Category Archives: Juvenile

Dealing in Depictions

Image result for teenage boy selfie

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

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

Misconduct at Closing

In In re Personal Restraint of Phelps, the WA Court of Appeals Div. II held (1) expert testimony is required if the State intends to rely on the grooming process to prove and argue  its case, (2) the Prosecutor improperly argued facts not in evidence about sexual grooming, and (3) this error resulted in prejudice to the defendant that requires a reversal of his convictions.

BACKGROUND

On June 8, 2012, Defendant Todd Phelps went to  trial on his charges of third degree rape and second degree sexual misconduct with a minor. In February 2011, the victim AA was a minor who began playing softball on her high school team. Mr. Phelps was one of her coaches. Apparently, Mr. Phelps groomed AA into having sexual relations with him.

At trial, the State did not present any expert or lay testimony about the grooming process.

In closing argument, however, the prosecutor discussed some of the topics that he questioned the jurors about during jury selection, including the grooming process:

“Then we talked about grooming. We talked about the process of grooming. And some people came up with examples of how someone who is grooming is going to be nice. They are going to try to get the trust of someone. They are going to try and isolate that person so that they can do an act against this person who is being groomed. And it’s not just the person who is being groomed, but it’s other people that are around as well that are being groomed.”

The prosecutor referred to the concept of grooming throughout his argument. For example, after talking about the alleged physical contact that occurred before the rape, the prosecutor argued,

“What is all this stuff that’s going on? What is all this physical contact between a coach and a student athlete? It’s grooming; it’s okay, every time I touch you, it’s okay, it’s okay. Eventually, it becomes the norm. The grooming isn’t in the open, folks. When people groom, they don’t do it so everybody can see. That’s not the way it works. It wouldn’t be called grooming. It would be called a crime because he’d be caught all the time.”

The prosecutor further discussed how the grooming process took place over time and that, as part of it, Phelps told AA stories about how his wife refused to sleep in the same bed with him, how his wife had made out with another man, and other statements about his wife that were attempts to make AA sympathetic to him. The prosecutor then commented about Phelps’s sexual comments to AA and his physical contact with her, stating that “these are the things that are going on that she’s being told and groomed with throughout their contacts.” After discussing MM’s father’s testimony about Phelps bragging about his ability to control AA’s emotions, the prosecutor argued,

“So let me talk about grooming again. At this point, point of the rape, [AA] is pretty much isolated from her entire family until she eventually is allowed to move with her aunt. Remember the stories about her family, her grandma, her cousin, her aunt. She’s told these sex stories by the defendant. She’s told to break up with her boyfriend, don’t talk to your counselor. The defendant is meeting with her in private with other students, but no adults around. He has made her feel important throughout this entire incident. She felt he was the only one she could talk to.”

These types of comments from the Prosecutor – and many others about grooming – were repeated and emphasized throughout closing argument.

The jury found Phelps guilty of second degree sexual misconduct with a minor and third degree rape. Phelps appealed on the issue of whether the prosecutor committed misconduct by introducing the concept of grooming in closing argument without any evidentiary support or foundation; i.e., arguing that the prosecutor argued facts outside the record.

THE COURT’S ANALYSIS

The court reasoned that the 6th Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees a defendant a fair, but not an error-free, trial. The burden to establish prosecutorial misconduct is on the defendant, who must show that the prosecuting attorney’s conduct was both improper and prejudicial. Prosecutorial misconduct is grounds for reversal only when there is a substantial likelihood that the improper conduct affected the jury.

Expert Testimony of Grooming.

The Court said expert testimony is required if the State intends to rely on the grooming process to prove and argue its case. Although the discussion of grooming in jury selection demonstrates that some of the jurors in this case had some general knowledge of grooming, this does not demonstrate that the jurors had the nuanced understanding of the grooming process that would enable them to understand its effect on things such as AA’s failure to report and how the grooming process may be used to influence others in order to increase the defendant’s credibility or undermine the victim’s credibility. Furthermore, the Court reasoned that the psychological complexities in understanding and evaluating the grooming process demand expert testimony to aid the jury.

Ultimately, the Court reasoned that because the prosecutor’s grooming argument encompassed issues that are beyond the jury’s common understanding, Phelps is correct that the prosecutor should have presented expert testimony on this matter if the State wished to rely on these concepts in closing argument.

Arguing Facts Not in Evidence.

