Category Archives: Jury Trial

WA Supreme Court Changes Race Bias Jury Selection Test

Image result for batson test

In State v. Jefferson, the WA Supreme Court modified the the third step of a Batson challenge to a peremptory strike of a juror in Washington. At the final step, the trial court must ask whether an objective observer could view race or ethnicity as a factor in the use of peremptory strike. If so, then the strike must be denied and the challenge to that strike must be accepted.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On February 14, 2013, Jefferson was involved in a fight over a pair of designer sunglasses. The fight ended with the shooting of Rosendo Robinson. Jefferson was subsequently charged with attempted murder in the first degree, assault in the first degree, and unlawful possession of a firearm in the first degree. His defense was that someone else pulled the trigger.

Jury selection began on May 4, 2015. On the second day of jury selection, the State exercised a peremptory strike against Juror 10, the last African-American in the jury pool. Jefferson challenged this strike with a Batson motion. After going through the three-step Batson analysis, the trial court denied the Batson motion and ruled that the State had provided a nondiscriminatory explanation for its peremptory challenge of Juror 10. The trial proceeded and lasted approximately 10 days.

The jury convicted Jefferson of attempted murder in the first degree, assault in the first degree, and unlawful possession of a firearm in the first degree. Jefferson was sentenced to 337.5 months of incarceration.

Jefferson appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the convictions. He appealed again. This time, the WA Supreme Court granted Jefferson’s appeal and addressed Jefferson then petitioned for review on three issues: (1) whether the trial court erred in denying the Batson motion to deny the State’s peremptory strike of Juror 10 under the current Batson test, (2) whether this court should revisit the Batson test, and (3) whether the trial court erred in denying Jefferson’s motion for mistrial.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Supreme Court described the Batson test. First, the trial court must recognize a prima facie case of discriminatory purpose when a party strikes the last member of a racially cognizable group. Second, the burden shifts to the State to come forward with a race-neutral explanation for the challenge. If the State meets its burden at step two, then third, the trial court then has the duty to determine if the defendant has established purposeful discrimination.

“We hold that the trial court correctly ruled that there was no purposeful discrimination in the peremptory strike of Juror 10 under Batson,” said the Court. “However, our Batson protections are not robust enough to effectively combat racial discrimination during jury selection.” In fact, said the Court, the Batson framework makes it very difficult for defendants to prove discrimination even where it almost certainly exists.

“We need to do better to achieve the objectives of protecting litigants’ rights to equal protection of the laws and jurors’ rights to participate in jury service free from racial discrimination.”

Consequently, the Court modified its three-step Batson test by replacing Batson’ s current inquiry at step three with a new inquiry.

“If a Batson challenge to a peremptory strike of a juror proceeds to that third step of Batson’s three-part inquiry, then the trial court must ask whether an objective observer could view race or ethnicity as a factor in the use of the peremptory strike. If so, then the strike must be denied and the challenge to that strike must be accepted.”

Applying this new standard, the Court found that race could have been a factor in Juror 10’s dismissal. Here, the prosecutor essentially called out Juror 10 with a sarcastic comment for no apparent reason. Taken together with other evidence on the record, the prosecutor lacked racially neutral reasons for striking Juror 10. The strike reflected differential treatment of the sole African-American juror, and hence, the strike supported an inference of implicit bias. The WS Supreme Court quoted the late U.S. Supre Court’s Justice Thurgood Marshall, who expressed his concern about such nebulous justifications in the Batson opinion:

“A prosecutor’s own conscious or unconscious racism may lead him easily to the conclusion that a prospective black juror is “sullen,” or “distant,” a characterization that would not have come to his mind if a white juror had acted identically. A judge’s own conscious or unconscious racism may lead him to accept such an explanation as well supported.”

Furthermore, the WA Supreme Court reasoned that in its Saintcalle opinion, it recognized the pervasive force of unconscious bias, stating, “People are rarely aware of the actual reasons for their discrimination and will genuinely believe the race-neutral reason they create to mask it.”

The Court therefore reversed Jefferson’s convictions and remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.

My opinion? Excellent decision. Although the facts are against the defendant and are sympathetic toward the victim, race should never play a factor in the administration of justice. The WA Supreme Court’s new Batson framework rightfully addresses the problem of implicit race bias. This case is an excellent step in the right direction.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime and there’s some belief that implicit racial bias affects the investigations, prosecution and/or judicial proceedings of the case. It’s very important to hire defense counsel that is sensitive to and familiar with the nuances of racial biases that are implicit throughout the criminal justice system.

