive experience dealing with methamphetamine users
and sellers testified that a typical methamphetamine dose is 0.2 to 0.4 grams. He also testified that it would be very rare that someone would possess eight grams of methamphetamine solely for personal use.

The trial court found that the quantity of methamphetamine in Hotchkiss’s possession
combined with the amount of cash recovered with the drugs was sufficient corroborating
evidence to satisfy the corpus delicti rule. The court then found Hotchkiss guilty of possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver. Hotchkiss appeals his conviction.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that the corpus delicti rule prevents the State from establishing that a crime occurred solely based on the defendant’s incriminating statement. The State must present corroborating evidence independent of the incriminating statement that the charged crime occurred. Without such corroborating evidence, the defendant’s statement alone is insufficient to support a conviction.

The Court then addressed the question of whether there was enough independent evidence to support the conviction for possession of methampetamine with intent to deliver.

“The general rule is that mere possession of a controlled substance, including quantities greater than needed for personal use, is not sufficient to support an inference of intent to deliver,” said the Court. Here, the State presented evidence that (1) Hotchkiss had 8.1 grams of methamphetamine in his possession; (2) given an average dose size of 0.2 to 0.4 grams, such an amount typically would produce 20 to 40 doses; and (3) it would be very rare for a person to possess that amount merely for personal use.

The Court reasoned that under the general rule, this evidence standing alone would not be sufficient either to convict Hotchkiss of possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver or to provide corroborating evidence under the corpus delicti rule.

“But the State presented evidence of an additional factor suggestive of intent to deliver –
$2,150 of cash in Hotchkiss’s safe next to the methamphetamine,” said the Court. “This methamphetamine and cash evidence would be sufficient to support a conviction for possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver.”

With that, the Court of Appeals concluded that the State satisfied the corpus delicti rule and affirmed Hotchkiss’ conviction of possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver.

My opinion? Corpus Delicti is a tricky defense. It usually works best in cases where there is a gaping hole between the corroborating evidence and the defendant’s statements.

For example, let’s say that police received a 911 call about a red truck driving around in your neighborhood swerving in an out of traffic. The police respond to the call, drive to your neighborhood, and look a for a red truck. They find one parked at your home. They knock on your door. You open the door. You’re intoxicated from drinking alcohol.

“Were you driving?” asked the police.

“Yes,” you say. Police immediately arrest you for DUI.

Corpus delicti would be the appropriate defense in a case like this. Under our current DUI laws, the State must prove that not only were you driving that particular red truck, but that you were under the influence of alcohol when driving. In short, corpus delicti ensures that your statements and admission shall not be used against you in cases where there is a lack of independent evidence supporting your statements.

Please contact my office if you, a family member of friend face criminal charges with weak and/or questionable evidence supporting the charges. No matter what a person’s admissions are, we have the constitutional right to question the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the charges and perhaps argue the corpus delicti defense.

Defense of Property

Image result for couple fight over cell phone

In State v. Yelovich, the WA Court of Appeals held that an owner of property cannot use force to defend that property when (1) the interference with the property occurs when the defendant was not present, (2) the interference has been completed and the property is no longer in the owner’s possession, and (3) the property has been removed from an area within the owner’s control.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Assault & Arrest

Defendant Yelovich and his ex-girlfriend De Armond dated for several years before breaking up. A domestic violence no-contact order was in place that prevented Yelovich from contacting De Armond. According to Yelovich, on the morning of June 7, 2015, he was at his son’s house packing boxes in the garage and moving them to his car. While he was working, Yelovich left several items unattended in his car, which had a broken passenger-side window. One of the items was a cell phone. As Yelovich was taking a box to his car, he caught a glimpse of someone walking down the street. At that time, he could not tell who the person was.

When he reached his car, he noticed that his cell phone and other items were missing.
Yelovich walked to the middle of the street and saw that the person in the street was De
Armond. De Armond was repeatedly turning around and looking back toward Yelovich.
Yelovich immediately believed that she had taken his cell phone.

Yelovich got into his car and chased after De Armond. He drove to the end of the road a
few blocks away and turned the corner before encountering De Armond. He parked his car, got out, and demanded that she return his phone. Yelovich knew at that point that he was violating the no-contact order. But he believed that the action was necessary before De Armond disappeared with his phone.