The Court held that the Prosecutor’s use of the grooming concept in closing argument without first presenting testimony about the grooming process was misconduct.  There was no evidence of any kind before the jury explaining the grooming process, the potential purposes of grooming beyond achieving a sexual relationship with AA, or the effects of grooming on those around AA. Consequently, the State was required to present expert testimony on this aspect of the grooming process because these concepts were not within the common understanding of the jury. For that reason, the prosecutor was arguing facts that were not in evidence.

Flagrant, Ill-Intentioned & Incurable Prejudice.

The Court reasoned that the Prosecutor’s argument, without any evidentiary support, was also clearly prejudicial because it touched on credibility determinations that were key to this case given the circumstantial nature of the case and the lack of direct evidence of the criminal acts. The prosecutor’s argument focused on how Phelps’s grooming behaviors affected AA’s behavior and how those around AA perceived AA. It also was intended to rebut Phelps’s claims that his contact with AA was merely an innocent attempt to help a troubled young woman. Thus, this argument had a strong relationship to AA’s and Phelps’s credibility and potentially influenced the jury’s credibility determinations.

Finally, the Court reasoned that any resulting prejudice from the Prosecutor’s statements at closing argument could not have been cured by a jury instruction:

“We hold that Phelps has shown that the prejudice could not have been cured by an instruction. The repeated and pervasive use of the grooming concept makes it less likely that the jury followed this instruction, particularly when the grooming evidence was relevant to the core credibility issues in a case with no direct evidence of the actual crimes. Thus, Phelps has established prosecutorial misconduct.”

With that the Court reversed Phelps’ conviction.

My opinion? Good decision. As a practice, expert witnesses are required to testify about issues which are beyond the common understanding of jurors. The topic of grooming sexual assault victims certainly requires an expert. Period.

 

Apology Letters & Free Speech

In State v . K.H.-H., the WA Supreme Court held that a defendant’s First Amendment free speech rights are not violated by a requirement that the offender write an apology letter to the victim of the crime.

K.H.-H., a 17-year-old male, was charged with assault with sexual motivation after he forced himself on C.R., a female acquaintance who attended the same high school. The juvenile court found K.H.-H. guilty. At the disposition hearing, the Prosecutor requested the court order K.H.-H. to write a letter of apology to the victim. Defense Counsel objected, insisting that K.H.-H. maintained the right to control his speech. The Court followed the Prosecutor’s recommendations and ordered K.H.-H. to write an apology letter. The court also imposed three months of community supervision.

K.H.-H appealed. Eventually, his case ended up in the WA Supreme Court.

In short, the Court upheld the sentencing requirement that K.H.-H write the apology letter.

First, the Court acknowledged that because a forced apology involves making an offender say something he does not wish to say, it implicates the compelled speech doctrine. The compelled speech doctrine generally dictates that the State cannot force individuals to deliver messages that they do not wish to make.

Nevertheless, the Court also stated that First Amendment rights are not absolute, particularly in the context of prison and probation, where constitutional rights are lessened or not applicable. “Similarly, criminal convictions result in loss or lessening of constitutional rights.”

The Court also reasoned that a victim has an interest in receiving a letter of apology. This not only aims to rehabilitate the juvenile offender but also acknowledges the victim’s interest in receiving the apology:

“A letter of apology demonstrates a recognition and acceptance of responsibility for harmful actions. Such a condition is reasonably necessary for K.H.-H. to recognize what he did was wrong and to acknowledge his behavior. Additionally, an apology letter recognizes the victim’s interest in receiving an apology from the perpetrator. An apology allows the victim to hear an acceptance of responsibility from the very person who inflicted the harm. This is particularly important where both the victim and perpetrator are juveniles, and demonstrates to both the significance of giving and receiving an apology for wrongful acts.

This further advances the rehabilitative goals of the statute. The outward manifestation of accepting and apologizing for the consequences of one’s actions is a rehabilitative step that attempts to improve K.H.-H.’s character and outlook. Such a condition is reasonably related to the purpose of K.H.-H. ‘s rehabilitation and the crime here. One must face the consequences of a conviction, which often include the loss or lessening of constitutional rights.”

Justice McCloud dissented. Among other things, his dissent says the following:

“Compelling a false apology for a crime the defendant denies committing is far from the least restrictive means of achieving rehabilitation. In fact, it is probably the most ineffective way to achieve that result.”

An interesting case, no doubt.

My opinion?

