Category Archives: Firearm

Excessive Force?

Image result for gun at head

In Thompson v. Copeland, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a police officer uses excessive force when he points a gun at a suspect’s head and threatens to kill the suspect after the suspect, who was arrested for a felony, has already been searched, is calm and compliant, and is being watched over by a second armed deputy.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In December, 2011, Pete Copeland, a deputy in the King County Sheriff’s Office (“KCSO”), was on patrol in the City of Burien, Washington. After watching Lawrence Thompson commit “multiple traffic violations,” Copeland pulled him over. Thompson apologized to Copeland but failed to provide a driver’s license, although he did offer up some mail addressed in his name.

When Copeland ran Thompson’s identifying information, he discovered that Thompson had a suspended license for an unpaid ticket, that Thompson was a convicted felon, and that his most recent felony conviction was for possessing a firearm. Copeland decided to arrest Thompson for driving with a suspended license, and to impound Thompson’s car, as required by a City of Burien ordinance.

Copeland had Thompson exit the vehicle and patted him down for weapons. Finding none, Copeland radioed for backup, and had Thompson sit on the bumper of Copeland’s patrol car. Copeland then conducted an inventory search of Thompson’s vehicle. During his search, Copeland saw a loaded revolver sitting in an open garbage bag on the rear passenger-side floorboard. After seeing the gun, Copeland decided to arrest Thompson for Unlawful Possession of a Firearm.

Thompson continued to sit on the bumper of Copeland’s police cruiser, watched over by another deputy who had arrived for backup on the scene. Thompson was about 10–15 feet from the gun in the backseat of his car, and was not handcuffed. Copeland signaled to the deputy watching over Thompson, then drew his gun.

What happened next is disputed by the parties. Copeland claims he unholstered his firearm and assumed a low-ready position, with his gun clearly displayed but not pointed directly at Thompson. By contrast, Thompson claims that Copeland pointed his gun at Thompson’s head, demanded Thompson surrender, and threatened to kill him if he did not.

Copeland directed Thompson to get on the ground, facedown, so that he could be handcuffed. Thompson complied and was cuffed without incident. Copeland arrested Thompson for being a felon in possession of a firearm. The State of Washington charged Thompson with Unlawful Possession of a Firearm. However, the charges were dismissed after determining that the evidence against Thompson had been gathered in violation of the Washington State Constitution.

Thompson sued Officer Copeland and King County under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of his Fourth Amendment rights. Specifically, Thompson alleged that Officer Copeland used excessive force in pointing his gun at Thompson and threatening to kill him.

In recommending dismissal of this claim, the federal Magistrate Judge  found that the degree of force used on Thompson was reasonable given that Officer Copeland was conducting a felony arrest of a suspect who was not secured, who was in relatively close proximity to a weapon, who was taller and heavier than him, and who had a prior felony conviction for unlawfully possessing a firearm. The Magistrate Judge concluded that Officer Copeland’s minimal use-of-force in effectuating Thompson’s arrest was objectively reasonable, and did not violate Thompson’s Fourth Amendment rights.

The Magistrate Judge also granted Copeland’s motion to dismiss under summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. Later, The federal district court adopted the Magistrate Judge’s Report and Recommendation, and dismissed Thompson’s claims with prejudice. Thompson appealed.

ISSUE

In the course of a felony arrest, may a police officer point a loaded gun at an unarmed suspect’s head, where that suspect had already been searched, was calm and compliant, was watched over by a second armed deputy, and was seated on the bumper of a police cruiser 10–15 feet away from a gun found in the suspect’s car? And if not, was the police officer entitled to qualified immunity from future lawsuits for police misconduct?

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Ninth Circuit held that pointing a loaded gun at the suspect’s head in these circumstances constitutes excessive force under the Fourth Amendment, but that the officers here are entitled to qualified immunity because the law was not clearly established at the time of the traffic stop.

“Our analysis involves two distinct steps,” said the Court of Appeals. “Police officers are not entitled to qualified immunity if (1) the facts taken in the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury show that the officers’ conduct violated a constitutional right, and (2) the right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation.”

  1. Violation of a Constitutional Right.

The Court reasoned that Officer Copeland’s use of force in arresting Thompson was not objectively reasonable. Officer Copeland pointed the gun at Thompson’s head and threatened to kill him if he did not surrender. This type and amount of force can hardly be characterized as minor, reasoned the Court. Furthermore, Thompson had no weapon and had already been searched. He was sitting on the bumper of a squad car, watched over by an armed deputy. He was not actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by
flight.

“Reviewing the totality of the circumstances, the force used against Thompson was excessive when balanced against the government’s need for such force. In the end, pointing guns at persons who are compliant and present no danger is a constitutional violation.”

         2. No Clearly Established Right.

Here, the Court reasoned that although the use of excessive force violated Thompson’s constitutional rights, Officer Copeland is entitled to qualified immunity because Thompson’s right not to have a gun pointed at him under the circumstances here was not clearly established at the time the events took place.