Yelovich grabbed De Armond’s purse strap and attempted to pull the purse from her, believing that the cell phone was in the purse. De Armond resisted, holding tightly to her purse. In the struggle, De Armond fell to the ground. After a bystander intervened, law enforcement officers arrived and arrested Yelovich.

The State charged Yelovich with violating the no-contact order. The information alleged
that Yelovich had assaulted De Armond, making the violation a felony under RCW
26.50.110(4).

Trial and Conviction

At trial, the witnesses testified to the facts recited above. Yelovich proposed a jury instruction that included both defense of property and self-defense components. The trial court ruled as a matter of law that a defense of property instruction did not apply because Yelovich was not using force to prevent the cell phone from being taken; he was trying to recover the cell phone that was no longer in his possession.

A jury convicted Yelovich of the felony contact order violation. Yelovich appeals his
conviction.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

In short, the Court of Appeals disagreed with Yelovich’s argument that the trial court erred by refusing to give a defense of property jury instruction.

“Yelovich asserted as a defense that he was justified in using force against De Armond because she had taken his cell phone,” said the Court. It reasoned, however, that Yelovich’s own testimony established that he used force in an attempt to recover the cell phone after De Armond allegedly had taken it and had left the immediate area, not to prevent De Armond from taking the cell phone in the first instance. “The issue here is to what extent a defendant can rely on the defense of property as a defense when he or she uses force to recover property that already has been taken and is no longer in his or her possession,” said the Court.

The Court further reasoned that the plain language of the “Use of Force” Statute RCW 9A.16.020(3) establishes that an owner of property cannot use force to defend that property after the interference with the property has been completed.

First, the property owner can use force only if he or she is about to be injured. “Once the interference with the property has been completed, the owner no longer is about to be injured; he or she has been injured,” said the Court.

Second, the property owner can use force only in preventing or attempting to prevent
the interference. An action taken to prevent interference must occur before the interference has been completed. Defense of property by definition is defensive rather than offensive. “Once the interference with the property has been completed, the owner’s use of force is to recover the property, not to prevent the interference,” said the Court.

Third, the property owner can use force only if the property is lawfully in his or her
possession. “Once the interference with the property has been completed, another person has obtained possession of the property and the owner necessarily no longer has possession,” said the Court.

“Based on the language of RCW 9A.16.020(3) and relevant case law, we hold that an owner of property cannot use force to defend that property when (1) the interference with the property occurs when the defendant was not present, (2) the interference has been completed and the property is no longer in the owner’s possession, and (3) the property has been removed from an area within the owner’s control.”

The Court reasoned that here, application of this three part test and the statutory language show that a defense of property instruction was not appropriate. First, Yelovich was not present at his car when De Armond allegedly removed the cell phone. He discovered that the cell phone was gone only after it already had been taken. Second, at that point De Armond had completed the alleged taking and had possession of the phone. Third, De Armond had left the area of Yelovich’s control – his car – and was a few blocks away. Therefore, the undisputed evidence shows that De Armond’s theft of Yelovich’s cell phone, if it occurred, already had been completed when Yelovich chased after De Armond and accosted her. Yelovich was attempting to recover the cell phone, not to prevent its theft.

The Court furthe rreasoned that Yelovich was not about to be injured when he accosted De Armond; he already had been injured through the loss of his cell phone. He was not attempting to prevent a theft; the theft already had occurred. And Yelovich no longer had possession of the cell phone; the phone allegedly was in De Armond’s possession.

“Therefore, defense of property under RCW 9A.16.020(3) cannot apply and there was no evidence to support Yelovich’s other proposed instruction,” said the Court.

