Category Archives: Knapstad Motion

Accomplices & Drive-By Shooting

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In State v. Jameison, the WA Court of Appeals held that (1) Drive-By Shooting charges may not be maintained against an accused who merely retrieves a gun from the car in which he arrived to the scene of the homicide but crouches behind another car at the time he returns fire, and (2) the defendant’s arming himself and hiding behind a car from the bullets of the other shooter does not amount to accomplice liability with the co-defendant.

BACKGROUND FACTS

This prosecution arises from a confrontation between Kwame Bates and defendant
Lashawn Jameison, on the one hand, and Anthony Williams, on the other hand, during
which skirmish Williams fired his gun and killed bystander Eduardo Villagomez. A
video partially captures the confrontation and shooting.

On the night of January 17-18, 2016, Lashawn Jameison and Kwame Bates joined
a group of five hundred young adults at the Palomino Club in Spokane to celebrate
Martin Luther King Day. Bates drove Jameison to the club in a white Toyota Camry
owned by Bates’ girlfriend, which car gains significance as events transpire. Bates
parked the Camry on Lidgerwood Street in front of a Department of Licensing building
adjacent to the club. A Chrysler parked behind the Camry on the street. We do not know
the time of night that Bates and Jameison arrived at the celebration.

The Palomino Club closed at 2 a.m. on January 18. As Lashawn Jameison and Kwame Bates exited the club at closing, another patron, Anthony Williams, shoved Sierra, a female friend of Bates. The shove began a deadly chain of events. As a result of the push, Bates and Williams argued. Jameison did not participate in the quarrel.

Williams jumped a metal fence bordering the club parking lot, retrieved a handgun from
a car parked in the adjacent Department of Licensing parking lot, and returned to the entrance of the club. Williams paced to and from the club building, the adjacent lot, and
Lidgerwood Street.

Both Kwame Bates and Lashawn Jameison, knowing that Anthony Williams possessed a firearm, returned to the white Toyota Camry and armed themselves. Both Bates and Jameison lawfully owned firearms. During this activity, other patrons of the Palomino Club departed the building and walked to their cars parked in the club parking lot, in the adjacent parking lot, and on the street.

Lashawn Jameison, with gun in hand, retreated and separated himself from Kwame Bates and Anthony Williams. Jameison hid at the rear of the Chrysler parked behind the Camry while Bates stood by a power pole near the Camry. Bates and Williams, with Williams then in the Department of Licensing parking lot, faced one another as Martin Luther King Day celebrants continued to walk to their cars. According to Bates, he “does not back down” from a fight as long as the fight is fair. Jameison crouched behind the Chrysler.

A friend of Anthony Williams drove the friend’s car into the parking lot. Williams stepped behind his friend’s vehicle and discharged his gun in Bates’ direction. The bullet missed Bates and struck Eduardo Villagomez, a bystander walking along the street. Villagomez slumped to the street. Tragically. an unsuspecting driver of a car drove over Villagomez’s stricken body. Villagomez died as a result of the bullet wound and the force of the vehicle.

After Anthony Williams’ discharge of gunfire, Kwame Bates ran from the power
pole and joined Lashawn Jameison behind the stationary Chrysler. Seconds after
Williams fired the first shot, Bates and Jameison stood, returned fire, and crouched again
behind the Chrysler. Jameison fired, at most, two shots toward Williams. Williams
returned additional shots toward Bates and Jameison. Bates rose again and returned fire as Williams entered the vehicle driven by his friend. The friend drove the vehicle from
the parking lot and club. Bates and Jameison entered the Camry and also departed the
neighborhood.

The State of Washington charged Lashawn Jameison with first degree murder by extreme indifference and, in the alternative, first degree manslaughter as the result of the
death of Eduardo Villagomez. The State acknowledged that Anthony Williams shot
Eduardo Villagomez but charged Jameison with accomplice liability. The State also
charged Jameison with fourteen counts of Drive-By Shooting as a result of Jameison’s
returning of gunfire. The fourteen charges arise from the presence of at least fourteen
club patrons in the vicinity at the time of the shooting.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Lashawn Jameison moved to dismiss the homicide charges pursuant to State v.
Knapstad. Jameison emphasized that the video of the scene and law enforcement officers’ reports and affidavits demonstrated beyond dispute that Anthony Williams killed the decedent while Jameison ducked behind a car, shielding himself from Williams’ attack. Jameison added that, because he had not fired a shot by the time Williams’ bullet struck Eduardo Villagomez and because he himself was a victim of Williams’ violence, he could not be guilty of murder even as an accomplice. Jameison posited the same arguments for the alternative charge of manslaughter.

