Category Archives: Rape

Silver Platter Doctrine

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In State v. Martinez, the WA Court of Appeals held that the defendant’s computer hard drive which Texas police seized in Texas pursuant to a search warrant was lawfully searched by the Washington State Patrol without a Washington search warrant under the silver platter doctrine.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Carlos Martinez began working at the Monroe Police Department in 1989. He worked in several capacities, including as a Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program instructor. While working as a D.A.R.E. instructor, Martinez met A.K., who was in fifth grade at the time.

Beginning in 2001 or 2002, when A.K. was 13 or 14 years old, she began baby-sitting Martinez’s two young children.  A.K. also came to the Martinezes’ house when she was not baby-sitting. She would sometimes show up unannounced. She would help Martinez with chores and do her schoolwork at the house. At the time, Martinez was married to his then-wife Julie West.

Apparently, Martinez began touching A.K. in a sexual manner when she was 14. He also set up a video camera in the bathroom and digitally recorded her when she used the facilities.

Ms. West went on vacation. During that time, A.K. stayed at the family home. When Ms. West returned from vacation, she discovered a love note from A.K. to Martinez. She also discovered a video recording that Martinez had made of A.K. getting out of the shower and stored on the family computer. West confronted Martinez about the recording. He said he wanted to see if A.K. had cut herself on the kitchen knife as she had claimed. West claimed that when she asked Martinez why he still had the recording on the computer, he responded that it was “nice to look at.”

Not long after this, A.K. and her family moved from Monroe to Eastern Washington. Martinez and A.K. kept in touch. Martinez claims that in February 2007 they began a consensual sexual relationship when A.K. was 18 years old. In fall 2009, the Army recalled Martinez to active duty and stationed him in San Antonio, Texas. A.K. moved to Texas to be with him. They lived together for a short time.

After their relationship deteriorated in October or November 2011, Martinez gave A.K. the video recordings that he made of her in his bathroom in 2004. A.K. testified that Martinez told her he wanted to watch the tapes one last time and masturbate to them. She claimed he asked her to touch him as well. A short time later, A.K. contacted the Texas police to turn over the tapes. She also told the Texas police that she began an intimate relationship with Martinez some time before she was 16. Later, she contacted WSP.

The Texas police obtained a warrant to search Martinez’s home and seize his laptop computer and digital media storage devices. Then, a grand jury was convened in Texas to consider a possession of child pornography charge. But the grand jury refused to indict, returning a “no bill.” The case was dismissed. Texas police made a mirror image of Martinez’s computer hard drive and, at WSP’s request, sent it to WSP. Without obtaining a separate warrant, WSP searched this mirror image hard drive. Texas police also sent WSP two actual laptop computers and hard drives seized from Martinez. After obtaining a warrant, WSP searched those items.

The State initially charged Martinez with two counts of voyeurism, two counts of child molestation, one count of rape of a child in the third degree, and one count of possession of depictions of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct. Later, the State dismissed the molestation and rape charges. It tried Martinez on only one count of voyeurism and one count of possession of depictions of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct.

The jury found Martinez guilty on both counts. Because the voyeurism charge occurred outside the statute of limitations, the trial court dismissed that count and convicted him on only the possession count.

ISSUES

The Court of Appeals accepted review on the issues of (1) whether the warrantless search of Martinez’s computer hard drive was lawful when Texas police – and not WA law enforcement – searched the computer, and (2) whether spousal privilege applies to suppress the testimony of his ex-wife at trial.

SHORT ANSWER

The Court of Appeals held that (1) the silver platter doctrine allowed the Washington State Patrol to later examine the hard drive without a warrant, and (2) because Martinez acted
as a guardian to the victim, the spousal privilege does not apply here.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that Fourth Amendment guarantees the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.  If a government action intrudes upon an individual’s “reasonable expectation of privacy,” a search occurs under the Fourth Amendment. Furthermore, the Washington Constitution provides greater protection of a person’s privacy rights than does the Fourth Amendment. Article 1, section 7 of the Washington Constitution focuses on those privacy interests which citizens of this state have held, and should be entitled to hold, safe from governmental trespass absent a warrant.