Midterm Elections Bring Criminal Justice Reforms

Image result for criminal justice reform

Excellent article from the Sentencing Project describes how voters in a number of states considered ballot measures during yesterday’s Midterm Election. Criminal justice reform measures ranged from voting rights to sentencing reform.

Colorado – Abolishing Involuntary Servitude as Punishment

Coloradans approved Amendment A with 65% support; the measure removes language from the state Constitution that allows slavery and involuntary servitude to be used as punishment for the conviction of a crime. Abolish Slavery Colorado organized a broad coalition in support of the constitutional change. Supporters included faith groups and civil rights organizations.

Florida – Expanding the Vote

State residents expanded voting rights to as many as  1.4 million Floridians with a felony conviction by approving Amendment 4 with 64% support; support from 60% of voters was required to approve the ballot measure. Justice involved residents now automatically have the right to vote once they complete their prison, probation or parole sentence; persons convicted of homicide and sex offenses are excluded from the measure.

The state’s lifetime felony voting ban was among the most restrictive in the country, along with Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia which maintain lifetime voting bans for all felonies unless the governor takes action. The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which organized broad support for the measure, was led by directly impacted residents and garnered more than 800,000 signatures to qualify Amendment 4 for the ballot.

Florida – Retroactivity & Sentencing

Also in Florida, voters approved Amendment 11 with 62% support, a measure that allows sentencing reforms to be retroactive. The amendment repeals language from the state’s ‘Savings Clause’ in the constitution that blocks the legislature from retroactively applying reductions in criminal penalties to those previously sentenced. Statutory law changes are not automatically retroactive; the legislature still has to authorize retroactivity for a particular sentencing reform measure.

Louisiana – Requiring Unanimous Jury Consideration

Louisianans approved Amendment 2, a constitutional change requiring unanimous juries for all felony convictions.  In all other states, except Oregon, a unanimous jury vote is required to convict people for serious crimes; Louisiana was the only state where a person could be convicted of murder without a unanimous jury. Advocacy for Amendment 2 was supported by a broad coalition that advanced criminal justice reforms in recent years. The state’s Democratic and Republican parties endorsed Amendment 2, as well as community groups including Voice of the Experienced, and Americans for Prosperity.

Michigan – Authorized Marijuana Possession

Michiganders approved Proposal 1, a measure that legalizes marijuana for adult recreational use. The change means residents over age 21 will be able to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana on their person and up to 10 ounces in their home. The newly elected governor has signaled support to pardon justice involved residents with prior marijuana convictions and legislation is pending to require judges to expunge misdemeanor marijuana convictions.

Ohio – Rejected Felony Reclassification Measure

Ohio residents rejected Issue 1, a measure that would have reclassified certain drug offenses as misdemeanors and prohibited incarceration for a first and second offense. The measure failed with 65% voting against the sentencing reform. In recent years, voters in California and Oklahoma approved similar ballot initiatives to reclassify certain felonies as misdemeanors with a goal of state prison population reduction.

Washington – Strengthening Police Accountability

Voters passed Initiative 940 and repealed a provision in state law that made it difficult to bring criminal charges against police for deadly force. The Washington law required prosecutors to prove “evil intent” or “malice” when filing charges like manslaughter against police officers. Washingtonians approved the measure with 60% support. I-940 also requires training in de-escalation and mental health for law enforcement officers; requires police to provide first aid to victims of deadly force; and requires independent investigations into the use of deadly force.

My opinion? State initiatives provide an opportunity to civically engage communities on criminal justice policies and build momentum to challenge mass incarceration.

Midterm voters across the nation have spoken. For the most part, their decisions are a step in the right direction. We see an end to involuntary servitude in prison, granting voting rights to some convicted felons, jury unanimity, the legalization of marijuana and the strengthening of police accountability. Good.

Please contact my office of you, a friend or family member face criminal charges. It’s extremely important to hire competent and proactive defense attorney who is knowledgeable of the law.

Autopsy Photos Admitted

Image result for bloody gruesome photo evidence

In State v. Whitaker, the WA Court of Appeals held that a trial court properly admitted 15 of 100 autopsy photographs over the objection of the defendant who was charged with aggravated murder. The probative value of the photographs in helping to illustrate the medical examiner’s testimony outweighed their prejudicial effect.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Mr. Whitaker was charged with helping his friend Mr. Anderson and several others kidnap and Ms. Burkheimer, who was Anderson’s ex-girlfriend. Whitaker helped to bind, hide, and transport Burkheimer. He helped to dig her grave, rob her, bury her, and destroy evidence
of her murder.