Lashawn Jameison also moved to dismiss the Drive-By Shooting charges for insufficient evidence of recklessness. In the alternative, he argued that all but one count should be dismissed because he fired only one shot. He based the latter argument on law enforcement’s discovering, at the crime scene, only one shell casing matching his gun.

The trial court dismissed the first degree murder and first degree manslaughter
charges on the basis, in part, that Lashawn Jameison did not cause the death of Eduardo
Villagomez. The trial court also ruled that the unit of prosecution for drive-by shooting
charges was the number of shots fired by Jameison. Because of a dispute of fact as to
whether Jameison fired one or two shots, the trial court dismissed all but two of the
fourteen drive-by shooting counts.

The State requested and this court granted discretionary review of the trial court’s
dismissal of some of the pending charges. After we accepted discretionary review, this
court decided State v. Vasquez, which delineates the elements of a Drive-By Shooting prosecution. We requested that both parties address Vasquez during oral argument.

LEGAL ISSUES

  • Whether an accused, who, in response to an antagonist retrieving a gun, also arms himself and hides behind a vehicle, suffers Accomplice Liability for Homicide when, without the accused shooting his firearm, the antagonist fires his gun and the bullet strikes and kills an innocent bystander.
  • Whether the same accused may be convicted of a Drive-By Shooting when he retrieves a gun from the car in which he arrived to the scene of the homicide but crouches behind another car at the time he returns fire.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

First, the Court of Appeals described the legal mechanisms of a CrR 8.3 Motion to Dismiss and a Knapstad Motion to dismiss and reasoned that ultimately the two motions are essentially the same.

Next, and interestingly, the Court of Appeals engaged a semi-esoteric discussion on how to handle criminal cases involving the accomplice liability of co-defendants who give more than one version of events.

“We struggle in the abstract with what assay to employ when adjudging what reasonable inferences we may deduce from established facts,” said the Court. “Therefore, we first comb for definitions and synonyms for our key word ‘inference.'” The Court elaborated that our state high court has defined an “inference” as a logical deduction or conclusion from an established fact. for example, State v. Aten refers to a “reasonable and logical” inference, again suggesting that a permissible inference must be logical.

“Based on these definitions, we must summon logic, common sense, and experience in surmising additional or circumstantial facts from already established or direct facts. We hope that our experience coincides with common sense and our common sense abides logic.”

The Court further reasoned that when evidence is equally consistent with two hypotheses, the evidence tends to prove neither. We will not infer a circumstance when no more than a possibility is shown,” said the Court. “We are not justified in inferring, from mere possibilities the existence of facts.”

Moreover, the Court said that Washington law, if not the federal constitution, demands that inferences in the criminal setting be based only on likelihood, not possibility. When an inference supports an element of the crime, due process requires the presumed fact to flow more likely than not from proof of the basic fact. “Whether an inference meets the appropriate standard must be determined on a case-by-case basis in light of the particular evidence presented to the jury in each case.”

The Court concluded that we should not draw an inference that Lashawn Jameison agreed
to fight with Anthony Williams. “No evidence directly confirms that Jameison concurred in Williams shooting at Jameison’s direction. Experience, common sense and logic easily depict Williams acting on his own without any consent from Jameison or Bates.”

The Court of Appeals also said the State in essence portrays Lashawn Jameison and Anthony Williams as agreeing to a duel. “The totality of the undisputed facts, however, leads one to conclude that Jameison never consented to a duel,” said the Court. “Jameison retrieved his firearm only after Williams grabbed his weapon and in order to defend himself. He could have, but never did, shoot at Williams before Williams first shot in his direction.

HOMICIDE & ACCOMPLICE LIABILITY

The Court of Appeals described the accomplice liability statute. In short, a person is an accomplice of another person in the commission of a crime if, with knowledge that it will promote or facilitate the commission of the crime, he or she: (i) solicits, commands, encourages, or requests such other person to commit it; or (ii) aids or agrees to aid such other person in planning or committing it; or (iii) his or her conduct is expressly declared by law to establish his or her complicity.