I strive for reductions and dismissals in all of my cases. Sometimes that means taking accountability for what happened. Consequently, that also means apologizing. An apology letter to the judge is a great place to start. They are a great way to demonstrate responsibility and remorse for your actions. While an apology letter to the judge/magistrate is often an excellent way to show your remorse after you have committed an offence, it’s success will largely depend on how serious the crime was. Among other things, judges consider your likelihood at re-offending. A sincere apology letter may show you have learnt your lesson and may go some way to proving this. Writing a letter to the victim can be one way of repairing the harm caused. Remember, judges have a fair amount of discretion when sentencing. They can consider the fact that you have taken responsibility for your actions as well as paid for any loss or damage caused. Finally, many victims will be happy to receive a sign of your recognition of the harm that you have caused them, especially if your crime wasn’t intentional or didn’t cause a great deal of harm.

If you have any concerns or questions about your criminal case, speak to an experienced criminal lawyer to ensure you have the information to let you make the best possible decisions. Good luck!

When Sexting Becomes Criminal

In State v. E.G., the WA Court of Appeals Division III held that a juvenile’s texting a picture of his erect penis to an adult female is punishable as a violation of Dealing in Depictions of a Minor Engaged in Sexually Explicit Activity in the Second Degree under RCW 9.68A.050(2)(a).

Defendant E.G. was 17-year-old juvenile with Asperger syndrome. He began sending harassing phone calls to T.R., a former employee of E.G.’s mother. T.R. at the time was a 22-year-old mother of an infant daughter. E.G. found T.R.’s telephone number by checking his mother’s business records. Beginning in mid-2012, a male using a restricted phone number would call T.R. at night and make sexual sounds or ask sexual questions. On the afternoon of June 2, 2013, T.R. received two text messages: one with a picture of an erect penis, and the other with explicit language.

T.R. reported the phone calls and text messages to the police, who tracked the telephone to E.G., then age 17. He was questioned by the police and told them that it was his penis in the photograph.Shortly before his 18th birthday, E.G. was charged in the juvenile division of the Spokane County Superior Court with one count of second degree dealing in depictions and one count of making harassing telephone calls.

Unfortunately, E.G. had prior criminal behavior of a similar nature. At the time of his arrest, E.G. was currently serving a Special Sex Offender Dispositional Alternative (SSODA) as the result of an earlier juvenile adjudication for communicating with a minor for immoral purposes.

The defense moved to dismiss the charges under the argument that the statute could not be applied to a minor who was also the “victim” of the offense. The trial court denied the motion, concluded E.G. had committed the offense and required E.G. to register as a sex offender.

E.G. timely appealed. The Court of Appeals accepted an amicus brief jointly filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and the Juvenile Law Center. The only issue on appeal was whether the dealing in depictions statute properly could be applied to E.G.’s conduct.

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals upheld the juvenile court’s findings of guilt.

First, the Court of Appeals reasoned that E.G.’s conduct was not protected by the First Amendment because minors have no superior right to distribute sexually explicit materials involving minors than adults do.

Second, the Court rejected arguments that the criminal statute was vague because it does not provide notice that sending self-produced images of one’s own genitalia to others is included within the scope of the statute. The Court reasoned that while the statute’s reach may be broad, it is not vague.

Third, the Court rejected arguments that it was absurd for E.G. to be both victim and perpetrator. The Court’s response was perfunctory and direct:

“We disagree. First, nothing in the statute requires proof of any specific “victim” status as an element of the offense. Rather, child pornography per se victimizes children, which is the reason the legislature is seeking to eradicate it, whether or not the child willingly takes part. The legislature can rationally decide that it needs to protect children from themselves by eliminating all child pornography, including self-produced images that were not created for commercial reasons.”

Finally, the Court of Appeals rejected arguments that E.G.’s actions were an innocent sharing of sexual images between teenagers: “It appears, instead, to be the latest step in a campaign of anonymous harassment of T.R. for reasons best known to E.G., but even if it was an effort to entice or impress her, this was not an innocent activity.” With that, the Court of Appeals affirm the juvenile court’s adjudication and disposition of this case.

My opinion?

I understand it was a terrifying experience for the victim to undergo this terrible experience. Nevertheless, its difficult to justify where, under these facts,  a 17-year-old juvenile with Asperger syndrome should be found guilty of a heinous Class A sex offense felony and register as a sex offender for a number of years.