At trial, the court admitted 15 autopsy photographs during the testimony of the medical examiner. The medical examiner testified that around 100 photographs were taken during Burkheimer’s autopsy and that the 15 selected for trial showed the injuries to Burkheimer’s body, what the medical examiner looked at when he decided where the bullet exit and entry wounds were, and how Burkheimer’s injuries related to one another.

The jury found Whitaker guilty of premeditated first degree murder, with an aggravating factor of kidnapping and a firearm enhancement, and conspiracy to commit first degree murder. During the trial, Whitaker moved for a mistrial several times, alleging numerous errors were made during trial; one of the errors being whether the trial court improperly admitted the photographs of the victim’s autopsy.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Court of Appeals upheld Whitaker’s conviction and reasoned that accurate photographic representations are admissible, even if gruesome, if their probative value outweighs their prejudicial effect.

“A bloody, brutal crime cannot be explained to a jury in a lily-white manner.”

“The admission of autopsy photographs is in the sound discretion of the trial court,” said the Court of Appeals. “Photographs have probative value where they are used to illustrate or explain the testimony of the pathologist performing the autopsy. Unless it is clear from the record that the primary reason to admit gruesome photographs is to inflame the jury’s passion, appellate courts will uphold the decision of the trial court.” Furthermore, reasoned the Court, the law requires an exercise of restraint, not a preclusion simply because other less inflammatory testimonial evidence is available.

The medical examiner’s testimony explaining the photographs and his conclusions about Burkheimer’s injuries was straightforward and not inflammatory.

“There is no doubt that these photographs are disturbing,” said the court. “But this was a brutal crime, and the record does not show that the primary reason for admitting the photographs was to inflame the jury.” Rather, reasoned the Court, the photographs were admitted to support the testimony of the medical examiner. “The State did not offer all 100 of the photographs but instead selected 15 that best illustrated Burkheimer’s injuries,” said the Court. Therefore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by admitting them.

With that, the Court of Appeals upheld Mr. Whitaker’s conviction and sentence.

My opinion? The admissibility of evidence is one of the most important battles in trial practice. Courts conduct balancing tests on this issue under Evidence Rules 401, 402 and 403. Under these evidence rules, judges can admit evidence which is relevant and probative as long as the evidence is also not prejudicial to the defendant’s case.  Prejudicial evidence includes evidence which may inflame the passions of the jury. Understandably, however, the prejudicial effect can be outweighed by the probative value. In this case, the probative value of the medical examiner’s testimony outweighed the prejudicial effect these photos may have had on the jury.

Contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime involving photographic evidence which could be prejudicial to the case.

Online Research By Juror

Image result for online research

In State v. Arndt, the WA Court of Appeals upheld a defendant’s numerous high-level criminal convictions even though one of the jurors performed online research against the court’s instructions.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

On February 23, 2014, Ms. Arndt and her boyfriend, Mr. Veeder Jr., spent the night at their
friends’ home. Late that night, the house caught fire. Everyone in the home escaped except Mr. Veeder, who died.

After an investigation, the State charged Arndt with murder in the first degree with an
aggravating circumstance of arson in the first degree, felony murder in the first degree with
aggravating circumstances, arson in the first degree, and six counts of assault in the second degree.

The jury found Arndt guilty as charged. The trial court sentenced Arndt to life in prison without the possibility of release or parole.

Months after the verdict, Juror 2 approached a woman whom she did not know was the
sister of Arndt’s trial attorney. Juror 2 said that in Arndt’s trial, she struggled with the term
“premeditation.” She further related that to better understand the term, she looked it up on the internet. The attorney’s sister told her brother what she had learned.

Defense investigator James Harris then met with Juror 2, explained that he worked for Arndt’s trial attorney, and asked to speak with her about her experience as a juror. Juror 2 spoke with Harris and told him that during deliberations she did internet research on the word “premeditation.” Juror 2 provided Harris with additional information, including sites she may have viewed. The State’s investigator also interviewed Juror 2.

Arndt moved for a new trial on grounds of juror misconduct. At a hearing on the motion,
the court heard testimony from Juror 2 and Harris. Juror 2 testified that she had researched the term “premeditation” and had found different sites, but did not remember whether she had viewed any of the specific sites she had showed Harris when he earlier interviewed her. She said that she looked at a couple different definitions, but it was the word “short” that made her understand. Juror 2 also testified that she had not shared her
research with other jurors.

Ultimately, the trial court held Arndt should not get a new trial:

“In substance, the Court finds that the definitions viewed by Juror #2 were indistinguishable to the jury instruction and were consistent with the law. Because the known research results, as presented to the Court, were consistent with the jury instruction on premeditation and the law, the Court is satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that Juror #2’s research could not have affected the verdict. Therefore, the motion for a new trial is denied.”