Dealing in Depictions

Image result for teenage boy selfie

In State v. Gray, the WA Supreme Court decided that the Dealing in Depictions of a Minor Engaged in Sexually Explicit Conduct statute allows the State to prosecute a minor for taking and distributing a sexually explicit photo of himself.
BACKGROUND FACTS
When he was 17 years old, Eric D. Gray electronically sent an unsolicited picture of his erect penis to an adult woman. The woman contacted the police, and Gray was charged with and convicted of one count of Second Degree Dealing in Depictions of a Minor Engaged in Sexually Explicit Conduct under ROW 9.68A.050. It also charged him with one count of Telephone Harassment under RCW 9.61.230. Gray moved to dismiss both charges for insufficient evidence, which the trial court denied.
In a stipulated facts trial, the court found Gray guilty of the second degree dealing in depictions of a minor charge. The State agreed to dismiss the telephone harassment charge and chose not to charge him with two counts of misdemeanor indecent exposure stemming from an unrelated incident. He was sentenced to 150 hours of community service, 30 days of confinement, and fees, before being released with credit for time served. He was ordered to register as a sex offender.
Mr. Gray appealed to Division Three of the Court of Appeals, which affirmed his adjudication. He appealed again, this time to the Washington Supreme Court, claiming the plain language of the statute does not anticipate minors who take and transmit sexually explicit images of themselves. The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, the Juvenile Law Center, Columbia Legal Services, and TeamChild subsequently filed a joint brief as amicus curiae, or “friend of the court”.
ISSUES
1. Does RCW 9.68A.050 allow the State to prosecute a minor for taking and distributing a sexually explicit photo of himself?
2. Is RCW 9.68A.050 impermissibly overbroad or vague in violation of the federal or state constitutions?
COURT’S ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSIONS
The WA Supreme Court reasoned that the plain language of the statute prohibits transmitting sexually explicit images of a minor even if the minor himself sent it:
“Under this statute, the State properly charged Gray for his actions. When he was 17, Gray took a photo of his erect penis and sent it, unsolicited, to another person. Gray is a “natural person” and therefore a person for purposes of the statute. He was also under the age of 18, making him a minor under the statute as well. He stated he was attracted to T.R., and when he sent the picture he included the phrase “Do u like it, babe?,” indicating an attempt to arouse the recipient. The picture he transmitted was, therefore, a visual depiction of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct because it was a picture of a minor’s genitals designed to sexually stimulate the viewer. This falls squarely within the statute’s plain meaning.”
The Court also reasoned that the statute here is unambiguous. A “person” is any person, including a minor. “Images of a ‘minor’ are images of any minor,” reasoned the Court. It elaborated that nothing in the statute indicates that the “person” and the “minor” are necessarily different entities. Therefore, the photographer or distributor may also be the minor in the photograph. “Because of this, Gray was properly charged with taking and disseminating sexually explicit images of a minor,” said the Court.
Furthermore, the Court reasoned that the Legislature’s findings support the Court’s plain reading of the statute. “The legislature intended to destroy the blight of child pornography everywhere, from production of the images to commercial gain,” said the Court. “Because the statute was intended to curtail production of child pornography at all levels in the distribution chain, the statute prohibits Gray’s actions.”
Finally, the Court reasoned that the statute is neither unconstitutionally overbroad nor unconstitutionally vague. First, it does not invite arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement. Despite Gray’s arguments, the Court reasoned that the State is vested with great discretion in determining how and when to file criminal charges. Here, Gray presents no evidence the State made the choice to charge Gray for an arbitrary or discriminatory purpose.
Second, the wording of the statute allows a reasonable person to understand what conduct is prohibited. “It states that ‘a person’ will be guilty if they transmit sexually explicit images of ‘a minor,’ said the Court. “On its face, this includes any person, even a minor taking a picture of himself. Our responsibility is to interpret the law, not to write it, and here the law is clear.”
With that, the WA Supreme Court voted 6-3 to affirm the Court of Appeals and upheld Gray’s conviction.
THE DISSENT
Justice McCloud authored the dissenting opinion. He reasoned that RCW 9.68A.050 is designed to tackle a significant problem: trafficking in sexual depictions of children. Furthermore, the statute tackles that problem with severe criminal penalties for the traffickers but protection for the depicted children.

“There is a long-standing and well-accepted rule that when a legislature enacts a criminal law to protect such a specific class, we cannot interpret that law to permit prosecution (and potential revictimization) of members of that protected class for their own exploitation—unless the legislature explicitly says so. The legislature did not say so here. Hence, the general rule applies,” said Justice McCloud. “Gray, the depicted minor, cannot be prosecuted under this statute for disseminating pictures of himself.”

Self-Defense

Image result for self defense with a gun

In State v. Vela, the WA Court of Appeals held that the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to present evidence was violated when the trial court excluded testimony regarding why the defendant, who claimed self-defense, feared the victim.
BACKGROUND FACTS
On February 20, 2014, Duarte Vela shot and killed Antonio Menchaca in Okanogan County. The question at trial was why Duarte Vela shot and killed Menchaca.