“Looking to the particular setup here, we cannot say that every reasonable officer in Copeland’s position would have known that he was violating the constitution by pointing a gun at Thompson,” said the Court of Appeals. “Thompson’s nighttime, felony arrest arising from an automobile stop, in which a gun was found, coupled with a fluid, dangerous situation, distinguishes this case from our earlier precedent.”

The Court reasoned that, more specifically, Copeland was conducting a felony arrest at night of a suspect who was not handcuffed, stood six feet tall and weighed two hundred and sixty-five pounds, was taller and heavier than Copeland, and had a prior felony conviction for unlawfully possessing a firearm. “Although Thompson was cooperative, the situation was still critical in terms of potential danger to the officers, especially given that a loaded gun was only 10–15 feet away,” said the Court. “Copeland did not violate a “clearly established” right as that concept has been elucidated by the Supreme Court in the excessive force context.”

The Court of Appeals concluded that because the law was not clearly established within the parameters dictated by the Supreme Court, Officer Copeland was entitled to qualified immunity. Therefore, the lower district court’s grant of summary judgment was AFFIRMED.

   3. Dissenting Opinion.

My opinion? Respectfully, I disagree with the Court of Appeals’ majority decision and agree with Justice Christen’s dissenting opinion.

“This decision squarely conflicts with the clear directive our court issued in Robinson v. Solano County, a case involving facts that, if distinguishable at all, posed a greater threat to officer safety,” said Justice Christen. Ultimately, she reasoned that Robinson recognized the critical distinction between pointing a gun at someone’s head and holding it in the “low ready” position.

“Deputy Copeland was justified in displaying some degree of force, but accepting the allegations in the complaint as true, he unquestionably used excessive force when he aimed his gun at Thompson’s head and threatened that if Thompson moved, he’d be dead.,” said Justice Christen. “Because that rule was clearly established long before Thompson was arrested, I respectfully dissent.”

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member believe police used excessive force in any given situation. Police officers have difficult tasks. In recent years, however, the use of force by police officers making traffic stops has flared into a national debate of renewed importance. It’s imperative to seek legal counsel with knowledge and competence in this debate, and who may recover damages from the police officer’s liability.

Common Authority to Search

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In State v. Vanhollebeke, the WA Supreme Court held that a driver’s refusal to consent to the search of his or her vehicle must generally be respected. But where the facts reasonably raise a significant question about whether the driver had any legitimate claim to the vehicle at all, the police may contact the absent owner and then get that owner’s consent to search instead.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Defendant Justin Vanhollebeke drove his truck the wrong way down a one-way street. Not surprisingly, an officer stopped him. Vanhollebeke ignored the officer’s command to stay in the vehicle, got out and locked the vehicle behind him, left a punched out ignition and apparent drug paraphernalia behind in plain view of the police, and had no key. The police asked Vanhollebeke for consent to search the vehicle. Vanhollebeke refused. A police officer then contacted the truck’s owner, received the absent owner’s consent and a key to search, and then returned to search the vehicle.

Vanhollebeke was charged with unlawful possession of a firearm found in the truck.

Vanhollebeke moved to suppress the fruits of the search, arguing that the warrantless search was unconstitutional. The trial court denied the motion, reasoning that there’s a reduced expectation of privacy in a borrowed vehicle. The trial court made no explicit findings of fact regarding the officers’ motivation for contacting Mr. Casteel. Vanhollebeke was found guilty, sentenced to 34 months confinement, and assessed fees of $1,380. He appealed on the issue of whether the search was constitutional.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Supreme Court reasoned that warrantless searches are presumptively unconstitutional, unless they fit within one of the few, narrow exceptions to the warrant requirement. Under both the Washington and United States Constitutions, warrantless searches are per se unreasonable. However, there are a few jealously and carefully drawn exceptions to the warrant requirement.

“One of those exceptions is for consent, and consent is the exception at issue here,” said the Court. It elaborated that consent to a search establishes the validity of that search if the person giving consent has the authority to so consent. Furthermore, the Court reasoned that while the driver of an absent owner’s vehicle does not ordinarily assume the risk that the absent owner will consent to a search, the driver does assume that risk where the facts reasonably suggest it is stolen.

Next, the Court adopted and applied the Fourth Amendment standard for valid third-party consent to a search is a two-part test: (1) Did the consenting party have authority to permit the search in his own right? And if so, (2) did the defendant assume the risk that the third party would permit a search? Both this Court and the United States Supreme Court refer to this test as the “common authority rule.” In short, the common authority rule refers to a legal principle that permits a person to give consent to a law officer for the purpose of searching another person’s property. The common-authority rule provides for searches without warrant. The principle can be applied only when both parties have access or control to the same property.

The Consenting Party Had Authority to Permit the Search.

The WA Supreme Court held that here, the consenting party, the owner, clearly had the authority to consent to the search in his own right. “There is no dispute that the first part of the test is satisfied in this case as the truck’s owner, Casteel, could clearly consent to its search in his own right,” said the Court. “The driver of a car owned by another does not ordinarily assume the risk that the owner will consent to a search.”

Vanhollebeke, by Borrowing Casteel’s truck, Assumed the Risk that Casteel Might Allow Others to Search It.