The Court of Appeals held that under Washington case law, an accomplice must associate himself with the principal’s criminal undertaking, participate in it as something he desires to bring about, and seek by his action to make it succeed. Presence and knowledge alone are insufficient, absent evidence from which a readiness to assist or an intent to encourage could be inferred, to support a finding of accomplice liability.

Consequently, the Court of Appeals held that Lashawn Jameison never sought to assist Anthony Williams. “He never directly encouraged Williams to shoot either himself or Kwame Bates,” said the Court. Furthermore, the Court reasoned that Williams wanted to shoot or wound Bates or Jameison. Jameison did not seek this goal. Jameison and Williams acted as antagonists. “They entered any fight from opposite poles.”

“We find that the conduct of Jameison in arming himself and hiding behind a car from the bullets of Anthony Williams ineptly fulfills the meaning of “encouragement” and his situation borders on victimhood. In turn, imposing criminal liability on Jameison conflicts with general principles of accomplice liability and disserves policies behind imposing accomplice liability.”

DRIVE-BY SHOOTING

On this issue, the Court of Appeals addressed what constitutes the “immediate area” of a motor vehicle that transported the shooter.

The Court reasoned that under Drive-By Shooting statute, a person is guilty of drive-by shooting when he or she recklessly discharges a firearm in a manner which creates a substantial risk of death or serious physical injury to another person and the discharge is either from a motor vehicle or from the “immediate area” of a motor vehicle that was used to transport the shooter or the firearm, or both, to the scene of the discharge.

The Court also turned to State v. Vasquez and State v. Rodgers in fashioning language to assist in measuring the “immediate area” in individual circumstances. In State v. Vasquez, the Court ruled that “immediate area” was either inside the vehicle or from within a few feet or yards of the vehicle. Also, the crime of Drive-By Shooting applies to a shooter who is either inside a vehicle or within easy or immediate reach of the vehicle.

“In State v. Rodgers, the Supreme Court held two blocks did not fall within the immediate area. In State v. Vasquez, we held that a distance of sixty-three feet did not qualify as the immediate area.”

Consequently, the Court reasoned that here, When Lashawn Jameison fired his responding shots, Jameison likely stood closer than sixty-three feet of the Toyota Camry, the car in which he traveled to the Palomino Club.

“We hold that Jameison did not stand within the immediate area,” said the Court. “The obstacle of an additional car and a telephone pole stood between Jameison and the Camry. The Camry was not within his immediate reach. Jameison stood more than a few feet or yards from the Camry.”

CONCLUSION

With that, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the murder and manslaughter charges and twelve of fourteen drive-by shooting charges brought against Lashawn Jameison.

My opinion? This is an  excellent decision from the Court of Appeals. It is well written, and clarifies important definitions and legal terms applied to accomplice liability and Drive-By Shooting. Great opinion.

Vehicle Prowl Prior Convictions

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

BACKGROUND FACTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “Drug House” Statute

Image result for meth drug house

In State v. Menard, the WA Court of Appeals Division II reversed the lower court dismissal of charges of  Maintaining a Drug Dwelling under RCW 69.50.402.

BACKGROUND

The defendant Rodney Menard owned and lived at his home in Yakima. Menard lived at the home since he was 5 years old. He rented rooms to five individuals, occasionally received methamphetamine from tenants as rent payment, consumed twenty dollars’ worth of methamphetamine per day, and possessed drug pipes. Menard knew his tenants used methamphetamine, but denied knowledge of the use of his home for methamphetamine sales.

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) received complaints of drug traffic from Menard’s home. On July 15, 2015, a DEA confidential informant purchased approximately a gram of methamphetamine at Menard’s home. On July 23, 2015, the DEA Task Force conducted a narcotics search. The front door was unlocked. Rodney Menard and thirteen other individuals were present when law enforcement officers entered the residence. In a basement bedroom, a lady rested on a small couch with a bag of methamphetamine next to her pillow.

Law enforcement officers spoke with Rodney Menard and other residents of the home. When asked if people who visit take drugs, Menard answered: “most people do.” Two renters informed the officers that 10 to 15 different people came daily to the house to use drugs. Menard claimed he unsuccessfully tried to end the heavy traffic at the house. Officers confiscated drug paraphernalia and 25.5 grams of drugs inside the home.