Silver Platter Doctrine

Under the Silver Platter Doctrine, however, evidence lawfully obtained under the laws of another jurisdiction is admissible in Washington courts even if the manner the evidence was obtained would violate Washington law. Evidence is admissible under this doctrine when (1) the foreign jurisdiction lawfully obtained evidence and (2) the forum state’s officers did not act as agents or cooperate or assist the foreign jurisdiction.

“Martinez does not dispute that Texas lawfully obtained the hard drive,” reasoned the Court of Appeals. “And he does not challenge the trial court’s findings that Washington State Patrol (WSP) had no involvement in obtaining or serving the Texas warrant and that Texas police did not act as agents of WSP when they obtained or served the warrant.” Thus, under the silver platter doctrine, the evidence was admissible.

Next, the Court of Appeals rejected Martinez’ arguments that the silver platter doctrine does not apply here because the Texas officers did not conduct any search that would be unlawful in Washington. “The doctrine requires that the State show only two things: (1) the search was lawful in Texas and (2) the Washington officers did not act as agents for Texas or cooperate or assist Texas in any way,” said the Court. “Because the State proved this, the doctrine applies.”

Search Warrant

Next, Martinez argued that the warrant issued in Washington allowing the WSP to search his laptop computers and hard drives was overbroad. In response, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the Fourth Amendment provides that “no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” Furthermore, the search warrant particularity requirement helps prevent general searches, the seizure of objects on the mistaken assumption that they fall within the issuing magistrate’s authorization, and the issuance of warrants on loose, vague, or doubtful bases of fact.

“When a search warrant authorizes a search for materials protected by the First Amendment, a greater degree of particularity is required, and we employ a more stringent test,” said the Court. “While the First Amendment presumptively protects obscene books and films, it does not protect child pornography involving actual minors.” Also, the Court of Appeals raised and dismissed Martinez’ arguments that the warrant was invalid for other reasons as well.

Spousal Privilege

The Court of Appeals addressed Martinez’ arguments that the trial court mistakenly admitted the testimony of his ex-wife regarding a conversation she shared with Mr. Martinez’ video of A.K. as being “nice to look at.” The Court reasoned that generally, a current or former spouse cannot be examined about confidential communications made during the marriage without the consent of the other spouse. It also explained that the marital privilege rule tries to encourage the free interchange of confidences between husband and wife that are necessary for mutual understanding and trust. “But in some situations the policies that underlie the right to invoke a testimonial privilege are outweighed by the suppression of truth that may result,” said the Court. “Thus, this spousal privilege does not apply in a criminal proceeding for a crime committed against a child for whom the spouse is a parent or guardian.”

The Court reasoned that here, West merely repeated statements by Martinez and did not comment about her belief in Martinez’s guilt. “We agree that these facts are sufficient for the jury to conclude that Martinez kept the recording for the purpose of sexual stimulation and that West’s testimony that Martinez said the recording was ‘nice to look at’ could not have materially affected the outcome of the trial,” said the Court.

Finally, the Court of Appeals raised and dismissed Martinez’ arguments that there was prosecutorial misconduct and ineffective assistance of counsel. “The Prosecutor’s general references were unlikely to have affected the jury’s verdict in light of the other incriminating evidence,” said the Court. Furthermore, Martinez does not show that his counsel’s failure to object to the Prosecutor’s case presentation was unreasonable and/or was not strategic.

With that, the Court of Appeals upheld Martinez’ conviction and sentence.

ER 404(B) and “Lustful Disposition”

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In State v. Gonzales, the WA Court of Appeals held that a trial court did not commit error in admitting evidence that, after the charged conduct, the victim observed the defendant masturbating while holding the victim’s bra.

BACKGROUND FACTS

When J.G. was six years old, she and her younger brother moved in with their grandfather, defendant Eddy Gonzales and his wife. This sexual abuse ended when J.G. was ten or eleven years old. But after the molestation stopped, J.G. once encountered Gonzales masturbating in his room while holding her bra.

When J.G. was eleven years old, she moved out of the house. She informed family members of the molestation. They, in turn, contacted police; who later arrested Mr. Gonzales.

Gonzales was charged with first degree rape of a child and first degree child molestation. The State later added a second count of first degree child rape and charged him with tampering with a witness.

At trial, the Court admitted testimony that he masturbated while holding J.G.’s bra.