The Court held that the evidence in this case gave the officers good reasons to believe the vehicle was stolen. This driver, without a key or identification and with a punched out ignition clearly visible, therefore assumed the risk that the police would contact the absent owner and seek consent to search.

The Court elaborated that this reasoning is consistent with the reasoning in the United States Supreme Court’s “common authority” cases that legitimation of expectations of privacy by law must have a source outside of the Fourth Amendment, either by reference to concepts of real or personal property law or to understandings that are recognized and permitted by society.

“The search in this case did not violate the Fourth Amendment,” concluded the Court.

Drive-By Shooting Conviction Reversed

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In State v. Vasquez, the WA Court of Appeals held that the drive-by sentence aggravator is not met where a perpetrator ran 63 feet from his vehicle and around the corner of a grocery store prior to shooting and killing the victim.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Mr. Vasquez shot and killed Mr. Garcia as Mr. Garcia was seated in the front passenger side of a GMC Envoy parked at the Airport Grocery in Moses Lake, Washington. Mr. Garcia’s girlfriend was in the front driver’s seat and her five-year-old child was in the back seat, behind Mr. Garcia. Neither Mr. Garcia’s girlfriend nor her child were physically injured during the shooting.

At the crux of this case is the route Mr. Vasquez took to shoot Mr. Garcia.

For several minutes prior to the shooting, the Envoy was parked near the Airport Grocery’s front entrance. Mr. Vasquez then arrived at the scene in a Toyota pickup. The Toyota was parked on the side of the grocery, next to a fenced utility area, approximately 63 feet away from the Envoy.

Once the Toyota was parked, Mr. Vasquez ran from the pickup and hid behind the utility fence for nearly a minute. Mr. Vasquez then rushed around the corner of the grocery, across the front-side of the Envoy, and over to the area of the front passenger window of the Envoy. The front window was partially rolled down, exposing Mr. Garcia to Mr. Vasquez.

Mr. Vasquez shot and killed Mr. Garcia from point-blank range. Mr. Vasquez then retreated to the Toyota and it sped away. The entire shooting was captured on video by the grocery’s surveillance system. Approximately one minute and 16 seconds elapsed between the Toyota’s initial arrival and ultimate departure.

A jury convicted Mr. Vasquez of first degree murder with a drive-by shooting aggravator, along with several counts of drive-by shooting. Mr. Vasquez was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for the aggravated first degree murder conviction. He also received a 60-month firearm enhancement. Mr. Vasquez appealed on arguments that the evidence was insufficient to prove a drive-by shooting.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

Washington’s drive-by shooting statute states, in pertinent part:

A person is guilty of drive-by shooting when he or she recklessly discharges a firearm as defined in RCW 9.41.010 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 legal question was whether the State’s evidence showed Mr. Vasquez was in the “immediate area” of the Toyota pickup truck at the time of the shooting. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, the Court of Appeals held the “immediate area” requirement was not met.

The Court of Appeals explained that a drive-by shooting is commonly understood to involve shots fired from inside a vehicle, or from “within a few feet or yards” of the vehicle. In other words, the crime contemplates a shooter who is either inside a vehicle or within easy reach of the vehicle.

“Mr. Vasquez’s offense did not fall within either circumstance,” reasoned the Court of Appeals. It further reasoned that Mr. Vasquez was far from reach of the Toyota at the time he shot Mr. Garcia. “In fact, Mr. Vasquez had to traverse several intervening obstacles in order to get a clear shot at his victim,” said the Court. “Although Mr. Vasquez was in the immediate area of Mr. Garcia’s Envoy at the time of the shooting, he was not in the immediate area of the Toyota that had transported him to the scene. Mr. Vasquez’s offense therefore does not qualify as a drive-by shooting.”

The Court concluded that because Mr. Vasquez was neither inside the Toyota nor within immediate reach of the Toyota at the time of the shooting, the State failed to present sufficient evidence justifying Mr. Vasquez’s convictions for drive-by shooting as well as the drive-by shooting aggravator to Mr. Vasquez’s first degree murder conviction.

Consequently, the Court reversed Vasquez’s drive-by shooting convictions and aggravator.

My opinion? The circumstances of this case are certainly tragic. However, it’s not uncommon for Prosecutors to charge people for crimes which don’t fit the facts and circumstances. That’s why it’s extremely important to hire a qualified and competent defense attorney who knows and understands the law. Defense counsel must question the evidence and, when necessary, argue pretrial motions to dismiss charges where evidence is lacking. Please contact my office if you, a family member or friend faces serious criminal charges similar to those in this case.

Self-Defense

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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.

Join Offenses = Bad Results

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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.

Pretrial Publicity & Change of Venue

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In State v. Munzanreder, the WA Court of Appeals held that the jury selection process used by the trial court – which included a written questionnaire with a number of questions regarding exposure to media reports and questioning each juror individually about media exposure – protected the defendant’s constitutional rights to an impartial venue. Therefore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it denied the motion to change venue.

BACKGROUND FACTS

John J. Munzanreder appealed his conviction for the first degree murder of his wife. Because of the sensational nature of the alleged crime, local media extensively covered his case from arrest through trial.