Although there are many possible symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome, the main symptom is significant trouble with social situations. Other symptoms include the following:

  • Inability to pick up on social cues;
  • Lack of inborn social skills, such as being able to read others’ body language, start or maintain a conversation, and take turns talking;
  • Lack of empathy;
  • Inability to recognize subtle differences in speech tone, pitch, and accent that alter the meaning of others’ speech;

. . . and the list goes on.

Again, my condolences to the victim. Still, when Asperger’s syndrome is coupled with adolescence and immaturity, it’s difficult to imagine a juvenile defendant truly understanding the repercussions of his actions under these facts.

State v. Kohonen: No Proof of Cyberstalking

In State v. Kohonen, Division I of the WA Court of Appeals decided the State failed to prove that a defendant’s tweets constituted “true threats” sufficient to support a conviction for Cyberstalking.

When the defendant J.K. was in eighth grade, a classmate, S.G., informed a teacher that another student was behaving oddly. As a result, the other student and J.K. were both suspended from school. J.K. and S.G. had no other interaction until the incident at the center of this case.

Two years later, when J.K. and S.G. were sophomores in high school, they shared a first period class. One morning, J.K. saw S.G. in class and was reminded of the incident two years before. She quickly posted two short messages, known as tweets, via the web site Twitter. The first read, “Tbh (to be honest), I still want to punch you in the throat even tho it was 2 years ago.” The second read, “#[S.G.]mustdie.”

Eventually, J.K. was taken from class to the school administration office, where she was confronted her with the tweets. J.K. immediately admitted that she had written and posted the tweets but stated that she had not intended for her actions to harm S.G. Later, J.K. also explained that she posted tweets frequently. She used Twitter as a “virtual diary,” posting her thoughts, reactions, feelings, and more. She testified that she sent the messages quickly and without thinking, as a fleeting expression of her agitation at the memory from middle school. Although she was aware that the posts were public, and that she had approximately 100 people who followed her, she testified that she did not consider the potential impact her tweets might have on S.G.

J.K. was charged with one count of Cyberstalking. After trial, the juvenile commissioner adjudicated J.K. guilty as charged, finding that J.K. had acted with the intent to embarrass, harass, and torment S.G. and that she was not credible on the question of whether she had considered the effect the tweets could have before posting them. The court also concluded that the tweets constituted a true threat. J.K. was sentenced to six months of probation and 30 hours of community service. The superior court denied J.K.’s motion to revise. Division I accepted her appeal.

The Court of Appeals held there was insufficient evidence that the tweets in question constituted “true threats,” as required by the federal and state constitutions.

The Court reasoned that due process clauses of the United States Constitution and WA Constitution require that the government prove every element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. The critical inquiry on review of the sufficiency of the evidence to support a criminal conviction must be to determine whether the evidence could reasonably support a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.  The relevant question is whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Court further reasoned that in order to convict J.K. of Cyberstalking, the State was required to prove each of the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt: (1) that J.K. made an electronic communication to another person, (2) that, at the time J.K. made the electronic communication, she specifically intended to harass, intimidate, torment, or embarrass another person, and (3) that J.K. threatened to inflict injury on the person to whom the electronic communication was made.

Under the circumstances, the Tweets were not true threats:

“J.K.’s tweets bear the signs of—admittedly mean-spirited—hyperbolic expressions of frustration, and that is precisely how they were received. A reasonable person in J.K.’s position would not have anticipated a different reception. Therefore, insufficient evidence was presented that the tweets constituted true threats.”

On that, the Court of Appeals reversed the conviction and dismissed the case.

Good decision.

State v. O’Dell: Court May Consider Defendant’s Youth at Sentencing

In State v. O’Dell,  the Washington Supreme Court held that a defendant’s youthfulness can support a lower prison sentence.

About 10 days after his 18th birthday, O’Dell had sex with 12-year-old A.N. The two met up on Sunday afternoon, along with a mutual friend, to drink wine and smoke cigars in the woods. Apparently, she, the friend, and O’Dell made plans to meet up again later that night but that the friend did not join them as planned. She and O’Dell sat in the woods to wait for their friend and, after a few minutes of talking, O’Dell forcibly raped her.

Sean O’Dell was convicted of Rape of a Child Second Degree. At O’Dell’s sentencing hearing, the defense requested a lighter sentence because, as he said it,  “The defendant’s capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct, or to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law, was significantly impaired by youth.”