MOTION TO DISMISS

Menard was charged with Maintaining a Drug Dwelling under RCW 69.50.402. He filed a Knapstad motion under arguments that (1) his conduct is unlawful only if the drug activity constituted the residence’s major purpose, and (2) selling drugs was not the primary purpose of the residence. The trial court granted Menard’s motion to dismiss. The State appealed.

LAW & ANALYSIS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that under Washington law, a defendant may present a pretrial motion to dismiss a charge when the State lacks ability to prove all of the elements of the crime. RCW 69.50.402(1), known colloquially as the “Drug House” Statute, declares:

It is unlawful for any person: ( f) Knowingly to keep or maintain any … dwelling, building … or other structure or place, which is resorted to by persons using controlled substances in violation of this chapter for the purpose of using these substances, or which is used for keeping or selling them in violation of this chapter.

Here, Menard argued that he may be found guilty of maintaining a drug dwelling only if he maintains the home for the principal purpose of facilitating the use of controlled substances. However, the Court of Appeals disagreed.

The court reasoned that to convict under the “Drug House” Statute, the evidence must demonstrate more than a single isolated incident of illegal drug activity in order to prove that the defendant “maintains” the premises for keeping or selling a controlled substance.

The Court further reasoned that sporadic or isolated incidents of drug use are not enough to prove criminal conduct. Here, however, there was substantial evidence that people other than Menard used drugs in the house. Apparently, 10 to 15 people each day entered the home to use drugs. When police searched the house, fourteen people, some of whom admitted to use of methamphetamine, occupied the premises. One resident rested methamphetamine near her pillow. Officers found drug devices scattered throughout the home. When asked if people who visit take drugs, Menard answered: “most people do.”

With that, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s dismissal of charges.

Gift Cards Are “Access Devices”

In State v. Nelson, the WA Court of Appeals Division II reversed the dismissal of the defendant’s case and decided a gift card is, in fact, an access device.

Defendant Angel Rose Marie Nelson was a Kmart employee. A surveillance video showed that Nelson left her cash register three times to retrieve an empty gift card, then activated each card by adding funds to it without adding cash to the cash register.

She activated an Amazon.com gift card for $100, a MasterCard gift card for roughly $205, and a JoAnn’s Fabric & Craft Store gift card for $25. She later used at least two of these cards.

The State charged Nelson with one count of second degree theft of an access device and one count of second degree possession of a stolen access device. Nelson moved to dismiss the charges under CrR 8.3(c) and Knapstad motion. She argued that the term “access device” could not include gift cards. The superior court granted Nelson’s motion, ruling that, as a matter of law, a gift card is not an access device. The State appealed.

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of Nelson’s case.

First, the Court reasoned that, under MERRIAM-WEBSTER UNABRIDGED DICTIONARY, gift cards can access an account because the plain meaning of the word “account” is broad enough to cover a gift card’s balance:

“Under this definition, a gift card can access an account as described above. It is a card that can be used to receive goods or services of a specified value. A gift card thus shows a resulting balance. It is a device that can be used to access a record of a business relationship with outstanding credits, debits, or obligations, and a sum of money—that is, an account.”

In conclusion, the Court held that the definition of “access device” can include gift cards so long as they are a means of account access. The word “account” is not limited to a bank account because the plain language of the statute includes no such limitation. The funds to which a gift card provides access can be an account under this statute.

Wire Cutters Are NOT Theft Tools.

In State v. Larson, the WA Supreme Court overruled the WA Court of Appeals and decided that the crime of Retail Theft With Special Circumstances under RCW 9A.56.360(1)(b), which elevates theft to a more serious offense when the defendant is in possession of “an item, article, implement or device designed to overcome security systems,” only applies to an item that is created – whether by the manufacturer or the defendant – with the specific purpose of disabling or evading security systems.

Defendant Zachary Larson attempted to steal a $32 pair of shoes from a Marshall’s store in Bellingham, WA. The shoes were equipped with a security device that was attached to the shoes by wire. Yet, Larson, using wire cutters that he had brought into the store, severed the wire and removed the security device. When Larson tried to leave the store, he was stopped by security employees and, subsequently, was charged with one count of Retail Theft with Special circumstances, which criminalizes the commission of retail theft while in possession of a “device designed to overcome security systems.”