The jury acquitted Gonzales of one count of first degree child rape, but found him guilty of the remaining charges. Among other issues not discussed here, Gonzales appealed on the issue of whether the trial court wrongfully admitted that evidence. He argued this uncharged misconduct goes to propensity and should be excluded under ER 404(b). He argues the trial court wrongfully admitted this testimony to show his “lustful disposition” toward J.G., particularly because it occurred after the charged conduct.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

First, the Court of Appeals described the rules of evidence which allow or disallow the evidence from getting to the jury. In short, (ER) 404(b) provides that evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith. It may, however, be admissible for “other purposes.”

Consequently, the Court reasoned that Washington courts have consistently held one such other purpose is evidence of collateral sexual misconduct when it shows the defendant’s lustful disposition toward the victim. This is because a lustful disposition makes it more likely that the defendant committed the crime charged. Evidence of uncharged sexual misconduct occurring before or after the charged acts is admissible. In an ER 404(b) analysis, the trial court must balance and weigh probative value against the potential for unfair prejudice.

Second, the Court of Appeals applied the law to its reasoning. It said that here, the trial court admitted J.G.’s testimony that she saw Gonzales masturbating while holding her bra. The trial court reasoned that Gonzales’s behavior was sexual conduct that showed lustful disposition toward J.G. The trial court also found that the probative value of the evidence was not outweighed by unfair prejudice.

“The trial court did not abuse its discretion,” said the Court of Appeals. “Gonzales’s action shows a sexual desire for J.G. Thus, it goes toward an ‘other purpose’ as provided under ER 404(b).”

Third, the Court of Appeals rejected Gonzales’s arguments that any uncharged sexual misconduct is unfairly prejudicial in a sex abuse prosecution. It reasoned that the admitted evidence was not unfairly prejudicial because his act was not more inflammatory than the charged crime, and J.G. was only indirectly victimized by it.

Finally, the Court of Appeals rejected Gonzales’s arguments that the admitted testimony had diminished probative value because the incident occurred after the alleged abuse. The Court of Appeals reasoned that an act occurring after the charged abuse is relevant to lustful disposition. It was not an abuse of discretion to conclude that the probative value of this testimony was not outweighed by unfair prejudice.

With that, the Court of appeals affirm the admission of the “lustful disposition” testimony under ER 404(b) and upheld Mr. Gonzalez’s conviction.

My opinion?

It’s tricky to predict whether judges will admit or deny evidence when the evidence is offered for “other purposes” under ER 404(b). Judges have lots of discretion an how and where the rule applies. Still, judges must follow the doctrine of stare decisis and make rulings which are consistent existing case law when rendering decisions.

Fortunately, I’m quite familiar with the case law on this subject. Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member faces charges and the State wants to offer evidence of the offender’s behavior which falls outside the scope of the immediate facts that are alleged. Perhaps a well-argued pretrial motion to suppress evidence could change the complexion of the case and result in reducing or dismissing the charges.

Bla Bla Bla

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In State v. Boyd, the WA Court of Appeals held that a prosecutor improperly disrespects defense counsel by using “bla, bla, bla” to describe opposing counsel’s argument. This phrase is both disrespectful and dismissive.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In February 1998, when he was 23 years old, Jayson Boyd had sex with a 15 year old. In 1999, he pleaded guilty to rape of a child in the third degree. He was required to register as a sex offender under RCW 9A.44.130 and RCW 9A.44.140. Since his conviction in 1999, Boyd has been convicted of failure to register as a sex offender three times.

Boyd is homeless, has a ninth or tenth grade education, and is mentally ill. At the time of his crime in 1998, homeless sex offenders were not required to register as sex offenders because they did not have addresses. The legislature subsequently amended the statute to require homeless sex offenders who lacked a fixed address to update the county sheriff weekly, in person, of their whereabouts.

Boyd largely complied with the registration requirement but pleaded guilty to
crimes of failure to register in 2009, 2010, and 2013.

In March 2015, the State charged Boyd with failure to register as a sex offender between January 27, 2015 and February 10, 2015.  The court ordered a competency evaluation after Boyd rambled incoherently during a pretrial hearing. A month later, after Boyd was found competent to stand trial, the court held another hearing. At that hearing, the court issued a scheduling order, which Boyd signed, setting the next hearing date for November 6, 2015. While explaining the order to Boyd, however, the court misspoke—it told Boyd that he needed to appear on December 6, 2015. After Boyd failed to appear on November 6, 2015, the Prosecutor added a charge for bail jumping.

