Category Archives: Rule of Lenity

Evidence of Forgery

Image result for forgery

In State v. Bradshaw, the WA Court of Appeals held that sufficient evidence existed to convict the defendant, an escrow agent, of forgery.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In 2014, Defendant/Appellant Stacy Bradshaw was a licensed escrow agent and the owner of North Sound Escrow. By law, an escrow agent must maintain several types of liability insurance. Bradshaw had coverage for crime as well as for errors and omissions through the insurance firm USI Kibble & Prentice. The limits were $1 million per claim.

In February 2014, Bradshaw was retained as the escrow agent for the sale of commercial property for the price of approximately $1.4 million. Umpqua Bank was the lender for one of the parties. Umpqua asked Bradshaw for a copy of her insurance information. Bradshaw obtained a “Certificate of Liability Insurance” from Kibble & Prentice showing her limits of $1 million. She gave Umpqua a copy of the certificate that was altered to represent that Bradehaw had coverage limits of $2 million. Umpqua noticed the alterations and contacted both Kibble & Prentice and the Department of Financial Institutions, the agency that regulates escrow agents. This led to the prosecution of Bradshaw on one count of forgery.

Bradshaw waived her right to a jury trial and opted instead for a bench trial. The court convicted Bradshaw  as charged and sentenced her to 40 hours of community service, $3,600 in financial restitution, and 6 months of community supervision. Bradshaw’s appeal challenges the sufficiency of the evidence.

LEGAL ISSUE

Whether sufficient evidence exists to uphold the defendant’s forgery conviction.

RULE

Under RCW 9A.60.020,  person is guilty of forgery if, with intent to injure or defraud: (a) He or she falsely makes, completes, or alters a written instrument or; (b) He or she possesses, utters, offers, disposes of, or puts off as true a written instrument which he or she knows to be forged.

ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that the trial court correctly determined that the Certificate of Liability Insurance has legal efficacy as a written instrument and a public record. The court reasoned that a written instrument is broadly defined in the current statute as “Any paper, document, or other instrument containing written or printed matter or its equivalent; or (b) any access device, token, stamp, seal, badge, trademark, or other evidence or symbol of value, right, privilege, or identification.”

The Court reasoned that the certificate holder named on Bradshaw’s certificate of liability insurance is the Washington State Department of Financial Institutions. The Certificate was filed with the department as evidence that Bradshaw was in compliance with coverage requirements. Finally, the certificate had material significance to the Washington State Department of Financial Institutions.

“As part of the licensing process, and under statute, an escrow agent must submit proof of financial responsibility to the department, including a fidelity bond providing coverage in the aggregate amount of one million dollars,” said the Court. Furthermore, under the Washington Administrative Code, to demonstrate compliance with the requirement for a fidelity bond, the applicant is required to provide the department with a certificate of insurance that includes the aggregate amount of coverage. By statute, maintaining such insurance is “a condition precedent to the escrow agent’s authority to transact escrow business in this state.”

The Court raised and dismissed Bradshaw’s arguments that the evidence is insufficient to prove her certificate of insurance is a public record because the State did not establish that anyone in the department scrutinized it during the process of renewing her license.

“Bradshaw cites no authority for this proposition, and we have found none,” said the Court.

“In short, the record shows that Bradshaw’s certificate of insurance was a type of document required by law to be filed and necessary or convenient to the discharge of the duties of the department. In view of the regulatory scheme, the trial court reasonably found that a certificate of insurance coverage for an escrow agent is a written instrument, the alteration of which supports a forgery charge because it is a public record with legal efficacy.”

With that, the Court held that sufficient evidence supports the trial court’s determination that Bradshaw’s certificate of insurance had legal efficacy as a foundation for legal
liability.

Finally, the Court raised and dismissed arguments that the Rule of Lenity supports the reversal of her conviction.  “The rule of lenity operates to resolve statutory ambiguities in favor of criminal defendant,” said the Court. “It ensures fair warning by so resolving ambiguity in a criminal statute as to apply it only to conduct clearly covered.” The Court reasoned that here, because Bradshaw’s conduct is clearly covered by the statute, the rule of lenity is not applicable.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face charges of Forgery or other crimes of dishonesty. These convictions wreak havoc on people’s reputations and careers.  Even if guilty, it’s paramount to seek a result which either reduces the charges to a conviction which is not involve a crime of dishonesty or try and dismiss the charges over a period of time if the defendant fulfills certain conditions.