Apparently, Menchaca was the ex-brother-in-law of Duarte. Vela and his family were living in Okanogan County. Apparently, Vela and his family were afraid of Menchaca, who just finished serving a prison sentence in California. Also, Vela had already contacted Menchaca when Menchaca returned from California and told Menchaca to stay away from his family.

On the date of the incident, Vela’s wife called Vela and said she thought she saw Menchaca driving by their house. Vela went home, retrieved a firearm and then was heading to Brewster to pick up a child, when he saw Menchaca parked along the road on old Hwy 97 near the Chiliwist Road. Vela stopped and confronted Menchaca. According to a witness at the scene, Vela then pulled out a pistol and shot the Menchaca two or three times. Menchaca died at the scene from the gunshots.

Vela then drove back to his home, put the gun away and called 911 to report the shooting. Vela told Deputies he was at his home and would be waiting for them. Deputies arrived and picked up Vela without incident. Vela was transported to the Okanogan County Jail and booked for various firearm offenses and Murder in the Second Degree.

The trial occurred in January 2015. Prior to jury selection, the State moved in limine to exclude evidence of Menchaca’s prior bad acts. Vela responded that he sought to admit certain prior bad acts of Menchaca known to him to establish the reasonableness of his fear of Menchaca. Specifically, Vela wanted to introduce testimony that (1) Menchaca threatened to return to Okanogan and kill Duarte Vela’s after being released from prison, (2) Menchaca kidnapped Vela’s younger sister in 2007 when she was just 15 years old, (3)
Menchaca had repeatedly battered Vela’s sister throughout their marriage, and that she had told Vela about this, (4) Vela’s wife witnessed the domestic violence abuse from Manchaca to Vela’s sister (5) Vela was told by his family members about Menchaca’s threat to kill his family and Menchaca’s domestic violence against Blanca, (6) Vela feared Menchaca being around his family, (7) Vela believed he needed to arm himself when he went to his sister’s apartment to confront Menchaca, (8) Vela’s wife told him the SUV driver  Martinez and Menchaca gave her a threatening look when the SUV first parked in or near the pullout, (9) why Vela followed the SUV the first time, (10) why Vela believed there were two people in the car when he followed the SUV the first time, (11) Martinez’s statement to him that he was alone in the SUV, (12) what he felt when he saw Martinez later drive by with Menchaca in the passenger seat, (13) why Vela had an elevated fear as he went after the SUV for the second time, (14) Vela’s wife being upset when he returned and explained that Menchaca was not in the SUV, (15) Vela’s belief that something was wrong when Martinez and Menchaca both got out of the car and walked toward him, (16) what Vela feared Menchaca and Martinez might do as they walked toward him, and (17) the degree of bodily harm Vela feared just before he shot Menchaca, as Menchaca became upset and reached into his pocket.

However, the trial court excluded the proferred evidence on the basis that the testimony was irrelevant, too remote in time and ultimately inadmissible.

