Category Archives: Harassment

Felony Harassment (DV)

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

BACKGROUND FACTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DV & Cohabitating Parties

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In State v. Shelley, the WA Court of Appeals reversed the the defendant’s domestic violence convictions and held that a man, who is cohabitating with a woman and her child, does not necessarily have a “family or household” relationship to the child.

BACKGROUND FACTS

From late 2013 until April 2015, Defendant Aaron Shelley, his girlfriend Cheri Burgess, and her son from another relationship, A.S., lived with Shelley’s aunt and uncle.

On the evening of April 29, 2015, Shelley became angry and wanted Burgess to leave the house. After attempting to force Burgess out of the house, Shelley placed a knife against Burgess’s throat and stated he was going to kill her because she was not leaving. Shelley’s uncle, Mr. Sovey, intervened and convinced Shelley to give him the knife.

While Burgess and Sovey were talking in the kitchen, Shelley took A.S. out to the car. When Burgess confronted Shelley, Shelley grabbed A.S. by the throat. A.S. made a choking noise, “like he couldn’t breathe.” And when Burgess tried to grab A.S., Shelley said, “If you don’t leave or get away, I’m just gonna squeeze him, keep squeezing him. Get away from me. Leave, leave. Just effing leave. Leave my boy.” After Sovey came outside, Burgess walked away and called the police.

The State charged Shelley with, among other things, two counts of second degree assault as to Burgess, one count of second degree assault of a child as to A.S., and one count of felony harassment for threatening to kill A.S. The State alleged each crime was one of domestic violence.

The jury convicted Shelley of one count of assault as to Burgess. The jury found this was a crime of domestic violence because Shelley and Burgess were members of the same family or household. The jury also convicted Shelley of one count of assault as to A.S. and one count of felony harassment.

Shelley appealed on the issue of whether he was properly convicted of domestic violence acts against A.S.

COURT’S ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSIONS

The WA Court of Appeals reasoned that under RCW 10.99.020(3) and RCW 26.50.010(6), “family or household members” includes the following:

“Spouses, former spouses, persons who have a child in common regardless of whether they have been married or have lived together at any time, adult persons related by blood or marriage, adult persons who are presently residing together or who have resided together in the past, persons sixteen years of age or older who are presently residing together or who have resided together in the past and who have or have had a dating relationship, persons sixteen years of age or older with whom a person sixteen years of age or older has or has had a dating relationship, and persons who have a biological or legal parent-child relationship, including stepparents and stepchildren and grandparents and grandchildren.”

“The State had the burden of establishing Shelley and A.S. had a biological or
legal parent-child relationship,” said the Court. “It is undisputed that Shelley is not A.S.’s biological father because Shelley and Burgess did not meet until she was six months
pregnant.”

The Court also raised and dismissed the State’s arguments that Shelley’s presumption of parentage was proven under RCW 26.26.116 of the Uniform Parentage Act. “The State did not present the trial court with any evidence of such a judicial determination,” said the Court of Appeals. “On this record, the State’s presumptive parent and de facto parent
theories fail.”

The Court concluded that because A.S. and Shelley are not family or household members, the domestic violence special verdicts on count 3, second-degree assault of a child, and count 4, felony harassment, were invalid as a matter of law.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with DV crimes involving the children of unmarried boyfriends/girlfriends or domestic partners.  Like this case shows, the Prosecution may be unlawfully charging defendants with DV crimes when it lacks the authority to do so.

Unlawful Property Seizure

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In State v. Rivera, the WA Court of Appeals Div. II decided a trial court lacks authority to order defendants to forfeit their property as a condition of their felony sentencing.

BACKGROUND & FACTS

On September 20, 2014, Alicia Clements arrived at defendant Kevin Rivera’s home to serve him papers concerning a civil matter. Ms. Clements exited her vehicle to tape the documents to a post near Mr. Rivera’s driveway. While Clements was posting the paperwork, Rivera and his wife came out the front door and into the driveway. Rivera yelled at Clements that she was trespassing and needed to leave.

As Clements was getting back into her car, Rivera took down the documents she posted and approached her car to return them. In the process of returning the documents, Rivera shattered the driver’s side window on Clements’s car, causing glass to cascade into the car and onto the street.

Ms. Clements claimed that her window was completely rolled up and that Rivera had deliberately punched through the window with the documents in hand, striking her twice with his fist in the process. However, Rivera stated that Clements’s window was still open when he returned the documents, but that because Clements was attempting to roll up her windows, his fingers caught the edge of the window causing it to shatter.

Both Rivera and Clements called 911. Pierce County Sheriff’s Deputies responded to the incident. Mr. Rivera for assault. The State charged Rivera with second degree assault by battery under RCW 9A.36.021(1)(a), felony harassment, and third degree malicious mischief.

At trial, Rivera conceded that he had broken Clements’s window, but argued he did so accidentally rather than intentionally. The jury convicted Rivera of second degree assault and third degree malicious mischief. As part of his sentence, Rivera was required to forfeit “all property.”

CONCLUSION & ANALYSIS.

The Court of Appeals held that the trial court lacked authority to order property forfeiture as a sentencing condition.

It reasoned that under State v. Roberts, 185 Wn. App. 94, 96, 339 P.3d 995 (2014), the authority to order forfeiture of property as part of a judgment and sentence is purely statutory.. In other words, a trial court has no inherent power to order forfeiture of property in connection with a criminal conviction.

With that, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred by ordering forfeiture of seized property as a sentencing condition.

My opinion? Good decision. I’ve never heard of courts seizing a defendant’s property as a condition of sentencing. Indeed, the Fifth Amendment states that a person may not be deprived of property by the government without “due process of law,” or fair procedures. Typically, if property is an issue, then courts can lawfully order a defendant to pay restitution to the victim for the loss or damage to victim’s property. This makes sense. But to actually take a defendant’s property as a sentencing condition? No.