While the case was pending, Larson argued a Knapstad motion to dismiss. The trial court denied the motion and found Larson guilty as charged. He was sentenced to 60 days of confinement. Larson appealed. Ultimately, the Court of Appeals confirmed Larson’s conviction. Larson appealed again to the WA Supreme Court.

The WA Supreme Court addressed the specific issue of whether ordinary wire cutters are “designed to overcome security systems” within the context of retail theft.

The Court reasoned that whenever it must interpret the meaning and scope of a statute, “our fundamental objective is to determine and give effect to the intent of the legislature.” Furthermore,  lined bags and tag removers – of which the Defendant did not possess – are highly specialized tools with little to no utility outside of the commission of retail theft. “From this fact, it can be reasonably inferred that there is no reason a person would be in possession of these items except to facilitate retail theft.”

Furthermore, reasoned the court we must interpret statutes to avoid absurd results:

For example, where a person slips a stolen item into his pocket to hide it from a store’s security camera, the pocket has arguably become a “device designed to overcome security systems.” Similarly, a person who happens to have in her pocket a pair of nail clippers, a Leatherman multi tool, or any other tool that people commonly carry with them, at the time she shoplifts would be guilty of retail theft with extenuating circumstances. As these practical examples demonstrate, the State’s over-inclusive approach belies the statute’s primary purpose of capturing retail theft that occurs under certain aggravating circumstances.

The Court concluded that the plain language of the Retail Theft statute indicates that the legislature intended the statute to have a narrow scope:

We hold that “designed to overcome security systems” for the purposes of retail theft . . . is limited to those items, articles, implements, or devices created-whether by the defendant or manufacturer-with the specialized purpose of overcoming security systems. Ordinary tools, such as pliers or the wire cutters used by Larson, do not fall within the scope . . .  The evidence is insufficient to support Larson’s conviction for third degree retail theft with extenuating circumstances, and we reverse the Court of Appeals.

My opinion? Good decision. In interpreting the statute, the WA Supreme Court correctly applied a narrow scope because, quite frankly, any household tool found in the pockets of an alleged thief can be viewed as a tool “designed to overcome security systems.” This is unjust. Retail Theft With Special Circumstances is a Class C felony exposing defendants up to 5 years prison and a $10,000 fine. That’s quite serious. Do we want to punish thieves with Class C felonies for stealing shoes from Marshall’s store while carrying a Swiss Army knife in their pocket? Do these circumstances warrant sending people to prison? No. The WA Supreme Court got this one right.

State v. Bentura-Ozuna: Letter Found in Jail Cell Supports Conviction for Witness Intimidation

In State v. Bentura-Ozuna, the WA Supreme Court held that the defendant committed the crime of Intimidating a Witness  under RCW 9A.72.110(2) when a letter found in his jail cell directed a threat to a former witness because of the witness’s role in an official proceeding. The statute defines a “threat” to mean “to communicate, directly or indirectly, the intent to harm another.”

Here, In June 2010, Ozuna was incarcerated in the Yakima County Department of Corrections (Yakima County Jail). Ozuna was awaiting sentencing for a prior conviction. The conduct underlying that conviction involved Augustine Jaime Avalos, a member of the same gang as Ozuna. Avalos had testified against Ozuna in Ozuna’s underlying trial and was also incarcerated in the Yakima County Jail.

On June 8, when Ozuna was moved from one prison cell to another, a corrections officer found two unstamped, unsealed letters in his possession. The deputy opened the letters. One letter was meaningless to this issue. The other letter said the following:

Ey homie, I just got your (unreadable). Well it was a blessing to hear from you. It put’s a smile on my face to know that your ready to ride for me. . .. As you already know, I agreed to a plea deal for 10 years 9 months cause of a pussy that don’t know how to ride or Die. He would rather break weak than to honor our sacred code of silence. He is now marked a rat and a piece of shit in my book He has sealed his fate and now it’s just a matter of time. He rode with me and was given my trust and he decided to dishonor that privaledge …. [A ]11 I can say for that fool is, you know what time it is. You guys let him live in luxery for way to long already. . . How can you live with a rata like that and still be able to rest in peace in that puto’s presence? I hope and pray for satisfaction before I leave this building and may that fool suffer and Die in his rat hole. Fucken snitch bitch rat! … That puto took 10 years of my life and a fucken leva from my barrio, “my big homie” “Gorge” is living in the same house as him …. Gorge could of did something but just decided to let that puta slide and live under the same roof with him …. Tell that fool he’s a piece of shit just like him. Let’em know that this is Campana Gang! He put’s the crack in our bell. No loyalty, no honor, no heart! … Tell’ em he’s as good as dead to me.