The defense also argued that when O’Dell committed his offense, he “was still in high school, associating with school age persons” and “was not some mid-twenties man hanging out at the local high school or trolling the internet for young people.”

Finally, the defense quoted portions of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Roper v. Simmons, which held that it is unconstitutional to impose the death penalty on a juvenile. Roper relied on research, by various medical and psychiatric associations, indicating that juveniles are more susceptible to negative influences and impulsive behavior and therefore less morally culpable for their crimes relative to adults.

Despite Defense Counsel’s arguments, the trial court sentenced O’Dell to 95 months of prison and said that it could not consider age as a mitigating circumstance.

O’Dell committed this offense 10 days after his 18th birthday. As stated by his defense attorney, “had the incident happened two weeks prior, and assuming the State could not convince the Court to prosecute O’Dell as an adult, he would be facing 15-36 weeks in a well-guarded juvenile detention facility … rather than 78-102 months in an adult prison.”

On appeal, O’Dell challenged his 95-month sentence. He argued that the trial court abused its discretion when it refused to consider O’Dell’s own relative youth as a basis to depart from the standard sentence range.

The WA Supreme Court ruled that the trial court erred when it refused to consider O’Dell’s youth as a mitigating factor justifying a lower sentence. First, it reasoned that all defendants 18 and over are, in general, equally culpable for equivalent crimes. But it could not have considered the particular vulnerabilities – for example, impulsivity, poor judgment, and susceptibility to outside influences – of specific individuals. The trial court is in the best position to consider those factors.

Second, the WA Legislature defining an adult felony offender as “18 and over” did not have the benefit of psychological and neurological studies showing that the parts of the brain involved in behavior control continue to develop well into a person’s 20’s:

These studies reveal fundamental differences between adolescent and mature brains in the areas of risk and consequence assessment, impulse control, tendency toward antisocial behaviors, and susceptibility to peer pressure. Until full neurological maturity, young people in general have less ability to control their emotions, clearly identify consequences, and make reasoned decisions than they will when they enter their late twenties and beyond.

Finally, the Court concluded, in light of what we know today about adolescents’ cognitive and emotional development, the defendant’s youth may, in fact, relate to a defendant’s crime that it is far more likely to diminish a defendant’s culpability; and that youth can, therefore, amount to a substantial and compelling factor justifying a lighter sentence. “For these reasons, a trial court must be allowed to consider youth as a mitigating factor when imposing a sentence on an offender like O’Dell, who committed his offense just a few days after he turned 18.”

The WA Supreme Court remanded O’Dell’s case for re-sentencing.

My opinion? Good decision. The defense attorney was very intelligent to provide the court with studies showing that young offenders have less ability to control their emotions and impulses. This is very true. Indeed, this reasoning is exactly why the Washington Legislature adopted the Juvenile Justice Act in 1977 and treats young offenders differently than adult offenders.

Here, although the Defendant was categorically denied Juvenile Court because he was 18 years old, he was barely 18 years old when he committed the offense. He’s much closer to being a child than an adult. And until a young person turns 25, their brains haven’t fully developed. Good decision.

State v. Strange: Was the Jury “Tainted” or Impartial?

In State v. Strange, the WA Court of Appeals Division II decided the defendant’s right to a fair and impartial jury was not violated by a prospective jurors’ statements concerning their own prior experiences with child molestation.

Here, defendant George Strange was accused of Child Molestation Second Degree and Voyeurism. from 2011 to 2013, Strange lived with his wife and his wife’ s children, who are juveniles. Here, juvenile J.M. was 12 years old when Strange allegedly fondled her breasts one night. He explained he was giving her a breast examination.

During jury selection, the court and attorneys asked the prospective jurors about their personal experiences with child molestation. Although most of the jurors had no personal experience with child molestation, almost one-third of the jurors knew someone who was either a victim or had been charged with child molestation. In response to the court’ s questioning, juror no. 54 stated,

JUROR: “Um — what I said before, like, I know people that I know. Like it’ s not an easy accusation to make. Like, it is hard for people (inaudible). It’ s like if accusations were made there’ s something behind that . . . I don’ t — like, I don’t have a ton of experience but it has just been my experience people don’ t make that accusation, you know, for no reason. Like, I feel like if an accusation was made there had to be something that had happened.”

Juror no. 54 was excused for unrelated hardship reasons.