Munzanreder worked with Juan Ibanez at Valley Ford in Yakima, Washington. In
early February 2013, Ibanez approached Munzanreder and asked him for money for a
toolbox. Munzanreder agreed to give him the money ifhe helped get rid of somebody.
Munzanreder told Ibanez that he wanted help killing his wife, Cynthia, and would give
him $20,000. Ibanez said he would help, but he would not kill her.

Munzanreder gave Ibanez cash and directed him to purchase a gun. Munzanreder
told Ibanez his plan: Munzanreder and his wife would go the movies, he would shoot her
with the new gun, he would then throw the gun to Ibanez in some nearby bushes, and
Ibanez would run away with the gun.

On February 28, 2013, the Munzanreders went to see a movie at the Majestic
Theater in Union Gap, Washington, a small city immediately south of Yakima. Ibanez received a prearranged text message from Munzanreder that the plan would be executed
and went to the theater and waited in the bushes adjacent to the theater’s parking lot.

After the movie, as the couple approached their car, Munzanreder shot his wife with the
gun purchased by Ibanez. Munzanreder then threw the gun into the bushes where Ibanez
waited. As Ibanez left the scene with the gun, he ran past a couple near his car.

Law enforcement arrived and questioned witnesses. Munzanreder told law
enforcement he heard a shot and saw a man in black clothes running away. Munzanreder
said he had followed the man, but fell and injured himself, developing a black eye.

Munzanreder’s wife later died from her injuries.

Law enforcement continued to investigate. They interviewed Ibanez, whose car
had been reported at the crime scene. Ibanez quickly confessed and told law enforcement
of the details of the crime. Media coverage of both the murder and the arrests quickly
saturated Yakima County.

Munzanreder was charged with Murder in the First Degree. The State also sought a Deadly Weapon Enhancement because the crime occurred with a handgun.

The Jury Questionnairre

Defense counsel and the State had worked together to create an agreed juror
questionnaire. The purpose of the questionnaire was to uncover juror bias, so that the
trial court and the parties could individually interview venire jurors with possible bias in
open court but outside the presence of other venire jurors.

The questionnaire contained many questions, including questions focusing on
pretrial publicity about the case. Those questions asked the venire jurors to list media
sources they used, whether they generally believed the media, whether they thought the
media was fair to both sides of a case, and what criminal cases they followed in the
media. It also specifically asked about Munzanreder’s case. The questionnaire asked
venire jurors if they knew information about the case from any sources, and concluded the
section by asking if they had formed any opinions about the case. The questionnaire also
asked venire jurors if they wanted to discuss their answers separately from other jurors.

The completed questionnaires revealed that 105 of the remaining 128 venire jurors knew
about the case; of these 105, 24 had formed opinions; and of these 24, most believed
Munzanreder was guilty.

Before the remaining venire panel returned to the courtroom, Munzanreder orally
moved for a change of venue. The motion was anticipated because Munzanreder had
earlier said he would make such a motion, and had provided the trial court and the State
with copies of local media stories and media Facebook posts.

The State, although opposing Munzanreder’s motion, indicated the trial court might give additional peremptory challenges. Munzanreder responded that he might ask for additional peremptory challenges, but would not do so until after the court ruled on his motion. The trial court took the motion under advisement and said it would make its ruling later in the jury selection process.

The parties completed voir dire and then went through the process of selecting the
Jury. The trial court permitted each party 6 peremptory challenges for the first 12 jurors,
and 1 additional peremptory challenge for each of the 3 alternate jurors. Munzanreder
never asked for additional peremptory challenges.

The panel was sworn in. The trial court provided the panel various preliminary
instructions and then excused them for lunch. With the panel excused, the trial court gave
its oral ruling denying Munzanreder’s motion to change venue.

Over the next several days, the parties presented their evidence.

The jury returned a guilty verdict on 1st degree murder with a firearm
enhancement. The trial court sentenced Munzanreder to 340 months of incarceration.

Munzanreder timely appealed. His principal arguments on appeal are the trial court abused its discretion when it denied his motion to change venue, and the voir dire process used by the trial court failed to protect his constitutional right to an impartial jury.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

First, the Court applied a Gunwall analysis to determine if the Washington Constitution provides greater protection than the United States Constitution in a particular context.  A Gunwall analysis must be performed, if litigants want the court to consider whether a parallel constitutional provision affords differing protections.

Here, the Court found that Munzanreder’s state constitutional right to an impartial jury should be interpreted as providing the same degree of protection as the parallel federal constitutional right. The Court similarly held that article I, section 22 of the WA Constitution’s right to an impartial jury does not provide any more protection than the Sixth Amendment.

Second, the Court of Appeals raised and dismissed Munzanreder’s arguments that the voir dire process employed in his case was insufficient. It reasoned that under Lopez-Stayer v.
Pitts, a trial court has considerable discretion in conducting voir dire. Abuse of discretion occurs when a trial court bases its decision on untenable grounds or untenable reasons.