During closing arguments, the Prosecutor appeared to have given a mocking and deragatory tone. After the jury retired to deliberate, Boyd’s defense attorney  moved for a mistrial based on prosecutorial misconduct:

“During the prosecutor’s first closing argument, it was normal in tone, very even and level. And the rebuttal closing argument after I had given my closing, she started out and then repeatedly throughout that closing argument, either pretending she was me or Mr. Boyd, but was kind of in a sing-song tone, a complaining child-like type tone of voice when mentioning the barriers that my client faces as a homeless person and saying “bla, bla, bla,” and this was something that was repeated throughout the closing argument. And so I’d be making a motion for a mistrial based on—based on the prosecutor’s tone of
voice during the closing argument.”

The trial court denied the motion, explaining: “I did not hear what I consider to be a mocking or derogatory tone.” While the trial court agreed that the prosecutor used a different tone than her normal speech tone, it concluded that “having listened to many, many, many closing arguments, there was nothing in the tone that I heard that was derogatory or mocking or anything that grabbed my attention as being out of line, inappropriate or unprofessional.”

Boyd was convicted by a jury as charged and sentenced to 45 months in prison.

THE APPEAL

On appeal, one of the issues was whether the trial court abused its discretion by denying Boyd’s motion for a mistrial based on prosecutorial misconduct.

COURT’S ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals said that the inquiry on prosecutorial misconduct consists of two prongs: (1) whether the prosecutor’s comments were improper and (2) if so, whether the improper comments caused prejudice. To show prejudice, the defendant must show a substantial likelihood that the prosecutor’s statements affected the jury’s verdict. The defendant bears the burden of showing that the comments were improper or prejudicial.

Here, the prosecutor’s references to Boyd’s “barriers” and chaotic life are not improper remarks about his homelessness, poverty, or mental illness because they rebut the very defense advanced by Boyd’s counsel—that complying with the law was “too much” for him because of his “barriers.” But we find that the prosecutor impugned defense counsel by stating “And again, Boyd’s Defense Counsel talks about chaos in his life, barriers, bla, bla, bla. No evidence of that.”

“Using ‘bla, bla, bla’ to refer to an opposing counsel’s argument is both disrespectful and dismissive. Although the statement does not imply deception or dishonesty like ‘crock,’ it implies that the arguments are unworthy of consideration and may be dismissed offhand. We find the statement was improper.”

Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals was not convinced that the Prosecutor’s statements during trial affected the jury’s verdict. “The court did not abuse its discretion by denying Boyd’s motion for a mistrial,” said the Court, and upheld Boyd’s conviction and sentence.

THE DISSENT

Justice Becker’s dissent focused on how poverty issues negatively impact justice as homelessness applies to offenders who have a duty to register:

“Our (failure to register) statute has grown steadily harsher, especially as applied to homeless offenders. I believe it is time to reconsider the ex post facto analysis of the statute in light of the changes since State v. Ward. I would join the jurisdictions holding that frequent in-person reporting requirements render a registration statute so punitive that applying it retroactively violates the constitution. I would reverse Boyd’s conviction and remand for dismissal with prejudice.”

My opinion? “Bl bla bla” issues aside, I agree with the dissenting Justice Becker when she says that frequent in-person reporting requirements render a registration statute so punitive that applying it retroactively violates the constitution. Being homeless is difficult enough by itself. Requiring homeless people to register under Washington’s rigorous “Duty to Register” statute is incredibly difficult, if not nearly impossible, for homeless people to follow and obey. As a a result, the law unequally punishes sex offenders for being homeless. That’s simply not fair.

Glaring During Trial

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In State v. Sagethe WA Court of Appeals held that a trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying the defendant’s motion for a mistrial based upon the victim’s behavior – glaring at the defendant – when called to the stand.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Jonathan Sage faced four counts of second degree rape of a child. He was alleged to have engaged in sexual acts with minors J.M. and E.M., and came into contact with the two brothers because he owned a company at which J.M. and E.M.’s mother worked.