Let that fool feel the wrath and let’ em know the rata that he is and tell’em that I siad that bad things come to those that snitch. May he rest in piss … So now you know what I want primo, don’t hesitate vato. Take action, reep the rewards later. Don’t think, just act. … Hit me up later after the shit get’s handled. Do it on the 25 cause that’s when I have court, and I want to have a smile on my face that day knowing that … fool’s getting a lil taste of what’s coming to him. The 25 is the day I get sentenced. Good looking out Primo, don’t let me down fucker! … Tell’em that Vanessa’s gonna be the one to set him up for us, mark my words! Show him how set ups are done. There just waiting for him to get out. … Lol. … Satisfaction will be mine! Let’ em know that he fucked up.

On July 9, Avalos was assaulted by inmate David Soto while in a courthouse holding room. Avalos received stiches at the hospital for his injuries. The inmates who were present when Avalos was injured were not cooperative. Ozuna was not present during the assault.

At trial, the Prosecution produced ample testimony confirming that there was a threat to another person in the letter, however,  no evidence established that the letter was delivered to anyone before the officer confiscated it.

The State also produced expert testimony about gang culture from a Sunnyside Police Department officer who worked in the Yakima area and was knowledgeable about the local gangs, as well as the individuals at issue here.

Similarly, two other officers from the Yakima County Jail discussed the status of being a “shot caller” or “tank boss,” meaning someone who has elevated decision-making authority within a gang or prison. One officer testified that Ozuna was a “shot caller” in the Yakima County Jail.

Before trial, Ozuna argued a Knapstad motion to Dismiss the charge for lack of evidence. Defense counsel argued that “directing a threat at somebody means not keeping it to yourself; it means directing it to somebody, not necessarily … to the intended victim, but to somebody. The Court denied the Knapstad motion to dismiss.

The trial proceeded, and the jury returned a verdict convicting Ozuna of Intimidating a Former Witness. The trial court entered judgment and imposed an exceptional sentence of 10 years based on the jury’s finding of gang-related aggravating factors. Ozuna appealed.

The WA Supreme Court reasoned that a communication must be transmitted and received. However, a person may “direct a threat” under the intimidation of a former witness without that threat being communicated to the threat’s target. “The threat may be transmitted to a third party.” Consequently, there was sufficient evidence at trial for a rational jury to find that Ozuna directed a threat to a third party or to Avalos himself.

The court further reasoned that Ozuna had the state of mind, motivation, and opportunity to direct a threat regarding Avalos. Avalos had been a longtime gang member with Ozuna, and Avalos testified against Ozuna. They were incarcerated in the same prison. Ozuna had gang allies in the prison. Avalos had enemies. Furthermore, testimony from witnesses established the gang follows a strict “no snitch” code, enforced by violent retaliation.

Here, Ozuna’s confiscated letter reveals his state of mind. It said, for example, “Let that fool feel the wrath and let’ em know the rata that he is and tell him that I siad that bad things come to those that snitch. May he rest in piss.” Additionally, the jury could consider the timing of Avalos’s assault by a member of Ozuna’s gang, David Soto. “The evidence is sufficient insofar as it establishes Ozuna’s state of mind, motivation, and opportunity to direct a threat regarding Avalos.”

The WA Supreme Court affirmed Ozuna’s conviction.

State v. Larson: Retail Theft With Extenuating Circumstances

Interesting opinion.

In State v. Larson wire cutters, which were used to sever the wire that attached a department store security device to a pair of Nike shoes, are a “device designed to overcome security systems” for purposes of RCW 9A.56.360(1)(b). 

Defendant Zachary Larson attempted to steal a pair of shoes from a retail store. The shoes were equipped with a security device that was attached to the shoes by wire. Yet, Larson, using wire cutters that he had brought into the store, severed the wire and removed the security device. When Larson tried to leave the store, he was stopped by security employees and, subsequently, was charged with one count of Retail Theft with Extenuating circumstances under RCW 9A.56.360(1)(b), which criminalizes the commission of retail theft while in possession of a “device designed to overcome security systems.”