Driving With Wheels Off the Roadway

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In State v. Brooks, the WA Court of Appeals held that the neutral area separating a highway on-ramp from an adjacent lane of travel does not meet the definition of “roadway.” A driver who crosses this area is properly stopped for a violation of Driving with Wheels Off Roadway under RCW 46.61.670.

BACKGROUND FACTS

While merging onto westbound U.S. Route 97 from U.S. Route 2 in Chelan County, Jena Brooks’s car crossed over a portion of the highway designated as a “neutral area.” A neutral area is a paved triangular space separating an entrance or exit ramp from an adjacent lane of highway. The neutral area between Route 97 and its merger with westbound Route 2 is marked on each side by thick white channelizing lines. The drawing below is a depiction of a neutral area similar to the one crossed by Ms. Brooks:

Image result for ON RAMP NEUTRAL AREA

A Washington State Patrol trooper observed Ms. Brooks’s vehicular activity and performed a traffic stop. Ms. Brooks was ultimately arrested for driving on a suspended license and other misdemeanor offenses.

During proceedings in district court, Ms. Brooks filed a motion to suppress, arguing her vehicle had been stopped without probable cause. The motion was denied. Pertinent to this appeal, the district court ruled Ms. Brooks’s merger over the highway’s neutral area constituted “driving with wheels off roadway,” in violation of RCW 46.61.670. 2

Ms. Brooks was subsequently convicted of several misdemeanor offenses after a jury trial. Later, she successfully appealed the suppression ruling to the superior court. It found Washington’s definition of a roadway ambiguous in the context of a highway’s neutral area. The superior court then invoked the rule of lenity and determined Ms. Brooks should not have been stopped for driving with wheels off the roadway in violation of RCW 46.61.670.

ISSUES

The Court of Appeals addressed (1) whether the term roadway is ambiguous in the current context, and (2) if the term is ambiguous, whether the rule of lenity is an available tool of statutory construction that might benefit a defendant such as Ms. Brooks.

ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

“A highway’s neutral area is not a vehicle lane. It is too short to facilitate meaningful travel. And its triangular shape cannot consistently accommodate the size of a vehicle. Rather than being designed for vehicular travel, it is apparent the neutral area is designed as a buffer zone. It keeps vehicles separate so as to facilitate speed adjustment and, in the context of a highway on-ramp, safe vehicle merging.”

The Court further reasoned that National standards set by the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (MUTCD) confirmed its observations about the apparent design purpose of a highway’s neutral area. In short, the Court reasoned the MUTCD refers to the neutral area as an “island.” As such, it is an area intended for vehicle “separation.”

“Although a neutral area may be designated either by a wide or double solid white channelizing line, the two options carry no substantive significance” said the Court of Appeals. “Like a double white line, a solid white line can serve as an indicator that crossing is prohibited. The whole point of a neutral area is to exclude vehicles and promote orderly and efficient traffic flow,” said the Court of Appeals.

The Court concluded that Ms. Brooks failed to maintain her vehicle wheels on an area of the highway meeting the statutory definition of a roadway. A vehicle stop was therefore permitted under Washington’s wheels off roadway statute. Consequently, the superior court’s order on appeal from the district court is reversed.

Surprisingly, there’s quite a bit of caselaw on what constitutes “Driving With Wheels Off the Roadway.” Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges following after a police officer pullover where this citation led to arrest. It’s quite possible to suppress the fruits of a search based on unlawful stop, search and/or seizure.

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.

Promoting Prostitution

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In State v. Barbee, the WA Supreme Court held that a pimp can be convicted on multiple counts of promoting prostitution when multiple prostitutes are involved.

Defendant Shacon Barbee was a pimp that made money from prostitutes working under his supervision. Three young women that Barbee “supervised” during 2010 were SE, BK, and CW.

S.E.

SE met Mr. Barbee when she was 13 and began working for him as a prostitute when she was 16. Along with posting ads on websites such as Backpage.com, SE would also work “the track” (a slang term for working on the streets) in popular Seattle-area prostitution locations including Aurora Avenue and Pacific Highway South. SE thought that Barbee cared about her and that they would spend their lives together. She was expected to make $1,000 a day or stay up at night until she met that quota.