The case proceeded to trial. During proceedings, the victim E.M. glared at Sage as he entered the courtroom. Sage’s defense attorney objected and requested an immediate mistrial. He described the interaction as follows:

“E.M. walked past defense counsel and hissed at the Defendant, bent down, and made an aggressive stare. As best as I could tell, the jurors looked horrified. Their reaction is clear that the stance or that moment is going to live in their minds as opposed to what he
testifies to. My client has a right to a fair trial, to be presumed innocent, and I don’t know that he can get a fair trial with this jury after that behavior.”

Although the trial judge sustained defense counsel’s objection, the court denied the motion for mistrial and instructed the jury to disregard E.M.’s behavior.

The jury convicted Sage on all four counts and, by special verdict, found the alleged aggravating circumstances had been established. The court concluded the aggravating circumstances were substantial and compelling reasons to impose an exceptional sentence.

Sage appealed his conviction and his exceptional sentence under the argument that his motion for a mistrial should have been granted because E.M.’s courtroom behavior prejudiced the jury.

COURT’S ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that a trial court should only grant a mistrial when the defendant has been so prejudiced that nothing short of a new trial can ensure that the defendant will be fairly tried. To determine the effect of the irregularity leading to the request for a mistrial, the court examines: (i) its seriousness; (ii) whether it involved cumulative evidence; and (iii) whether the trial court properly instructed the jury to disregard it.

“Here, E.M. entered the courtroom and glared at Sage,” said the Court of Appeals. “The trial court denied Sage’s motion for mistrial and entered a detailed ruling on the record. Unlike a verbal outburst or threatening gesture, E.M. glared at Sage. The court gave a curative instruction. E.M. did not repeat the behavior after the trial court instructed the jury to disregard the behavior,” said the Court of Appeals. “We conclude the trial court did not abuse its discretion.” Also, the Court of Appeals upheld Sage’s exceptional sentence based on aggravating factors.

With that, the Court upheld Sage’s conviction and exceptional sentence.

Vacating Convictions

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In State v. Lambert, the WA Court of Appeals held that when an offender has been convicted of an offense that is a crime against a person, the record of that conviction may not be vacated. Third degree statutory rape is a crime against a person.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In 1986, when Lambert was nineteen years old, he was charged with third degree statutory rape. The charge was based on an incident involving a victim fifty-five months younger than Lambert. Lambert pleaded guilty as charged.

Lambert was sentenced in May 1987. The law at that time said that the record of conviction for statutory rape could be vacated, in the trial court’s discretion, after the offender satisfied his sentence and completed five years after discharge without a new conviction.

In July 1987, however, the law concerning vacation of the record of conviction was amended. Under the new law, statutory rape in the third degree was defined as a crime against persons that could not be vacated.

In 1988, the legislature enacted broad changes to the criminal code concerning sex offenses. The sections defining statutory rape in each degree were replaced with provisions defining three degrees of rape of a child. “Rape of a child” replaced “statutory rape” in the list of crimes against persons that could not be vacated.

In 2016, Lambert moved to vacate the record of his conviction. He argued that the 1988 amendments did not apply retroactively and the trial court thus had discretion to vacate the record of conviction for his offense, third degree statutory rape. The trial court ruled that Lambert was “not eligible to have his conviction vacated because rape of a child third degree is a crime against a person.” Lambert appealed.

LEGAL ISSUE

Whether statutory rape in the third degree is a crime against a person that may not be vacated.

ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

“The legislature expressly designated statutory rape in the third degree, and that crime as it ‘may be renamed in the future,’ as a non-vacatable crime against a person,” reasoned the Court. “Rape of a child in the third degree criminalizes the same essential conduct as third degree statutory rape: engaging in sexual intercourse with a person between fourteen and sixteen years of age.”

The court further reasoned that the offenses differ in replacing the requirement that the offender be at least eighteen years old with the requirement that the offender be at least forty eight months older than the victim. Rape of a child is expressly defined as a crime against persons.

“It appears that the 1988 amendments renamed statutory rape and retained the prohibition on vacating the record of conviction for that offense,” said the Court.

“We conclude that where, as here, an offender was convicted of statutory rape, and the facts proved establish each element of that offense as amended and renamed, the prohibition on vacating the record of conviction remains in effect.”