Arndt appealed to the WA Court of Appeals.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Court of Appeals reasoned that Juror 2 committed misconduct. Also, the consideration of novel or extrinsic evidence by a jury is misconduct and can be grounds for a new trial. Furthermore, juror use of extraneous evidence is misconduct and entitles a defendant to a new trial, if the defendant has been prejudiced.

“Once juror misconduct is established, prejudice is presumed,” said the Court of Appeals. “The court must grant a new trial unless it is satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that the extrinsic evidence did not contribute to the verdict.”

The Court of Appeals also reviewed the trial court’s instructions to the jury on the definition of “Premeditation.” It stated the following:

“Premeditated means thought over beforehand. When a person, after any deliberation, forms an intent to take human life, the killing may follow immediately after the formation of the settled purpose and it will still be premeditated. Premeditation must involve more than a moment in point of time. The law requires some time, however long or short, in which a design to kill is deliberately formed.”

Finally, the Court of Appeals reasoned that although the exact websites Juror 2 visited and the precise definitions she viewed are unknown, the part of those definitions that had an impression on her and affected her verdict were the word “short” and phrase “however short.”

“As the trial court ruled, these definitions were indistinguishable to the jury instruction and were consistent with the law,” said the Court of Appeals. “This ruling is sufficient to satisfy beyond a reasonable doubt that the extrinsic evidence did not contribute to the verdict and to overcome the presumption of prejudice. The court did not abuse its discretion.”

With that the Court of Appeals concluded the trial court did not abuse its discretion by concluding that Juror 2’s research did not contribute to the verdict. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals affirmed Arndt’s conviction.

My opinion? The Court’s decision is frustrating. It placed too much weight on whether the juror’s misconduct prejudiced the defendant. Instead, the Court should have focused on the fact that juror misconduct happened in the first place.

If you stole a candy bar from a grocery store, would your shoplifting affect the store’s bottom line? Probably not. However, the simple fact that you stole a candy bar is, in fact, a crime which demands an effective and just remedy. Otherwise, a crime which goes unpunished is essentially not a crime, correct?

Here, Juror 2 blatantly disregarded the court’s instructions to not perform online research. Did Juror 2’s research affect her decision on the verdict? Did Juror 2 discuss her research with other jurors behind closed doors when they deliberated the case? Therein lies the threat to justice; not only to this defendant, but criminal defendants everywhere. Online research should not be tolerated, even if it can be willed away away as having no impact on the outcome. Bad decision.

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

Jury Bias

Image result for JURY BIAS

In United States v. Kecheczian, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided a trial court mistakenly  allowed a juror to decide an aggravated identity theft and possession of unauthorized access devices case, when the juror admitted during jury selection that she had her social security number previously stolen and she was unable to explicitly state that she could put her personal biases aside.

BACKGROUND FACTS

After receiving a tip that Mr. Kechedzian was linked to a fugitive operating a large credit card fraud ring, federal agents conducted a trash pull from Kechedzian’s residence. In his trash, they found two counterfeit credit cards and, based on this, the agents obtained a search warrant. The resulting search of Kechedzian’s residence and cars uncovered two USB drives containing 1,451 stolen credit card numbers in text files, a Bluetooth-enabled “skimming device” commonly used to steal credit card information from gas station pumps, and several cards with stolen data re-encoded on the magnetic strips. Bank records revealed that many of the stolen card numbers had been used fraudulently at gas stations and other retail establishments across the United States.

Kechedzian was charged with two counts of possession of 15 or more Unauthorized Access Devices and two counts of Aggravated Identity Theft. The case proceeded to trial. At the beginning of jury selection, the federal district court judge read a general statement of the case, laying out the charges against Kechedzian. The judge then asked the following:

“Does anyone feel, just based on the charges in this case, based on what this case is about, that they could not be fair and impartial to both sides? Does anyone feel that way at this point in time?”

Juror # 3 raised her hand. From there, she informed the court she was a past victim of identity fraud. Furthermore, she did not know whether she could put aside her biases. Later, at sidebar, defense counsel sought to have Juror # 3 excused for cause. However, the judge denied the motion.

“I think at the end of the day she confirmed or committed to the principles of the presumption of innocence and burden of proof,” said the judge. “I would deny the motion.” Consequently, Juror # 3 sat on Kechedzian’s jury.