During trial, other witnesses testified to Strange’s odd behavior around J.M. Additionally, the State played a recorded video of Strange being interviewed by a police detective who commented on Strange’s behavior during the interview. Finally, Strange did not call any witnesses nor did he testify. At the end of trial, Strange was found guilty on all counts.

On appeal, Strange argued that his right to a fair trial by an impartial jury was violated because of prospective jurors’ statements concerning their own prior experiences with child molestation, either in their families or among friends or acquaintances, which tainted the entire jury venire.

The court rejected Strange’s arguments. It reasoned that article I, § 22 of the Washington Constitution guarantees a criminal defendant the right to a fair trial by unbiased jurors.” Also, the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution also guarantees the right to a fair trial by impartial jurors. Here, no prospective juror professed any expertise about sexual abuse cases. Therefore, there is no concern about a prospective juror with more credible, authoritative knowledge tainting the rest of the jury pool.

Second, most jurors were merely questioned about their experiences with child molestation and asked if they could remain impartial. Some jurors admitted to a potential bias, most said they could apply the court’ s instructions impartially, and two prospective jurors asked for individual voir dire, preferring not to talk about their experiences in front of the rest of the jury pool. Consequently, the Court of Appeals decided that Strange received a fair trial by an impartial jury.

Finally, the court rejected Strange’s argument that his defense attorney was ineffective because he failed to object to the admission of Strange’s recorded interview with police. The court reasoned that because defense counsel’s failure to object was a legitimate trial tactic, it cannot be said that Strange’ s trial counsel’ s performance was deficient. Therefore, his claim for ineffective assistance of counsel fails. The decision of Strange’s attorney to not play the video was a legitimate trial tactic, and did not amount to ineffective assistance of counsel.

My opinion? Oftentimes, during jury selection, prospective jurors say things out loud which may appear to discredit the defendant, especially when the charges are particularly galvanizing. A defense attorney must be cautious in proceeding with these jurors. A good technique is to ask the juror to extrapolate “what they mean” if the juror says they have difficulty being objective, and/or if the juror says the defendant “must be guilty of something.” The attorney can strike the juror for cause because the juror could be biased against the defendant.

Still, it’s difficult to “unring the bell,” so to speak, when a prospective juror says controversial things which may hurt the defendant’s chances at trial if the rest of the jury pool believes that juror’s statements. This is the essence of “tainting the jury,” which is reversible error and should be avoided at all costs. In response, another good tactic is to inquire if other potential jurors feel the same as the juror who aired their grievances. Find someone shaking their head “No.” Ask them why. Chances are, they’ll say something about giving the defendant a fair trial, or presumption of innocence, or something like that. Test the waters. Guide the jurors back toward their oath that they MUST presume the defendant not guilty throughout trial. Remind them that if they serve as jurors, they’re under oath to withhold their personal biases and reserve judgment until after hearing all of the evidence.

State v. Z.U.E.: Terry Stop Based on Unreliable Informant Tip Was Unlawful

Good decision.

In State v. Z.U.E., the Washington Supreme Court decided that when police stop an individual based on an informant’s tip, there must be some “indicia of reliability” based on the totality of the circumstances. Here, there wasn’t.

The facts show that Z.U.E. was a juvenile passenger in a car stopped by police after several 911 callers reported a bald shirtless man seen carrying a gun. Another caller reported a 17 year old female gave the gun to the shirtless man. Based on these tips, police stopped a car believing that the female was in the car. They ordered Z.U.E out of the vehicle, searched him, and found marijuana on his person. The officers did not find any guns, nor did they find the bald, shirtless subject.

The state prosecuted Z.U.E for Unlawful Possession of a Controlled Substance and Obstructing a Law Enforcement Officer. At his trial, Z.U.E. argued a CrR 3.6 Motion to Suppress and essentially challenged the Terry stop and subsequent search incident to arrest. The police who stopped ZUE did not know how many 911 callers there were or the identities of the callers and did not corroborate the report regarding the female with a gun.  The trial court denied the motion. Z.U.E. was found guilty of the drug charge and acquitted on the Obstructing charge. Z.U.E. appealed. The WA Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the 911 calls lacked sufficient “indicia of reliability” to justify the stop. Again, the case went up on appeal – this time, by the State –  to the WA Supreme Court.