Finally, the Court said Lambert had no vested right to vacate the conviction because he failed to satisfy all statutory conditions for vacating his sentence before the change in law took place.

My opinion? It’s important to seek qualified, competent legal representation when trying to vacate prior criminal convictions. It’s not abundantly clear that prior crimes against others cannot be vacated under the law. Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member need advice on vacating criminal convictions.

Character Evidence

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In State v. Wilson the WA Court of Appeals held that the trial court mistakenly admitted into evidence a dissimilar and unfairly prejudicial prior act of sexual misconduct as a purported common scheme or plan under ER 404(b).
BACKGROUND FACTS
Claudine Wilson has cared for her granddaughter, B.E., since she was born on January 29, 2006. In 2010, when B.E. was four years old, Claudine married the defendant Leslie Wilson. Wilson moved into Claudine’s home in Auburn, Washington which Claudine shared with several other family members. Claudine, Wilson, and B.E. shared a bedroom. Claudine and Wilson slept in a king size bed. B.E. had her own bed in the same room, but sometimes slept with Claudine and Wilson.
Wilson and B.E. appeared to get along well. However, the marriage between Wilson and Claudine eventually deteriorated, in part due to Wilson’s alcohol use. Wilson left the household in July 2012. About five months later, in December 2012, just after Claudine spoke to Wilson on the telephone, B.E. told Claudine that Wilson had touched her.
Wilson was charged with two counts of Rape of a Child in the First Degree and one count of Attempted Rape of a Child in the First Degree.
Before trial, the State informed the trial court of its intent to present evidence of a sexual remark Wilson allegedly made to B.E.’s older cousin, S.H. Specifically, S.H. claimed that when she was 11 or 12 years old and wearing a bathing suit, Wilson remarked that she should not “wear that stuff around [him] because it gets—[him] so excited.” The State argued that this evidence showed that Wilson had a common scheme or plan to sexually assault young girls. The defense argued that the evidence showed only propensity and was inadmissible. The court ruled that S.H.’s testimony demonstrated a common scheme or plan and was admissible under ER 404(b).
COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS
The Court of Appeals agreed with Mr. Wilson that the trial court erred in admitting a dissimilar and unfairly prejudicial prior act of sexual misconduct as a purported common scheme or plan under ER 404(b).
The Court reasoned that ER 404(b) prohibits the use of evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith. The same evidence may be admissible for other purposes, however, depending on its relevance and the balancing of the probative value and danger of unfair prejudiceState v. Gresham. One accepted “other purpose” under ER 404(b) is to show the existence of a common scheme or plan.
The Court further reasoned that prior misconduct and the charged crime must share a sufficient number of “markedly and substantially similar” features so that the similarities can naturally be explained as individual manifestations of a general plan. The prior misconduct must be sufficiently similar to the charged crime, or else the evidence of misconduct is not probative of whether the alleged act occurred. Similarity of results is insufficient and the evidence must show more than a general “plan” to molest children. Ultimately, in doubtful cases, the evidence should be excluded.
Against that backdrop, the Court decided that the incidents described by B.E. and S.H. did not share “markedly and substantially similar” features that can naturally be explained as individual manifestations of a general plan:
“B.E. reported recurring incidents of sexual abuse. S.H. reported an isolated, sexually-oriented remark. There was a significant difference in the victims’ ages when the incidents occurred. The evidence was similar only in the respect that it tended to show Wilson’s sexual attraction to minors. S.H.’s testimony did not demonstrate the existence of a common scheme or plan. In view of the limited evidence presented to the jury, we cannot say that the admission of the ER 404(b) evidence did not materially affect the trial within reasonable probabilities.”
With that, the Court of Appeals reverse Wilson’s conviction of Rape of a Child.

Increased Rape on Campus

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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.

 

“Joining” Multiple Offenses

Image result for rap sheet

In State v. Bluford, the WA Court of Appeals Division I decided a trial court correctly joined a defendant’s multiple counts of robbery for one trial. The similarities between the crimes were adequate for the offenses to be cross admissible to establish a modus operandi.

The State charged Charles Bluford with nine felony counts. These included seven counts of Robbery in the First Degree plus a charge of Rape in the First Degree of one victim and Indecent Liberties of a separate victim.