The jury ultimately returned a guilty verdict, and Kechedzian was sentenced to 65 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release. The district court also ordered $114,134.76 in restitution. Kechedzian timely appealed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & DECISION

The Court of Appeals began by saying the Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants a verdict by an impartial jury, and the bias or prejudice of even a single juror is enough to violate that guarantee. Accordingly, the presence of a biased juror cannot be harmless. The error requires a new trial without a showing of actual prejudice.  And any doubts regarding bias must be resolved against the juror. One important mechanism for ensuring impartiality is voir dire, which enables the parties to probe potential jurors for prejudice. After voir dire, counsel may challenge a prospective juror for cause, and a partial or biased juror should be removed if there is a showing of either implied or actual bias.

“Here, Kechedzian alleges bias under both theories,” said the Court.

Actual Bias Analysis

It explained that actual bias is the more common ground for excusing jurors for cause. Actual bias is the existence of a state of mind that leads to an inference that the person will not act with entire impartiality. Actual bias involves an inability to act impartially or a refusal to weigh the evidence properly It can be revealed through a juror’s express answers during voir dire, but it can also be revealed by circumstantial evidence during questioning.

The Court said that in contrast, implied bias is presumed only in extraordinary cases. “In analyzing implied bias, we look to whether an average person in the position of the juror in controversy would be prejudiced.”

Implied Bias Analysis

This Court described “implied bias” as applying to those extreme situations where the relationship between a prospective juror and some aspect of the litigation is such that it is highly unlikely that the average person could remain impartial in his deliberations under the circumstances.  Furthermore, the implied bias inquiry is an objective one. Even if a juror states or believes that she can be impartial, the court may find implied bias based on the circumstances.

The Court noted that here, although Juror # 3 was previously a victim of identity theft, this is not the type of “extreme” situation where we find implied bias. “Thus, we focus our analysis on the actual bias inquiry,” said the Court.

The Court reasoned that Juror #3 was ultimately asked if she could set aside her feelings, and act impartially and fairly to both sides of the case. She responded: “I believe so, yes.” The Court said that statement—“I believe so, yes”—appears somewhat equivocal. However, none of Juror #3’s equivocal statements could be understood as affirmative statements of impartiality. The Court reasoned that here, Juror #3 explicitly noted that she was unsure if she could put her personal biases aside.

“A juror can understand the presumption of innocence and burden of proof, yet still let personal prejudice infect her ability to be impartial.”

“When a juror is unable to state that she will serve fairly and impartially despite being asked repeatedly for such assurances, we can have no confidence that the juror will lay aside her biases or her prejudicial personal experiences and render a fair and impartial verdict,” said the Court. “Because this is precisely what occurred here, the district court was obligated to excuse Juror #3 for cause under an actual bias theory.”

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for a new trial.

My opinion? Good decision. In my trial experience, potential jurors who have suffered as victims of crime tend to be pro-prosecution. A potential juror who does not know if they can be fair or impartial should be excused for cause. Period.

Inadmissible & Irrelevant Evidence

Related image

In State v. Burnam, the WA Court of Appeals held that the trial court correctly excluded evidence that the woman the defendant killed had four years earlier dated a man accused of murder and that she had hid the murder weapon.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Mr. Burnam was charged with first degree murder or, in the alternative, second degree murder and interfering with the reporting of domestic violence. As trial approached, Mr. Burnam wanted to testify in support of his self-defense claim. He also wanted to testify that the victim Ms. Sweet had been involved in a prior homicide.

Apparently, four years earlier, Ms. Sweet dated a man accused of murder and she had hid the murder weapon, which was a firearm. Sometime after the homicide, Ms. Sweet briefly gave the firearm away and then attempted to get it back. When law enforcement questioned her, she was evasive and misleading. She was charged and convicted of first degree rendering criminal assistance by means of concealing, altering, or destroying the gun.

Mr. Burnam claimed that this was character evidence and asked the court to analyze its admissibility under ER 404(b). Under this evidence rule, evidence of prior acts can be admissible for certain other reasons, including motive, opportunity, and intent

Mr. Burnam made a lengthy offer of proof in support of his motion. He argued that the evidence would help establish the reasonableness of his fear of serious harm or death during his struggle with Ms. Sweet. He repeatedly asserted the jury should know that Ms. Sweet was involved with a homicide or capable of being involved with a person who had committed a homicide.

Despite defense counsel’s offer of proof, the court nevertheless excluded all evidence of the homicide case that Ms. Sweet was involved in.

At trial, Mr. Burnam testified he responded in self-defense to Ms. Sweet. Despite his testimony, the jury found Mr. Burnam guilty of first degree murder and interfering with the reporting of domestic violence. Mr. Burnam appealed on arguments that the court should have admitted evidence that Ms. Sweet was involved in a murder from four years ago.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that both the United States Constitution and the Washington Constitution guarantee the right to present testimony in one’s defense. Furthermore, a defendant’s right to an opportunity to be heard in his defense, including the rights to examine witnesses against him and to offer testimony, is basic in our system of jurisprudence. However, defendants can present only relevant evidence and have no constitutional right to present irrelevant evidence. If relevant, the burden is on the State to show the evidence is so prejudicial as to disrupt the fairness of the fact-finding process at trial.