Also, toward the end of trial, Duarte Vela requested a “no duty to retreat” jury instruction.
However, the trial court denied the instruction. The jury returned a verdict of guilty on all counts. Vela appealed.
COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS
The Court of Appeals reasoned that right to present testimony in one’s defense is guaranteed by both the United States and the Washington Constitution. Here, Vela argued the trial court’s evidentiary rulings violated his right to present a defense. He principally argues the trial court committed reversible error when it excluded evidence relating to: (1) Menchaca’s prison threat, (2) Menchaca’s years of domestic abuse against Blanca, (3) Menchaca’s abduction of Maricruz, (4) why he feared Menchaca, and (5) the type of bodily harm he feared just before he shot Menchaca.
The Court reasoned that in considering a claim of self-defense, the jury must take into account all 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 of Appeals.
Furthermore, the Court reasoned that evidence of a victim’s propensity toward violence that is known by the defendant is relevant to a claim of self-defense because such testimony tends to show the state of mind of the defendant and to indicate whether he, at that time, had reason to fear bodily harm. Thus, such evidence is admissible to show the defendant’s reason for fear and the basis for acting in self-defense.
“Here, Vela sought to introduce Menchaca’ s threat to kill Vela’s family and Menchaca’s past domestic violence not to prove they were true, but for the very relevant purpose of showing the reasonableness of his fear of Menchaca,” reasoned the Court of Appeals. “The evidence, therefore, was not hearsay. To the extent the trial court excluded this and
several miscellaneous statements offered by Duarte Vela to show his state of mind, the
trial court erred,” said the Court.
The Court also said that the reasonableness of Vela’s fear of Menchaca is one of two components of his self-defense claim, the other component being the degree of bodily harm he feared just before he shot Menchaca:
“Menchaca’s past threat to kill Vela’s family was central to Duarte Vela’s ability to explain the reasonableness of his fear. Unless the evidence was inadmissible under the State’s other arguments, the trial court’s exclusion of this evidence deprived Vela of the ability to testify to his versions of the incident.”
Furthermore, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the trial court’s evidentiary rulings precluded Vela from presenting a legal defense to the killing that he admitted to and omitted evidence that would have created a reasonable doubt that did not otherwise exist. “For this reason, the trial court’s evidentiary rulings violated Duarte Vela’s Sixth Amendment right to present a defense,” said the Court of Appeals.
Next, the Court of Appeals addressed whether the trail court erred in refusing to allow Vela the “No Duty to Retreat” jury instruction. “Because the facts would not support retreat as an option to someone pulling a gun at close range and because the State did not argue that Vela could have retreated, the trial court did not err in refusing the instruction.”
CONCLUSION
Although the Court of Appeals denied Vela’s argument of instructional error, it concluded the trial court’s evidentiary rulings denied his Sixth Amendment right to present
a defense. It therefore reversed and remanded for a new trial.
My opinion? Good decision. It’s wrong to hobble defendants of their right to self-defense when the defense is justified. For more on this topic, please read my Legal Guide titled, “Self-Defense.”  And don’t hesitate to call the Law Office of Alexander Ransom if you have friends or family accused of crimes involving self-defense.

Extortion & Promises

Image result for extortion

In State v. McClure, the WA Court of Appeals held that extortion was satisfied by evidence that the defendant attempted to obtain valuable intangible property – a promise from the victim that he would not pursue criminal charges or a civil remedy against the defendant for the damaged property.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In late 2013, Williams and McClure entered into an agreement under which McClure would reside in a double wide trailer Williams owned that needed repairs. McClure would perform the repairs. In return, he would live in the trailer rent free for one year and then he would start paying rent. After a year, Williams contacted McClure and told him that if he did not pay rent, Williams would evict him.

McClure responded by threatening to destroy the trailer if Williams evicted him.

McClure did not pay his rent and Williams began the eviction process. Williams visited
the trailer on the day McClure was to be evicted and discovered that the sliding glass door, the front door, the kitchen cabinets, and the wood stove had been removed. In addition, pipes were ripped out of the ceiling and electrical lines had been cut. Williams contacted the sheriff.

A few days later, Williams returned to the trailer and observed people on the property who were removing siding, electrical wire, plumbing, appliances, and fixtures from the trailer and portions of his shed. A deputy sheriff informed Williams that someone had taken out a Craigslist ad inviting people onto the property to take what they wanted. Williams sent a text message to McClure asking him to remove the ad. McClure texted a response:

“I will pull the ads if you take a letter . . . signed and notarized by both you and Lisa (Williams’ wife) that will not allow any charges to be placed against me or my wife for
anything related to the property. I don’t need the hassle. I will also not have the signs placed that I made for the same purpose.” After Williams again asked McClure to remove the ad, McClure texted, “A simple letter will take you 15 minutes and it will be done.”

The State charged McClure with first degree extortion and first degree malicious
mischief. A jury convicted him of both charges.

LEGAL ISSUE

McClure appeals only his first degree extortion conviction on the issue of whether that “promise” sought by the defendant  constituted valuable intangible “property” supporting an extortion conviction or merely involved coercion under RCW 9A.36.070 – Williams abstaining from conduct that he had the legal right to engage in.

ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that under RCW 9A.56.120(1), a person is guilty of first degree extortion if that person commits “extortion” by means of specific types of threats. “Extortion” means “knowingly to obtain or attempt to obtain by threat property or services of the owner.” “Property” means “anything of value, whether tangible or intangible, real or personal.”

It further reasoned that McClure clearly was seeking a promise to not pursue criminal charges for a crime that involved financial loss to Williams – the cost of repairing damaged property. As a victim of a crime under RCW 9.94A.753(5), Williams would have the ability to receive restitution in a criminal proceeding for the property damage McClure caused.