The State initially charged Bluford under three different cause numbers, but moved to join all the counts for trial. Bluford moved to sever five of the counts from the others. The court considered these cross motions at the same hearing and joined all counts for trial.

The jury found Bluford guilty of eight counts and acquitted him of one count of Robbery. It sentenced him to life without the possibility of release. Bluford appeals.

The Court of Appeals began by discussing the statute and court rule regarding the “joinder” of criminal offenses. RCW 10.37.060 states the following:

When there are several charges against any person, or persons, for the same act or transaction, or for two or more acts or transactions connected together, or for two or more acts or transactions of the same class of crimes or offenses, which may be properly joined, instead of having several indictments or informations the whole may be joined in one indictment, or information, in separate counts; and, if two or more indictments are found, or two or more informations filed, in such cases, the court may order such indictments or informations to be consolidated.

Also, CrR 4.3 says the following:

Two or more offenses may be joined in one charging document, with each offense stated in a separate count, when the offenses, whether felonies or misdemeanors or both: (1) Are of the same or similar character, even if not part of a single scheme or plan; or (2) Are based on the same conduct or on a series of acts connected together or constituting parts of a single scheme or plan.

The court reasoned that the joinder rule promotes the public policy goal of conserving judicial resources. Also, joinder is appropriate unless it is so “manifestly prejudicial” that it outweighs the need for judicial economy. In other words, courts may not join offenses if it would prejudice the defendant.

The court applied the four-factors guide from State v. Cotten to determine whether prejudice results from joinder:

(1) the strength of the State’s evidence on each of the counts; (2) the clarity of the defenses on each count; (3) the propriety of the trial court’s instruction to the jury regarding the consideration of evidence of each count separately; and (4) the admissibility of the evidence of the other crimes.

The Court applied the Cotten factors.

First, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the trial court correctly determined that the strength of the State’s evidence for each count was equivalently strong.

Second, Bluford asserted a general denial for each count. Therefore, he could not have been prejudiced by inconsistent defenses because his defenses were all the same.

Third, Bluford argues that the court’s instructions to the jury at the end of the case did not instruct the jury that it could not consider the evidence of other crimes as propensity evidence. However, Bluford failed to request such an instruction. And the trial court is not required to give such an instruction if the defendant fails to request one.

Fourth, the court determined that the evidence of each count would be cross admissible for the other counts for the purpose of showing modus operandi. It reasoned that although ER 404(b) prohibits introducing evidence of other bad acts as propensity evidence, such evidence is admissible for other purposes, such as proof of motive, plan, or identity. Under the modus operandi exception, evidence of other bad acts is admissible to show identity if the method employed in the commission of crimes is so unique that proof that an accused committed one of the crimes creates a high probability that he also committed the other crimes with which he is charged. The modus operandi must be so unusual and distinctive as to be like a signature.

In Bluford’s case, the trial court determined that the crimes were cross admissible for the following reasons:

Each incident occurred within an approximately two month period. Each incident occurred during hours of darkness. Each incident occurred in the Seattle metro area. Each incident occurred in a residential area. The defendant was a stranger to each victim. In each incident, the victims were alone when  . . . a male approached with a handgun and gave verbal demands to the victims. The descriptions of the handgun by the victims are similar. Four of the victims gave a description of the vehicle, which matches the vehicle the defendant was later found inside. Two of the three female victims were sexually assaulted during the course of the robberies. Although one of the female victims was not sexually assaulted during the robbery, she ran away at the time of the robbery, thereby limiting the opportunity for the defendant to sexually assault her . . . Therefore, although none of the incidents are a carbon copy of the others, the incidents are strikingly similar.Additionally, in each case the perpetrator approached the victim as he or she exited a car. And when the victim did not cooperate, the perpetrator forcefully took his or her property or assaulted the victim.

Consequently, modus operandi was proven. Finally, because Bryant failed to renew his motion to sever during trial, he technically failed to preserve for review the issue of severance.

Bluford’s convictions were upheld. However, the Court of Appeals vacated his sentence of life without the possibility of release and remanded for resentencing.

My opinion?