The WA Supremes affirmed the WA Court of Appeals and suppressed the evidence. In reaching their decision, the Court discussed Terry stops. In challenging the validity of a Terry stop, article I, section 7 of the WA Constitution generally tracks the U.S. Constitution’s  Fourth Amendment analysis. That said, warrantless seizures are presumed unreasonable, and the State bears the burden of establishing that the seizure falls within one of the carefully drawn exceptions to the warrant requirement. One such exception is a brief investigatory detention of a person, known as a Terry stop. For a Terry stop to be permissible, the State must show that the officer had a “reasonable suspicion” that the detained person was, or was about to be, involved in a crime.

They court further reasoned that when police stop an individual based on an informant’s tip, there must be some “indicia of reliability” based on the totality of the circumstances. There must be either (1) circumstances establishing the informant’s reliability or (2) some corroborative observation by the officers that shows the presence of criminal activity or the informer’s information was obtained in a reliable fashion. Here, the police did not have any articulable reason to suspect any of the passengers in the car of criminal activity. The seizure of Z.U.E was unlawful and the evidence obtained as a result of that seizure should have been suppressed.

My opinion? Good decision. This was a straightforward application of the law. The informant tips were unreliable. Also, Z.U.E.’s involvement on the 911 calls and firearms was so attenuated that it was virtually irrelevant. Well done, WA Supremes!

State v. E.J.J.: Exercising Freedom of Speech is NOT Obstructing.

Barclays Center protest in Brooklyn, NY on December 1, 2014.

Excellent opinion.

In State v. E.J.J., the Washington Supreme Court  held that a juvenile offender, who called the officers abusive names, yelled, and used profanity toward the officers while the officers were engaged in a criminal investigation, CANNOT be convicted of obstructing a law enforcement officer. The words the juvenile directed at the officers are protected by the First Amendment. The obstruction statute is also not violated by a citizen’s presence at a scene, provided the citizen does not physically interfere with police. 

Here, juvenile defendant E.J.J. was charged with Obstructing a Law Enforcement Officer under RCW 9A.76.020(1). Under this law, a person is guilty of obstructing a law enforcement officer if the person willfully hinders, delays, or obstructs any law enforcement officer in the discharge of his or her official powers or duties. Obstructing is a gross misdemeanor punishable up to 1 year in jail and a $5,000.00 fine.

This case began as a call for police assistance to E.J.J. ‘s house to help with his intoxicated, out-of-control sister, R.J. (a juvenile at the time). The police responded and began their intervention by escorting R.J. out of the house 10 to 15 feet away from the front door, where the officers attempted to calm her down. E.J.J. grew concerned when he saw an officer reach for what he perceived to be a nightstick. E.J.J. exited the house and stood on the porch, telling the officers that R.J. was his sister and that they should not use the nightstick. The officers advised him that they were in the middle of their investigation and instructed him multiple times to leave the scene and return to the house.

Initially, E.J.J. did not comply, questioning why he had to return to the house. When, eventually, he did return to his home, he stood in the open doorway and continued his verbal interaction with the officers. The house had double doors: a wrought iron screen door, through which someone could see out and communicate through, and a second, solid wood door.

The officers directed E.J.J. multiple times to close the solid wood door and to withdraw further into the home, but E.J.J. refused, stating that he wanted to supervise the scene from the doorway ( 10 to 15 feet away from the other officers and R.J.) to make sure that R.J. was not harmed. E.J.J. continued to stand behind the closed wrought iron door. Multiple times, an officer reached into the home to close the solid door. E.J.J. would immediately reopen it. At this point, E.J.J. was irate, yelling profanities and calling the officers abusive names. An officer warned E.J.J. that he could be arrested for obstruction. After E.J.J. continued to reopen the solid door, an officer put him under arrest for obstruction of a law enforcement officer. The entire interaction lasted approximately 10 to 15 minutes.

E.J.J. was found guilty at trial. he appealed his conviction to the WA Court of Appeals. Unfortunately, the Court of Appeals upheld E.J.J.’s conviction. The case was again appealed, only this time to the WA Supreme Court.

 The WA Supreme Court reasoned that many court cases have consistently and strongly held that people cannot be held liable when exercising their right to speak. “While E.J.J. ‘s words may have been disrespectful, discourteous, and annoying, they are nonetheless constitutionally protected.”

The Court further reasoned that our cases have consistently required conduct in order to establish obstruction of an officer. In other words, a conviction for obstruction may not be based solely on an individual’s speech because the speech itself is constitutionally protected. This review is also consistent with the approach established by the United States Supreme Court’s See Street v. New York.”