Here,  the Court of Appeals discussed how extensive and meticulous jury selection was in this case. The trial court summoned 243 potential jurors. The parties worked together to craft an extensive juror questionnaire that satisfied the State, Munzanreder, and the trial court. The trial court granted several dozen individual interviews in open court outside the presence of other venire jurors. The trial court was fully involved with the process, and asked questions designed to expose bias and to ensure that jurors would reach a verdict based on the evidence presented at trial and on the court’s instructions on the law. Jury selection took over four days. Munzanreder did not request additional peremptory challenges, despite knowing he had that option. Munzanreder simply asserts now that the process was insufficient, although he was heavily involved at trial in developing the process used. Ultimately, the Court of Appeals decided that because Munzanreder does not show an abuse of discretion, his appeal on this issue fails.

Third, the Court of Appeals raised and dismissed Munzanreder’s arguments that the jury selection process used by the trial court was constitutionally deficient. He attempts to punctuate his point by showing that four biased jurors were empaneled. The Court reasoned that A party may challenge a juror for cause under CrR 6.4(c); and RCW 4.44.170. The trial court is in the best position to determine whether a juror can be fair and impartial because the trial court is able to observe the juror’s demeanor and evaluate the juror’s answers to determine whether the juror would be fair and impartial. For this reason, this court reviews a trial court’s denial of a challenge for cause for a manifest abuse of discretion.

Here, the Court of Appeals found no manifest abuse of discretion. Munzanreder failed to use his peremptory challenges to remove juror #51, a potentially bad and unbiased juror. He also elected not to request additional peremptory challenges. If the trial court erred in denying Munzanreder’ s for cause challenge of venire juror 51, because Munzanreder elected not to remove venire juror #51 with his allotted peremptory challenges or by requesting additional challenges, Munzanreder waived that error.

Fourth, the Court of Appeals raised and dismissed Munzanreder’s arguments that the trial court abused its discretion when it denied his motion for a change of venue. He primarily argues the pretrial media publicity was overwhelmingly inflammatory, which prejudiced the jury pool against him. The Court reasoned that in order to prevail on a change of venue motion, the defendant need only show a probability of unfairness or prejudice. Sheppard v. MaxwellState v. Rupe. The following nonexclusive factors aid our review of whether a trial court abused its discretion in denying a change of venue motion:

(I) the inflammatory or noninflammatory nature of the publicity; (2) the degree to which the publicity was circulated throughout the community; (3) the length of time elapsed from the dissemination of the publicity to the date of trial; (4) the care exercised and the difficulty encountered in the selection of the jury; (5) the familiarity of prospective or trial jurors with the publicity and the resultant effect upon them; (6) the challenges exercised by the defendant in selecting the jury, both peremptory and for cause; (7) the connection of government officials with the release of publicity; (8) the severity of the charge; and (9) the size of the area from which the venire is drawn.”

Here, the Court of Appeals reasoned that although the initial venire pool provided substantial challenges because of the trial court’s careful process for selecting a jury, it was highly confident that 11 of the 12 empaneled jurors were impartial.

“If venire juror #51 was biased, Munzanreder had the opportunity to remove him,” said the Court. “Munzanreder elected not to use any of his peremptory challenges to remove venire juror 51, and he did not request additional peremptory challenges. These two facts strongly suggest that even Munzanreder believed the empaneled jury was fair and impartial.” With that, the Court of Appeals concluded the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it denied Munzanreder’s motion to change venue.

Consequently, the Court of Appeals confirmed Munzanreder’s conviction.

No Motion to Suppress?

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In Mahrt v. Beard, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that a defendant may bring a pre-plea ineffective assistance of counsel claim when counsel’s failure to argue a motion to suppress the fruits of a search prevents the defendant from making an informed choice whether to plead guilty.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On September 3, 2012, Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputies were dispatched to a residence in Petaluma, California. A neighbor had reported that a male and female subject were arguing over a gun. The Defendant Gregory Mahrt was living in a garage on the property that had been converted into a room. As the deputies approached the property, Mahrt walked out and met them at the front gate. The deputies detained Mahrt and asked about the argument, the gun and whether anyone else was inside the residence.

Mr. Mahrt was “uncooperative.” The deputies conducted a “protective sweep” of Mahrt’s room in the garage. As the deputies approached the garage, Mahrt began yelling that he did not want the officers to enter his room. According to the report, the deputies observed ammunition cans, ammunition, and what appeared to be an AR-15 Rifle (later determined to be a replica).

The deputies subsequently learned that Mahrt had a prior felony conviction and arrested him for being a felon in possession of ammunition. The deputies then asked Mahrt for permission to search his room.

This is where the facts differ: according to police reports, Mr. Mahrt consented. The deputies conducted a second search of the room. They found additional ammunition, rifle magazines, and two firearms. According to Mahrt, however, he did not consent to the search.

On September 5, 2012, the State of California charged Mahrt with having been a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition in violation of California Penal Code § 29800(a)(1) and § 30305(a)(1). Mahrt believed that the warrantless search (or searches) of the garage was (or were) illegal. However, neither of the two public defenders who represented him at the trial court level moved to suppress the firearms and ammunition recovered from his room.