“This ability to receive restitution for property damage had value to Williams,” reasoned the Court of Appeals.

Furthermore, McClure also arguably was seeking a promise not to pursue any civil remedy for the property damage McClure caused. That is how Williams interpreted the threat. He testified that McClure demanded Williams’ agreement “not to hold me responsible or press any charges for the damage that was done to your property.”

Finally, the Court of Appeals reasoned that this ability to hold McClure responsible for the property damage in a civil lawsuit had value to Williams:

“A reasonable jury could have inferred from the evidence that McClure was attempting to obtain something intangible that had value – Williams’ promise not to pursue compensation for the property damage that McClure caused.”

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals held that the State presented sufficient evidence to support McClure’s conviction for first degree extortion.

“Furtive Movements”

Image result for furtive movements

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.

Join Offenses = Bad Results

Image result for years in prison

In State v. Linville, the WA Court of Appeals held that the defendant’s numerous criminal charges cannot be “joined” to a charge of leading organized crime.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Following an increase in residential burglaries in Thurston County, law enforcement
officers noticed similarities among several burglaries. Officers ultimately recovered numerous items taken during the burglaries from Linville’s home.

The State charged Linville with 1 count of leading organized crime, 35 counts of
residential burglary, 1 count of attempted residential burglary, 4 counts of first degree burglary, 3 counts of second degree burglary, 39 counts of trafficking in stolen property, 17 counts of first degree theft, 18 counts of second degree theft, 1 count of attempted second degree theft, 3 counts of third degree theft, 5 counts of theft of a firearm, 5 counts of identity theft, 4 counts of unlawful possession of a firearm, 1 count of possession of stolen property, and 1 count of possession of a controlled substance, for a total of 138 charges with numerous deadly weapon sentencing enhancements. The State alleged that Linville was armed with a firearm during the commission of the four first degree burglaries.

At no point did Linville argue that joinder of any offenses was improper under RCW 9A.82.085.

During the jury trial, the State presented testimony from numerous co-defendants who identified Linville as the instigator and leader of the burglary scheme. The co-defendants’ testimony was corroborated by law enforcement officers and victims who described the common characteristics among the burglaries and identified stolen goods recovered from the homes of Linville and his co-defendants. The jury found Linville guilty of 137 offenses, and he was sentenced to 914 months in prison, which included 240 months for four firearm sentencing enhancements.

Linville appealed on the argument that his defense counsel gave ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to move for severance of offenses that were not part of the pattern of criminal profiteering activity from the charge of leading organized crime under RCW 9A.82.085.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

Ultimately, the Court agreed with Linville. It reasoned that the Sixth Amendment guarantees the effective assistance of counsel in criminal proceedings. To show ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant must show that (1) defense counsel’s conduct was deficient, and (2) the deficient performance resulted in prejudice. To show deficient performance, Linville must show that defense counsel’s performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness. To show prejudice, Linville must show a reasonable possibility that, but for counsel’s purportedly deficient conduct, the outcome of the proceeding would have differed.

  1. Counsel Rendered Deficient Performance.

First, the Court reasoned that RCW 9A.82.085 states the following, in relevant part:

“In a criminal prosecution alleging a violation of leading organized crime, the state is barred from joining any offense other than the offenses alleged to be part of the pattern of criminal profiteering activity.”

RCW 9A.82.010(12) defines “pattern of criminal profiteering activity” as “engaging in at least three acts of criminal profiteering.” RCW 9A.82.010(4) defines “criminal profiteering” as:

“any act, including any anticipatory or completed offense, committed for financial gain, that is chargeable or indictable under the laws of the state in which the act occurred and, if the act occurred in a state other than this state, would be chargeable or indictable under the laws of this state had the act occurred in this state and punishable as a felony and by imprisonment for more than one year, regardless of whether the act is charged or indicted, as any of the following: . . . .”

RCW 9A.82.010(4) then lists 46 crimes and their defining statutes. First and second degree theft, trafficking in stolen property, leading organized crime, and identity theft are included in the list. However, residential burglary, first degree burglary, second degree burglary, attempted residential burglary, theft of a firearm, third degree theft, unlawful possession of a firearm, and possession of stolen property are NOT included in the list. 