Admissibility of Self-Defense Evidence.

The Court further reasoned that in considering a claim of self-defense, the jury must take into account all of the facts and circumstances known to the defendant.

“Because the vital question is the reasonableness of the defendant’s apprehension of danger, the jury must stand as nearly as practicable in the shoes of the defendant, and from this point of view determine the character of the act,” said the Court. “Thus, such evidence is admissible to show the defendant’s reason for fear and the basis for acting in self-defense.”

Moreover, evidence of a victim’s violent actions may be admissible to show the defendant’s state of mind at the time of the crime and to indicate whether he had reason to fear bodily harm. Thus, a defendant may, in addition to the character evidence, show specific acts of the victim which are not too remote and of which the defendant had knowledge at the time of the crime with which he is charged. Evidence of specific acts may be admissible for the limited purpose of showing the defendant had a reasonable apprehension of danger.

Finally, the court reasoned that an offer of proof should (1) inform the trial court of the legal theory under which the offered evidence is admissible, (2) inform the trial judge of the specific nature of the offered evidence so the court can judge its admissibility, and (3) create an adequate record for appellate review.

The Court of Appelas concluded that Mr. Burnam’s offer of proof failed to inform the trial judge of the specific nature of the offered evidence.

“Mr. Burnam’s offer of proof was lengthy but repeatedly vague on the specific nature of the offered evidence.”

The Court further concluded that Ms. Sweet merely pleaded guilty to rendering criminal assistance by disposing of a firearm used previously in a homicide. Nevertheless, rendering criminal assistance is a nonviolent felony.

“The mere fact that Ms. Sweet dated a man accused of murder and hid the murder weapon does not strongly imply that Ms. Sweet was violent. The prejudicial effect of excluding this questionable evidence is minimal. We conclude the trial court did not violate Mr. Burnam’s constitutional right to present a defense when it excluded this evidence.”

Consequently, the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision to exclude evidence that Ms. Sweet was indirectly involved in a homicide from four years earlier.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are involved in cases involving assault or self-defense. Generally speaking, evidence that the victim had prior bad acts and/or had violent tendencies is admissible. However, court must undergo a balancing test under the evidence rules to determine if the evidence being offered is relevant, probative and/or unfairly prejudicial. This case was fairly straightforward in determining that the dead victim’s prior conviction for a non-violent crime was irrelevant.

Unlawful Opinion Testimony of Police Officer

Image result for police officer testifying pointing

In State v. Winborne, the WA Court of Appeals held that an officer’s use of the word “reckless” or “eluding” while testifying in a Felony Eluding trial was improper opinion testimony.

BACKGROUND FACTS

The State of Washington charged Tishawn Winborne with Theft of a Motor Vehicle, two counts of Attempting to Elude a Police Vehicle, one count of Second Degree Assault, and one count of Third Degree Assault. The assault charges arise from his resisting
of police officers.

At the start of trial, Tishawn Winborne made a motion in limine to prohibit the State’s witnesses from testifying regarding ultimate factual issues such as whether Winborne “eluded” or drove “recklessly.” However, the trial court denied the motion. For those who don’t know, a motion in limine is a pretrial motion asking that certain evidence be found inadmissible, and that it not be referred to or offered at trial.

During trial, State witnesses repeatedly testified to Tishawn Winborne’s driving “recklessly” or “eluding” law enforcement. At the close of the State’s case, the trial court dismissed the Theft of a Motor Vehicle charge because of insufficient evidence.

The jury found Tishawn Winborne guilty of both counts of Attempting to Elude a Police Vehicle, but acquitted Winborne of both assault charges.

Winborne appealed. Among other issues, he challenged the trial court’s denial of his motion in limine to prohibit any witness from testifying that Winborne drove “recklessly” or “eluded” police.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that no witness, lay or expert, may testify to his or her opinion as to the guilt of a defendant, whether by direct statement or inference. Whether testimony provides an improper opinion turns on the circumstances of the case, including (1) the type of witness involved, (2) the specific nature of the testimony, (3) the nature of the charges, (4) the type of defense, and (5) the other evidence before the trier of fact.