Nevertheless, despite his defense counsel’s failure to move to suppress, Mahrt pleaded guilty to both charges and received a six-year sentence. He appealed. On appeal, Mahrt’s appointed counsel did not raise any issues. Instead, his counsel filed a Wende brief, the California analogue to an Anders brief. A Wende brief is filed when a California appellate attorney concludes that an appeal would be frivolous.  On November 27, 2013, the California Court of Appeal affirmed Mahrt’s conviction.

On April 11, 2014, Mahrt filed a federal habeas petition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). The petition alleged that Mahrt’s Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel was violated by his trial counsels’ failure to move to suppress the firearms and ammunition found in his room. A magistrate judge, sitting by consent, granted Mahrt’s petition. The State timely appealed.

ANALYSIS & CONCLUSION

  1. The Defendant May Proceed With a Pre-Plea Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Claim.

The 9th Circuit  reasoned that Mahrt’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim, premised upon a failure to file a motion to suppress, is squarely within this line of case discussing pre-plea ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to file a motion to suppress:

“The State’s entire case against Mahrt depended on its ability to introduce into evidence the firearms and ammunition found in his room. If the deputies unconstitutionally searched Mahrt’s home, counsel’s failure to move to suppress the fruits of that search prevented Mahrt from making the informed choice to which he was entitled.”

    2. Mahrt’s Counsel Was Ineffective.

The Court held that Mahrt’s counsel was ineffective in failing to move to suppress the firearms and ammunition. It reasoned that there was at least a chance that such a motion would have succeeded. First, there was a clear conflict in the available evidence. Second, a police officer’s report mischaracterized the first search as a “protective sweep.”

The Court reasoned that a warrantless protective search is permitted under Maryland v. Buie, based on the “interest of the officers in taking steps to assure themselves that the house in which a suspect is being, or has just been, arrested is not harboring other persons who are dangerous and who could unexpectedly launch an attack.” Here, Mahrt was being detained by the deputies, and they had no reason to suspect that there was some other person inside the residence who could pose a danger to themselves or to others. Consequently, the Court reasoned that defense counsel should have filed and argued a motion to suppress the search of Maert’s premises.

My opinion? It’s very importnant to retain qualified defense counsel in search and seizure cases such as this. Here, the defendant accepted a plea bargain on the advice of defense counsel who, according to the court, failed to argue motions to suppress. Pretrial motions are essential. It’s imperative to hire defense counsel who know the law and argue it effectively. Contact my office if you, a friend or family matter face criminal charges where a search was involved.

Overbroad Parolee Searches

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In State v. Livingston, the WA Court of Appeals Division II held that evidence collected during a warrantless search of the defendant’s vehicle following the defendant’s arrest on a D.O.C. warrant is only admissible if there is a nexus between the community custody violation and the searched property.

On May 29, 2014, DOC Officer Thomas Grabski observed a person, later identified as Darian Livingston, who he recognized as having an outstanding DOC arrest warrant; Livingston was washing a vehicle alone at a car wash. Officer Grabski called for assistance, and two more officers arrived to assist him.

When the additional officers arrived, Livingston was talking with a person on a motorcycle. The person on the motorcycle drove away when the officers approached. Livingston was the only person near the vehicle. After confirming Livingston’s identity and the warrant, the officers arrested Livingston.

The officers then asked Livingston about the vehicle he had been washing. He said it belonged to his girlfriend who had gone to a nearby store, but he later admitted that his girlfriend was in Seattle and could not pick up the vehicle.

Livingston also admitted that he regularly drove the vehicle and that he had placed the key on the motorcycle when he first saw the officers. At the time of his arrest, Livingston was on active DOC probation. The DOC warrant issued in his name said there was “reasonable cause to believe Mr. Livingston] violated a condition of community custody.

DOC Officers Grabski and Joshua Boyd conducted a “compliance search” of the vehicle. When they conducted the search of the vehicle, the officers did not have any information about the nature of the violation that triggered the issuance of the DOC warrant.

Inside the vehicle, the officers found mail and other documents with Livingston’s name on them, a single pill, and a prescription bottle containing eight pills. In the vehicle’s trunk, the officers found a black backpack containing scented oils, a loaded .40 caliber handgun, a box of ammunition, and more mail addressed to Livingston. During booking, Livingston revealed that he was also carrying a baggie of cocaine on his person.

The State charged Livingston with first degree unlawful possession of a firearm (count I), unlawful possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver (cocaine) (count II), bail jumping (count III), unlawful possession of a controlled substance (oxycodone) (count IV), and unlawful possession of a controlled substance (hydrocodone/dihydrocodeinone) (count V). Before trial, Livingston moved to suppress the evidence discovered during the vehicle search. The judge denied Livingston’s motion. He appealed.

Livingston argued that the trial court erred in deciding that the vehicle search was lawful under RCW 9.94A.631(1) because the officers had a reasonable belief that he had violated a community custody condition or sentencing requirement. Instead, he asked the Court of Appeals to follow State v. Jardinez and hold that to justify such a search, the property searched must relate to the violation that the community custody officer (CCO) believed had occurred.