Consequently, the Court reasoned that a plain reading of the statutes made it clear that the State was barred from joining charges of residential burglary, first degree burglary, second degree burglary, attempted residential burglary, theft of a firearm, third degree theft, unlawful possession of a firearm, and possession of stolen property to Linville’s prosecution for leading organized crime.

“The unreasonable failure to research and apply relevant statutes without any tactical purpose constitutes deficient performance. Here, defense counsel’s failure to object to the State’s improper joinder of charges was unreasonable and constitutes deficient performance.”

2. Counsel’s Deficient Performance Resulted in Prejudice to the Defendant’s Case.

The Court said that in order to succeed on his claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, Linville must also show that but for his attorney’s deficient performance the outcome of the trial would have differed, and therefore the deficient performance was prejudicial.

To this end, the Court reasoned that this issue is somewhat different than the related issue of discretionary joinder or severance pursuant to CrR 4.4(b). Under CrR 4.4(b), a trial court must grant a motion to sever offenses if it determines that “severance will promote a fair determination of the defendant’s guilt or innocence of each offense.” A defendant seeking such a severance under CrR 4.4(b) must show that a trial involving all counts would be so manifestly prejudicial as to outweigh the concern for judicial economy.

In contrast, the Court explained that RCW 9A.82.085 leaves no room for the trial court’s discretion. Under that statute, the State is barred from joining offenses other than those alleged to be part of the criminal profiteering activity in a prosecution for leading organized crime.

“Because of defense counsel’s failure to object, Linville was improperly tried for 138 total charges and convicted of 137 offenses,” said the Court. “Had counsel properly objected to the joinder, 56 of the charges, including all of the burglary charges, would have been severed, the trial would not have included convictions for those 56 improperly joined charges, and the outcome of this trial would have been different.”

The Court extrapolated the prejudicial consequences of the joinder. It explained that each of the four firearm enhancements – which resulted in a mandatory minimum sentence of 240 months – were associated with the four counts of first degree burglary. The firearm enhancements would not have been considered but for defense counsel’s deficient performance.

“The improper joinder had additional prejudicial consequences,” stated the Court. For example, by improperly joining four charges of unlawful possession of a firearm, the State was permitted to introduce evidence of Linville’s prior felony for possession of a controlled substance without a prescription. This prior conviction evidence was highly prejudicial given that the State’s theory was that Linville’s crime ring was motivated by drugs. Also, the State relied heavily on the burglaries as evidence of Linville’s guilt for leading organized crime. A jury separately considering the burglary charges would not necessarily have heard testimony of Linville’s accomplices accusing him of orchestrating a broad scheme.

Consequently, the Court held that Linville’s defense counsel rendered ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to object to the joinder of offenses in violation of RCW 9A.82.085. The Court therefore reversed Linville’s convictions and remanded them back to the trial court for separate trials.

My opinion? Good decision. A defense attorney’s failure to sever “joined” offenses into separate trials can have profoundly devastating effects. Put simply, juries are more biased against the defendant in a joinder trial versus a trial with a single charge. Consequently, they are more likely to convict on a particular charge in a joinder trial with multiple charges than in a trial on the same single charge. It’s imperative that competent defense attorneys sever counts whenever possible.

Juror Misconduct

Related image

In Godoy v. Spearman, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a murder conviction because a juror inappropriately communicated with a “judge friend” about the case during deliberations.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Enrique Godoy was convicted of second-degree murder by a Los Angeles County Superior Court jury. A week before his June 12, 2006 sentencing, he moved for a new trial alleging that Juror 10 had improperly communicated about the case with a “judge friend” during deliberations. To substantiate his allegations, Godoy brought brought alternate juror “E.M.” to his sentencing hearing. The trial court continued Godoy’s sentencing to a future court date. Later, Godoy sent the Prosecutor a declaration about Juror 10’s misconduct from alternate juror N.L., who wrote the following:

“During the course of the trial, juror number ten kept continuous communication with a gentleman up north, who she referred to as her “judge friend.” Juror number ten explained to us, the jury as a whole, that she had a friend that was a judge up north. From the time of jury selection until the time of verdict, juror number ten would communicate with her “judge friend” about the case via her TMobile Blackberry, a two way text paging system. When the jury was not sure what was going on or what procedurally would happen next, juror number ten would communicate with her friend and disclose to the jury what he said.”