At trial, Prosecutors commonly try joining a defendant’s multiple offenses. As stated above, doing so creates judicial efficiency and shows propensity evidence under ER 404(b). Still, competent defense attorneys should try to sever multiple counts anyway; and most important RENEW THE MOTION DURING TRIAL. Failing to do so effectively waives the issue to be preserved for appeal.

State v. Castillo-Lopez: Substituting Counsel & Continuances

In State v. Castillo-Lopez, Division II of the WA Court of Appeals upheld that the trial court’s decision to deny a motion to continue a trial on five counts of Rape of a Child in the Second Degree to allow the defendant’s retained attorney to replace the defendant’s court appointed attorney.

Mr. Castillo-Lopez was charged with having sexual intercourse with his step-daughter “T.S.” on five separate occasions between January 2012 and February 2013. T.S. turned 12 years old in 2012.

The court set the case for trial on July 7, 2014.

On June 19, 2014, Castillo-Lopez argued motions for substitution of counsel and for a continuance of the trial date. Castillo-Lopez argued the case should be continued because his new attorney needed time to prepare and the parties were still awaiting DNA evidence. Although the trial court ruled it would grant the substitution, the court denied the continuance. The Court referenced  “a statute that says the court has to consider also the impact of this on the child . . . (RCW 10.46.085).

On July 3, a different judge presided over a trial confirmation hearing. And again, the trial court made it clear that it would allow the substitution, but would not grant the continuance.

The matter proceeded to trial. The jury found Castillo-Lopez guilty of five counts of rape of a child in the second degree. The trial court sentenced Castillo-Lopez to a minimum of 500 months’ confinement.

Castillo-Lopez appealed on the argument that the trial court denied him his counsel of choice and abused its discretion when it denied his motions to substitute counsel that were dependent upon the court granting his motions to continue the trial date.

The Court of Appeals, however, disagreed. It decided the trial court did not abuse its discretion because the denial of the continuance was based on tenable grounds. In considering these types of motions, a trial court should consider all relevant information because “these situations are highly fact dependent and there are no mechanical tests that can be used.” State v. HamptonFinally, it reasoned that  trial courts should consider all relevant information including the 11 factors described in the most recent version of LaFave’s Criminal Procedure treatise:

(1) whether the request came at a point sufficiently in advance of trial to permit the trial court to readily adjust its calendar;

(2) the length of the continuance requested;

(3) whether the continuance would carry the trial date beyond the period specified in the state speedy trial act;

(4) whether the court had granted previous continuances at the defendant’s request;

(5) whether the continuance would seriously inconvenience the witnesses;

(6) whether the continuance request was made promptly after the defendant first became aware of the grounds advanced for discharging his or her counsel;

(7) whether the defendant’s own negligence placed him or her in a situation where he or she needed a continuance to obtain new counsel;

(8) whether the defendant had some legitimate cause for dissatisfaction with counsel, even though it fell short of likely incompetent representation;

(9) whether there was a “rational basis” for believing that the defendant was seeking to change counsel “primarily for the purpose of delay”;

(10) whether the current counsel was prepared to go to trial;

(11) whether denial of the motion was likely to result in identifiable prejudice to the defendant’s case of a material or substantial nature.

Here, the trial court did not abuse its discretion because the denial of the continuance was based on tenable grounds. It considered relevant information and applied a number of the above-listed factors in making its decision. It also reasoned Castillo-Lopez never expressed dissatisfaction with his appointed counsel. Castillo-Lopez did not want a continuance. Again, the trial court made it clear it would grant the motion for substitution of counsel, but without a continuance. Thus, the denial of the motion for a continuance on July 3, 2014 was not an abuse of discretion because there were no substantial or compelling reasons to continue the trial date and the benefit to Castillo-Lopez was outweighed by the detriment of a continuance on the child victim.

My opinion? The Court should have granted at least  one continuance. Although the crimes were heinous, that’s not the point. Under the 6th Amendment, all defendants deserve a fair trial and to be represented by counsel of their choosing. It takes a lot of time to prepare for jury trial in a multi-count sex case involving Class A felonies. At least one continuance is warranted.



Alexander F. Ransom

Attorney at Law
Criminal Defense Lawyer

119 North Commercial St.
Suite #1420
Bellingham, WA 98225

117 North 1st Street
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Mount Vernon, WA 98273

Phone: (360) 746-2642
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