The WA Supreme Court had many reasons for disagreeing with the WA Court of Appeals. First, the WA Supremes disagreed that E.J .J.’ s physical approach toward the officers was sufficient evidence of conduct to support his conviction: “E.J.J. did not physically interfere with or touch either the police or his sister. Furthermore, the trial court’s findings of fact provide that E.J.J. did not make any threatening movements toward the officers at any time.”

Second, the WA Supremes disagreed that E.J.J.’s presence at the scene escalated the situation: “E.J.J. ‘s mere presence at the scene cannot constitute conduct. E.J.J. had every right to stand on his own property, provided he did not physically interfere with police.”

Third, the WA Supremes disagreed that E.J.J.’s refusal to obey the officers’ repeated requests to leave the scene was sufficient evidence of conduct: “This exchange is so intertwined with E.J.J.’s protected speech that we find insufficient evidence of E.J.J. ‘s conduct to support his conviction on this basis.”

Finally, the WA Supremes disagreed there was evidence of obstruction because an officer was eventually required to escort E.J.J. back to the home, thus delaying officers: “Inconvenience cannot, taken alone, justify an arrest for obstruction.” The Court concluded with the following:

“Where individuals exercise their constitutional rights to criticize how the police are handling a situation, they cannot be concerned about risking a criminal conviction for obstruction. Such a conviction is not permitted under the First Amendment. After a comprehensive review of the record and the trial court’s findings, the decision of the trial court is reversed and charges are dismissed.”

My opinion? EXCELLENT decision. I’ve had many, many clients charged with Obstructing simply because they voiced a heated opinion with law enforcement officers during an investigation. Although it’s never okay to be disrespectful toward law enforcement, obstructing requires conduct – plain and simple. I’m pleased our Washington Supreme Court made the right decision.

State v. I.B.: Shaking Your Head Means “No” Under Miranda.

In State v. I.B., the WA Court of Appeals decided a juvenile suspect’s shaking of his head in the negative after police asked him, post Miranda, if he was willing to talk was an unequivocal assertion of his Fifth Amendment rights.

Here, 15-year-old defendant I.B. was taken into custody as a suspect in a Residential Burglary crime. While being interrogated, I.B. shook his head in the negative after police asked him if he was willing to talk. Nevertheless, police continued their questioning and I.B. made inculpatory statements against his best interests. The trial court suppressed I.B.’s statements at his 3.5 Hearing and concluded that I.B’s shake of the head signaled an assertion of his right to remain silent. Later, I’B’s case was dismissed. The State appealed the trial court’s suppression.

The issue before the Court of Appeals was whether I.B.’s shaking his head in the negative after being asked if he was willing to talk was an unequivocal assertion of the right to remain silent. The court decided it was.

The court reasoned that the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that “[n]o person … shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” To counteract the inherent compulsion of custodial interrogation, police must administer Miranda warnings. Miranda, 384 U.S. at 479. Miranda requires that the defendant “be warned prior to any questioning that he has the right to remain silent, that anything he says can be used against him in a court of law, that he has the right to the presence of an attorney, and that if he cannot afford an attorney one will be appointed for him prior to any questioning if he so desires.” Once a suspect invokes his right to remain silent, police may not continue the interrogation or make repeated efforts to wear down the suspect.

Furthermore, the court reasoned a suspect need not verbally invoke his right to remain silent. In fact, Miranda sets a low bar for invocation of the right: “If the individual indicates in any manner, at any time prior to or during questioning, that he wishes to remain silent, the interrogation must cease.” Miranda, 384 U.S. at 473-74 (emphasis added). However, suspects must “unambiguously” express their desire to be silent. The test as to whether a suspect’s invocation of his right to remain silent was unequivocal is an objective one, asking whether'” a reasonable police officer in the circumstances would understand the statement'” to be an invocation of Miranda rights. Once a suspect has clearly invoked the right to remain silent, police questioning must immediately cease.

Here, I.B. unequivocally invoked his right to remain silent. Nothing in the circumstances leading up to I.B.’s invocation rendered his head movement ambiguous. The police officers read I.B. his Miranda rights and I.B. understood his rights. Both officers testified they understand shaking the head side to side to communicate the word ‘No.’ This affirmative conduct unambiguously signaled LB.’s desire for the questioning to cease. Consequently, the trial court properly suppressed LB.’s custodial statements.

My opinion? Good decision. In the context of interrogations, shaking one’s head side to side means no. There’s no other reasonable interpretation.