Despite this “smoking gun” declaration, the trial court nevertheless sentenced Godoy to 16 years’ to life imprisonment. Godoy appealed his conviction to the California Court of Appeal, arguing the trial court erred by (1) refusing to presume Juror 10’s communications prejudiced the verdict and (2) refusing to hold an evidentiary hearing on the alleged misconduct. However, the California Court of Appeal rejected both of these arguments on the merits and affirmed Godoy’s conviction. Gody again appealed, this time going to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

COURT’S ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSION

This Ninth Circuit’s opinion began with the following:

“One of the most fundamental rights in our system of criminal justice is the right to trial before an impartial jury. Its common law origin can be traced back to the Middle Ages. It was enshrined in the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, and it has been embraced by the Supreme Court in numerous cases . . .”

Against this backdrop, the Ninth Circuit held that the California Court of Appeal decision violated the clearly established Supreme Court law that governs this case. It reasoned that under Mattox v. United States, due process does not tolerate any ground of suspicion that the administration of justice has been interfered with by external influence.

“Thus, when faced with allegations of improper contact between a juror and an outside party, courts apply a settled two-step framework,” said the Ninth Circuit. At step one, the court asks whether the contact was “possibly prejudicial,” meaning it had a tendency to be injurious to the defendant. If so, the contact is deemed presumptively prejudicial and the court proceeds to step two, where the burden rests heavily upon the State to establish the contact was, in fact, harmless. If the State does not show harmlessness – or in other words, if the defendant was, in fact, harmed by the juror’s contact with an outside party – then the court must grant the defendant a new trial.  However, when the prejudicial effect of the contact is unclear, then the trial court must hold a hearing to determine the circumstances of the contact, the impact thereof upon the juror, and whether or not it was prejudicial.

“Here, the California Court of Appeal failed to adhere to this framework in three key respects,” said the Ninth Circuit. First, although the State court correctly acknowledged at step one that N.L.’s declaration raised a presumption of prejudice, it never required the State to rebut that presumption at step two. It concluded instead that the presumption was rebutted because Godoy’s evidence failed to prove prejudice.” The Ninth Circuit further reasoned that under Mattox and Remmer, however, Mr. Godoy was not required to prove prejudice at step two. Once he triggered the presumption, the burden rested heavily upon the State to disprove prejudice. “Thus, in denying relief because Godoy’s evidence did not prove prejudice at step two, the State court acted contrary to well established law,” reasoned the Ninth Circuit.

Second, the California Court of Appeal decision to set aside the State court’s failure to hold the State to its burden was error. In other words, it was wrong for the California Court of Appeal to rely on the very same statement from N.L.’s declaration both to raise the presumption of prejudice and to rebut it.  “This defies not only logic, but also the clearly established definition of a ‘presumption,’” reasoned the Ninth Circuit.

Third, the California Court of Appeal denied Godoy a hearing on prejudice under the wrong legal rule. It held he had to show a “strong possibility” of prejudice, but Remmer requires a hearing whenever, as here, the presumption attaches but the prejudicial effect of the contact is unclear from the record. “Because the state court’s decision contravened these bedrock principles, it was contrary to clearly established Supreme Court precedent under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1),” reasoned the Ninth Circuit.

The Ninth Circuit concluded that because Godoy showed the presumption of prejudice, he was entitled to the evidentiary hearing that he never had to begin with. With that, the Ninth Circuit reversed the judgment of the lower court and remanded the case back with instructions to hold an evidentiary hearing to determine the circumstances of Juror 10’s misconduct, the impact thereof upon the jury, and whether or not it was prejudicial.

My opinion? There’s a lot to be learned from this case. First, in all of my trials I admit a jury instruction prohibiting the jurors from accessing the internet and/or their smartphone devices. Jurors must rely on the evidence and the law and not be guided by outside influences. Second, I try and discuss the case with jurors immediately after they render verdicts. These conversations are very helpful teaching moments because jurors reveal what swayed their decisions. Also – and important to the defense of my clients – jurors may reveal whether their fellow jurors committed misconducts  similar to the type described in this case.

Good decision. And kudos to the defense attorney who discovered the juror misconduct. Although my heart goes out to the friends and family of the murder victim, justice is not served when our courts fail to administer their obligation to give defendants a fair trial.