Next, the Court held this case was similar to the controlling precedent of State v. Farr-Lenzini:

“The state trooper in State v. Farr-Lenzini did not employ the word “reckless” in his testimony as did officers in Tishawn Winborne’s trial. Nevertheless, the same reasoning behind excluding the testimony applies. An officer can testify to his observations of the driving of the defendant without drawing conclusions assigned to the jury.”

Finally, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court abused its discretion by denying Tishawn Winborne’s motion in limine. It reasoned that the State’s police officer witnesses testified by direct statements to Tishawn Winborne’s guilt. “Whether Tishawn Winborne drove ‘recklessly’ or ‘eluded’ the officer is an element of attempting to elude a police vehicle,” said the Court. “A law enforcement officer’s improper opinion testimony may be particularly prejudicial because it carries a special aura of reliability.”

With that, the Court of Appeals reversed Tishawn Winbome’s convictions for Felony Eluding a Police Officer and remanded for a new trial.

My opinion? Good decision. The Court of Appeals is correct in saying that a police officer’s improper opinion testimony may be particularly prejudicial because it carries a special aura of reliability. This is true. Instinctively, most jurors give much weight to the testimony of police officers. And the police officers know that. For those reasons, it is imperative for defense attorneys to argue pretrial motions in limine asking the trial judge to prohibit the police officers from offering their opinions at trial and to take exception to the court’s adverse rulings; thus preserving the issue for appeal. Kudos to the defense attorney in this case.

Burglary of Inmate’s Cell?

Image result for jail cell fights

In State v. Dunleavy, the WA Court of Appeals held that a jail cell is a separate building for purposes of supporting a burglary charge/conviction, and the that the victim’s jail cell need not be secured or occupied at the time of the crime in order to support the charge.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Dunleavy was an inmate at the Walla Walla County jail in Unit E. In Unit E, there are eight cells capable of housing two inmates per cell. The cells open into a day room. In Unit E, the cell doors are open from about 6:00 a.m. until 9:00 p.m. An inmate is permitted to close his cell door, but if he does, the door will remain locked until opened the next morning.

Dunleavy was hungry one day, so he asked inmate Kemp LaMunyon for a tortilla. LaMunyon responded that he did not have enough to share, but would buy more later and share with Dunleavy at that time. Dunleavy later bullied LaMunyon and threatened to “smash out.” Soon after, inmate John Owen attacked LaMunyon. During the attack, Dunleavy snuck into LaMunyon’s jail cell and took some of LaMunyon’s food. LaMunyon was seriously injured by Owen. Jail security investigated the fight and the theft, and concluded that the two were related. Security believed that Dunleavy staged the fight between Owen and LaMunyon to give him an opportunity to take LaMunyon’s food.

Because of the seriousness of LaMunyon’s injuries, and because security concluded that the fight and the theft were related, the jail referred charges to the local prosecuting authority. The State charged Dunleavy with second degree burglary, third degree theft, and second degree assault. After the State presented its case, Dunleavy moved to dismiss the second degree burglary charge on the basis that an inmate’s cell is a separate building. The trial court considered the parties’ arguments, denied Dunleavy’s motion to dismiss, and the case continued forward.

Dunleavy called one witness who testified that Dunleavy did not conspire with Owen to assault LaMunyon. After closing arguments, the case was submitted to the jury. The jury began deliberating at 1:30 p.m. At 4:00 p.m., the jury sent a written note to the trial court through the bailiff. The note asked, “Are the Walla Walla county jail policies legally binding? Are they considered law? What if we are not unanimous on a certain count?” The trial court, counsel, and Dunleavy discussed how the trial court should respond. The trial court’s response read, “You are to review the evidence, the exhibits, and the instructions, and continue to deliberate in order to reach a verdict.” No party objected to this response.

Less than one hour later, the jury returned a verdict finding Mr. Dunleavy guilty of second degree burglary and third degree theft but not guilty of second degree assault.

ISSUES

Dunleavy appealed on the issues of whether (1) jail cells are separate buildings for purposes of proving burglary, and (2) whether there is an  implied license for unlawful entry.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

1. Jail cells are separate buildings for purposes of proving burglary.

The Court of Appeals reasoned that under statute, a person is guilty of burglary in the second degree if, with intent to commit a crime against a person or property therein, he or she enters or remains unlawfully in a building other than a vehicle or a dwelling. Furthermore, Washington law defines “building” in relevant part as any structure used for lodging of persons; each unit of a building consisting of two or more units separately secured or occupied is a separate building.

With these legal definitions in mind, the court noted that that a jail is a building used for lodging of persons, specifically inmates. Each cell is secured at night and an inmate can secure his cell from others. Furthermore, each cell is separately occupied by two inmates. “We discern no ambiguity,” said the Court of Appeals. “A jail cell is a separate building for purposes of proving burglary.”