First, the Court of Appeals reasoned that both article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution and the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibit warrantless searches unless an exception exists. Washington law recognizes, however, that probationers and parolees have a diminished right of privacy that permits warrantless searches based on reasonable cause to believe that a violation of probation has occurred. This reduced expectation of privacy for parolees is recognized in RCW 9.94A.631(1), which states,

If there is reasonable cause to believe that an offender has violated a condition or requirement of the sentence, a [CCO] may require an offender to submit to a search and seizure of the offender’s person, residence, automobile, or other personal property.

Second, the Court reasoned that pursuant to State v. Jardinez, there must be a nexus between the violation and the searched property. In Jardinez, the defendant’s parole officer searched his iPhone for no reason and found evidence linking Mr. Jardinez to criminal behavior. He was charged and convicted. On his appeal, the Court of Appeals examined the following official comment from the Sentencing Guidelines Commission (Commission) on RCW 9.94A.631(1):

“The Commission intends that [CCOs] exercise their arrest powers sparingly, with due consideration for the seriousness of the violation alleged and the impact of confinement on jail population. Violations may be charged by the [CCO] upon notice of violation and summons, without arrest. The search and seizure authorized by this section should relate to the violation which the [CCO] believes to have occurred.”

Noting that Washington courts “have repeatedly relied on the Commission’s comments as indicia of the legislature’s intent,” Division Three concluded that the italicized portion of this comment “demands a nexus between the searched property and the alleged crime.” Following Jardinez, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred when it failed to consider whether there was a nexus between the violation and the searched property.

With that, the Court affirmed Mr. Livingston’s bail jumping conviction, count III, and his unlawful possession of a controlled substance conviction charged as count II. However, the court reversed the order denying Livingston’s motion to suppress the evidence discovered in the vehicle search and remanded Livingston’s case back to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

My opinion? Good decision. i blogged about Jardinez in another post, and found that opinion compelling as well. Excellent use of prior precedents and stare decisis.

“Common Authority” Vehicle Searches

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In State v. Vanhollebeke, the WA Court of Appeals Division III decided a vehicle owner’s consent to search overrode the driver’s express objections.

On the night of November 10, 2014, Sergeant Garza pulled the truck over that was facing the wrong way on a one-way street. Sergeant Garza got out of his patrol car and approached the truck. The defendant Mr. Vanhollebeke got out of the truck and started walking toward Sergeant Garza. Sergeant Garza ordered Mr. Vanhollebeke to get back in the truck. Mr. Vanhollebeke then said he had locked himself out of the truck. This unusual behavior made Sergeant Garza suspicious.

Dispatch advised that Mr. Vanhollebeke’s license was suspended. Dispatch also advised that Mr. Vanhollebeke was not the registered owner of the truck, and that the truck belonged to a man named Bill Casteel. Sergeant Garza’s plan at this point was to cite Mr. Vanhollebeke for driving with a suspended license and then release him.

However, another police officer noticed a glass pipe with a white crystal substance on it sitting in plain view near the dashboard, which he believed was drug paraphernalia. Also, the truck’s steering column was “punched,” which indicated the truck was stolen. The officers did not release Mr. Vanhollebeke and kept him in their custody.

The officers asked for permission to search the truck. Mr. Vanhollebeke refused. Sergeant Garza contacted Mr. Casteel, the actual owner of the truck, at Casteel’s home. Mr. Casteel told Deputy Barnes that Mr. Vanhollebeke had permission to use the truck. Casteel also gave police permission to search his truck and gave Deputy Barnes a key to it.

Deputy Barnes returned directly to the scene. He used the key to open the truck and began to search it. He looked under the driver’s seat and saw a revolver. The glass pipe tested positive for methamphetamine. The officers confirmed through dispatch that Mr. Vanhollebeke had a prior felony conviction.

The State charged Mr. Vanhollebeke with first degree unlawful possession of a firearm. Mr. Vanhollebeke argued a CrR 3.6 motion to suppress the physical evidence on the grounds that he had refused to give the officers consent to search the truck and also that the stop’s length and scope were unreasonable. However, the trial court admitted the evidence and denied Mr. Vanhollebeke’s motion to suppress. The jury convicted Mr. Vanhollebeke.

Vanhollebeke appealed on the issue of whether Mr. Casteel’s consent overrode Mr. Vanhollebeke’s express objection to search.

The Court of Appeals upheld the search. It reasoned that the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees people the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Warrantless searches are generally illegal unless they fall within one of the exceptions to the warrant requirement. However, one exception is consent to search by a person with authority over the place or thing to be searched. This exception includes consent given by a third person, other than the defendant.

The court further reasoned that to grant valid consent, the third party must have common authority over the place or thing to be searched. The court explained that common authority does not mean that the third party has a mere property interest in the place or thing being searched. Rather, to establish lawful consent by virtue of common authority, (1) a consenting party must be able to permit the search in his own right, and (2) it must be reasonable to find that the defendant has assumed the risk that a co-occupant might permit a search.