While the case was pending, he argued a Knapstad motion seeking dismissal of the charge. Therein, he argued that, as a matter of law, wire cutters do not constitute a “device designed to overcome security systems.” The trial court denied his Knapstad motion. On December 18, the trial court found Larson guilty as charged. He was sentenced to 60 days of confinement. Larson appealed on the argument that the trial court improperly denied his Knapstad motion and that wire cutters do, in fact, constitute a device designed to overcome security systems.

The court disagreed with Larson and stated the following:

“The plain meaning of the statute reveals the legislature’s intent to punish thieves who, anticipating that the possession ofa device which may be able to foil a store’s security system will be expedient to their cause, commit retail theft while in possession of such a device. In recognition of the fact that wire cutters are designed to cut wire, which is a common feature ofsecurity systems, we hold that, within the meaning of former RCW 9A.56.360(1 )(b), wire cutters constitute a ‘device designed to overcome security systems.'”

The Court also reasoned that the Division II Court of Appeals decision in State v. Reeves, ___ Wn. App. ___, 336 P.3d 105 (2014) – a recent opinion which held that “ordinary pliers” do not constitute a device designed to overcome security systems – was wrongfully decided :

“To exclude wire cutters from the statute’s reach on the basis that wire cutters may be used in other settings to achieve different ends would frustrate the legislature’s intent, while providing those inclined to commit retail theft with an unmistakable incentive to employ “ordinary devices,” as characterized by the Reeves court, to pursue their nefarious ends. Surely, the legislature did not intend such a result.”

With that, the Court upheld Larson’s conviction.

State v. Reeves: Retail Theft Charges Dismissed With Knapstad Motion

Good case. Recently, the WA Court of Appeals upheld a trial court’s decision to grant a defendant’s Knapstad motion to dismiss a charge of Retail Theft With Extenuating Circumstances.

http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/D2%2044811-4-II%20%20Published%20Opinion.pdf

The Defendant was accused of using  a pair of ordinary pliers to remove an anti-theft secutory device at a store. He was caught and charged with Retail Theft With Extenuating Circumstances. His attorney argued a Knapstad motion to dismiss on the basis that ordinary pliers were not “an item, article, implement or device designed to overcome security systems including, but not limited to, lined bags or tag removers. The judge granted the motion and reasoned that including common tools into the definition of devices designed to overcome security systems would render every act of removing a security device an extenuating circumstance. The State appealed.

Some background on Knapstad motions is necessary. In State v. Knapstad, 107 Wash.2d 346 (1986), the Supreme Court created a procedure similar to summary judgment in a civil case, under which a criminal defendant can, by way of pre-trial motion, challenge the sufficiency of the prosecution’s evidence. In essence, if the prosecution cannot show by competent affidavit that it has a prima facie case of guilt on all elements, the court must dismiss the charge. In evaluating sufficiency of evidence, the court looks at the undisputed material facts already in the court record from the finding of probable cause, and ascertains whether as a matter of law, the prosecution has established a prima facie showing of guilt. For more information on Knapstad Motions, please read my Legal Guide titled, “Dismissing Cases Through Knapstad Motions.” http://www.avvo.com/legal-guides/ugc/getting-cases-dismissed-through-knapstad-motions

Likewise, some background on the felony charge of Retail Theft With Extenuating Circumstances. Under former RCW 9A.5.360(1)(b), an extenuating circumstance for retail Theft charges includes being in possession of an item, article, implement, or device designed to overcome security systems including, but not litmited to, lined bags or tag removers.

 Here, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s dismissal pursuant to the defendant’s Knapstad motion. They reasoned the criminal statute was ambiguous about the definition of the class of “tools” which created the aggravating factor of “Retail Theft.”

Also, the “Rule of Lenity” made another basis for upholding the trial court’s decision: “Because the language of former RCW 9A.56.360(1)(b) is ambiguous, we first turn to the principles of statutory construction, the legislative history and the statutory scheme to determine the legislature’s intent. If this analysis still does not clearly show the legislature’s intent, the Rule of Lenity requires us to interpret the statute in Reeve’s favor.” Here, the Court ruled that the principles of statutory construction and an analysis of the legislative history and statutory scheme do not resolve the ambiguity of the statute in the State’s favor. For these reasons, the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision.

My opinion? Good decision. Both the trial court and the court of Appeals got it right.