2. No implied license for unlawful entry.

The Court of Appeals raised and dismissed Dunleavy’s arguments that he did not commit burglary when he entered LaMunyon’s cell because his entry was lawful from an implied license to enter the cell.

Contrary to Dunleavy’s argument, the Court explained that under Washington law, a person ‘enters or remains unlawfully’ in or upon premises when he or she is not then licensed, invited, or otherwise privileged to so enter or remain.”

The Court of Appeals explained that the victim, LaMunyon, did not give Dunleavy permission to enter his cell. Furthermore, the Jail Sergeant testified that inmates are told when they are first booked into jail that they may not enter another inmate’s jail cell.

“Inmates are subject to punishment for breaking these rules, including criminal charges,” said the Court of Appeals. “A rational jury could find beyond a reasonable doubt that Dunleavy entered LaMunyon’s cell unlawfully.”

Consequently, the Court of Appeals affirmed Dunleavy’s conviction, yet remanded for resentencing on the separate issue that his offender score was incorrectly calculated.

A Vehicle is a “Premises”

Image result for sleeping in a suv

In State v. Joseph, the WA Supreme Court held that a vehicle is a “premises” for the purpose of the second degree criminal trespass statute because a vehicle is a type of “building” and “premises” includes “any building.”

BACKGROUND FACTS

On October 4, 2014, police responded to a report of vehicle prowling. The responding officer found defendant Anthony Joseph asleep in an unlocked Chevy Blazer on a public street in Ellensburg. The officer recognized Joseph and knew that he was homeless. The officer contacted Joseph and told him to exit the vehicle.

Initially, Joseph said that he had the owner’s permission; however, he then admitted he did not, and was arrested for vehicle prowling. The State filed charges of third degree assault and second degree vehicle prowling.’ The matter proceeded to a jury trial. The State sought jury instructions on first and second degree criminal trespass as lesser included offenses of the vehicle prowling charge. The trial court refused to instruct the jury on first degree trespass, but instructed the jury on second degree trespass, over Joseph’s objection. The State asked the court to define the term “premises” used in the second degree criminal trespass statute, but did not submit a definitional instruction. The trial court did not define “premises,” but allowed the parties to argue whether this term included a motor vehicle.

The jury acquitted Joseph of vehicle prowling, but found him guilty of second degree criminal trespass. Joseph appealed, and the Court of Appeals, Division Three affirmed his conviction, holding that a motor vehicle constitutes premises for purposes of second degree criminal trespass.

ISSUE

Whether second degree criminal trespass is a lesser included offense of second degree vehicle prowling.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

“This case presents a challenging question of statutory interpretation because of the overlapping and intersecting definitions of ‘building’ and ‘premises’ in Title 9A RCW,” said the Court. It reasoned that although no definition of the word “building” is available in the criminal statutes, a definition of “building” is found in RCW 9A.04.110(5), which states the following:

“(5) ‘Building,’ in addition to its ordinary meaning, includes any dwelling, fenced area, vehicle, railway car, cargo container, or any other structure used for lodging of persons or for carrying on business therein, or for the use, sale, or deposit of goods; each unit of a building consisting of two or more units separately secured or occupied is a separate building.”

Next, the Court engaged a lengthy discussion about overlapping definitions of “premises” and “building” as they applied to legislative amendments to the criminal trespass statute and the Washington Pattern Jury Instructions.

Also, the court said that the legislature plainly intended second degree criminal trespass to encompass trespass into any “building” as defined in the criminal code, RCW 9A.04.110(5), save for trespass into a building in its ordinary sense. “This interpretation properly restricts first degree trespass to unlawful entries into ordinary ‘buildings,’ a descriptor that needs no further definition,” said the Court.

The more severe charge (a gross misdemeanor) is justified by the increased likelihood of trespass into a home or business.

“All other trespasses fall under the term “premises” and are treated as simple misdemeanors. RCW 9A.52.080. This includes trespasses into premises that are “buildings” broadly conceived, but are not ordinarily thought of as buildings—as relevant here, vehicles.”

The Court reasoned that under this interpretation, the trial court properly instructed the jury on second degree criminal trespass as a lesser included offense of second degree vehicle prowling. “Because the evidence supports the jury’s verdict, we affirm Joseph’s
conviction.”

My opinion? Clearly, legal definitions can be broadly interpreted; sometimes to the point of absurdity. However, it is not unreasonable to accept the notion that vehicles can actually be a premises. Many impoverished people live and sleep in their vehicles. If a man’s home is his castle, and the castle is a vehicle, then the vehicle is his castle, no?

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

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.