The court decided Mr. Vanhollebeke’s right to use the truck was dependent on the owner’s unrevoked permission:

“Here, Mr. Vanhollebeke had the actual right to exclude all others from the truck except for Mr. Casteel. For this reason, Mr. Vanhollebeke did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy if Mr. Casteel wanted to search his own truck or allow another person to do so.”

With that, the Court concluded Mr. Casteel’s consent to search his truck overrode Mr. Vanhollebeke’s objection. Therefore, the search did not violate Mr. Vanhollebeke’s reasonable expectation of privacy and the trial court did not err in denying Mr. Vanhollebeke’s CrR 3.6 motion to suppress. Vanhollebeke’s conviction was affirmed.

My opinion? Common authority search issues don’t happen very often in criminal defense. But when they do, it’s imperative to hire competent criminal defense who can leverage a strong motion to suppress the evidence and/or divide the “common parties” to the search. Perhaps the greatest lesson to learn is to simply avoid transporting illegal contraband in plain view within borrowed vehicles.

Corpus Delicti & Murder Confessions

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In State v. Young, the WA Court of Appeals Division II decided the defendant’s confession to murder was properly admitted because the State presented ample independent evidence of (1) the fact of death, and (2) a causal connection between the death and a criminal act.

On the morning of July 4, 2013, John Young entered the Desert Food Mart in Benton City and asked the cashier to call 911 because he had witnessed a shooting of a man named Jacob. Police were summoned. As the investigation proceeded, Mr. Young became a suspect. He was brought in for questioning, and consented to audio and video recording of an interview.

During the interview, an officer read Mr. Young Miranda warnings and obtained his agreement that he understood he was now a suspect and any statements he made could be used against him. Mr. Young then confessed that Jacob was involved in a drug deal gone wrong. With the assistance of an accomplice named Joshua Hunt,  Mr. Young admitted he fired one shot into Jacob’s head near the temple-cheek region, killing him.

Mr. Young also confessed that he and Mr. Hunt disposed of their shoes and gun by putting the items into a backpack and throwing the backpack into a river. Later, police recovered the shoes and gun.  The shoes matched footprints and shoe patterns that had been found in the sand near Jacob’s body. The Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory determined that all of the bullets recovered from the crime scene had been fired from the Charter pistol found in the backpack.

Mr. Young was charged with first degree murder.

During a 3.5 hearing, Young’s attorney lawyer stipulated to the admission of the videotaped interview, telling the court:

“We believe it’s in our interests to actually stipulate to the 3.5 hearing, and I’ve discussed that with Mr. Young, and I know the Court will make its own inquiries, but he knows and understands he has a right to that hearing, but we believe it’s in our benefit and strategic interest to proceed with the stipulation.”

The court questioned Mr. Young, who stated he understood he had a right to a hearing on the admissibility of the statements but was agreeing instead that all of his statements were admissible.

During trial, Mr. Young’s videotaped confession was played for the jury. At the conclusion of the evidence, the jury returned a guilty verdict. Mr. Young appeals.

Mr. Young argued his defense counsel provided ineffective assistance of counsel by stipulating to the admission of Mr. Young’s confession when there was no independent evidence apart from his confession, under the corpus delecti rule, sufficient to establish all the elements of first degree murder.

For those who don’t know, corpus delicti is a term from Western jurisprudence referring to the principle that a crime must be proved to have occurred before a person can be convicted of committing that crime.

The Court of Appeals rejected Young’s arguments. It reasoned that in a homicide case, the corpus delecti generally consists of two elements: (1) the fact of death, and (2) a causal connection between the death and a criminal act. It can be proved by direct or circumstantial evidence, which need not be enough to support a conviction or send the case to the jury. In assessing whether there is sufficient evidence of the corpus delicti independent of a defendant’s statements, the Court assumes the truth of the State’s evidence and all reasonable inferences from it in a light most favorable to the State.

Here, the corpus of the crime of murder was amply established by (1) a dead person; (2) multiple gunshot wounds that established a casual connection with a criminal act; (3) testimony eliminating the possibility of self-inflicted wounds; and (4) the recovery of the weapon miles away from the dead body.

Furthermore, the Court reasoned that the State is not required to present independent evidence of the defendant’s mental state. It reasoned the State is not required to present independent evidence sufficient to demonstrate anything other than the fact of death and a causal connection between the death and a criminal act.

Finally, the Court rejected Mr. Young’s claims of ineffective assistance of counsel:

“It appears from his closing argument that Mr. Young’s trial lawyer believed his client’s videotaped interview would advance that argument. Mr. Young fails to demonstrate that his trial lawyer lacked a strategic reason for the stipulation.”

With that, the Court of Appeals confirmed Mr. Young’s conviction.

My opinion? This case represents a fairly straightforward analysis of the corpus delicti defense. I’ve had great success when it applies, and have managed to get many criminal charges reduced or dismissed under this defense. However, the corpus delicti defense is extremely narrow. Aside from the defendant’s confession, there must be virtually NO independent evidence connecting the defendant to the crime. Here, other evidence existed which implicated Mr. Young and the defense was found inapplicable.