All of her earnings went to Barbee, who required SE to recruit other girls or young women to work for him as prostitutes. SE would peruse websites like MySpace or Facebook, looking for attractive girls who might be interested in “escorting.” During 2010, two of the women she recruited on Barbee’s behalf were two 18-year-olds, BK and CW.

B.K.

BK soon began working as a prostitute for Barbee, initially working out of a motel room and later moving to “the track.”  After BK was arrested and then released from jail, she went to her parents’ house, intending to stop working for Barbee. A few months later, Barbee texted BK and convinced her to come to his apartment in Seattle. BK soon began living in the apartment and worldng for Barbee again. She testified at trial that Barbee took the keys to her car and refused to return them, would not allow her to leave the apartment during the day, and allowed her to go shopping or visit her daughter only if he accompanied her. At some point in late 2010, BK left and stopped working for Barbee permanently.

C.W.

Eighteen-year-old CW also worked for Barbee during 2010, but for a comparatively short time. She was living in Bellingham and working at a nursing home when SE began communicating with her via MySpace in early May. Excited about the idea of becoming more independent, CW packed her bags, borrowed a friend’s car, and moved to Seattle to meet SEat a Motel6 on Pacific Highway South. Once she arrived, CW was told that she would be worldng for Barbee as an escort, that all of her money would go to him, and that he would provide her with clothes, jewelry, and a place to live.

A few weeks later, CW became disillusioned and texted Barbee that she was quitting. She left and never had contact with Barbee again.

THE ARREST & THE VERDICT

That December, SE arranged online to meet a client for an out-call at the Hampton Inn in Kent. Barbee drove SE to the motel and waited for her while she went inside. The client she had arranged to meet turned out to be an undercover officer. When SE arrived and agreed to have sex with the detective, she was arrested. After a short car chase, police officers arrested Barbee as well.

The State charged Barbee with two counts of promoting sexual abuse of a minor (SE), one count of first degree promoting prostitution (BK), one count of second degree promoting prostitution (CW), one count of leading organized crime, two counts of first degree theft from the Social Security Administration, and one count of second degree theft from the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).

The jury found Barbee guilty on all counts, except that they found him guilty of the lesser included offense of second degree promoting prostitution of BK.

THE APPEAL

Barbee claims that the two counts of promoting prostitution of BK and CW constitute a single unit of prosecution, or that he committed a single “enterprise” of promoting prostitution that involved two prostitutes. On Appeal, he argues that his two convictions for promoting prostitution of”different women as part of the same enterprise over the same period of time” encompassed a single unit of prosecution in violation of the double jeopardy prohibition clauses of our federal and state constitutions.

THE ISSUE

The WA Supreme Court addressed whether Barbee’s two counts of second degree promoting prostitution constitute a single unit of prosecution. Here, it appears so.

THE CONCLUSION

The Court decided that yes, Barbee’s two counts of Second Degree Promoting Prostitution constituted two distinct units of prosecution.

THE COURT’S ANALYSIS OF “UNITS OF PROSECUTION”

The WA Supreme Court reasoned that Double Jeopardy is violated when a person is convicted multiple times for the same offense. When the convictions are under the same statute, the court must ask what ‘”unit of prosecution”‘ the legislature intended as the punishable act under the specific criminal statute.

The Court further reasoned that both constitutions protect a defendant from being convicted more than once under the same statute if the defendant commits only one unit of the crime. Thus, while a unit of prosecution inquiry is “one of constitutional magnitude on double jeopardy grounds, the issue ultimately revolves around a question of statutory interpretation and legislative intent.”

Furthermore, the court reasoned that when engaging in statutory interpretation, its goal is to ascertain and carry out the intent of the legislature: “To determine legislative intent and thus define the proper unit of prosecution, we first look to the statute’s plain meaning. If the plain meaning of the statute is ambiguous, we may also determine legislative intent by reviewing legislative history.”

Once we have defined the proper unit of prosecution, we perform a factual analysis to ascertain whether the facts in a particular case reveal that more than one “unit” is present.

THE COURT’S REASONING ON “UNITS OF PROSECUTION” IN ‘PROMOTING PROSTITUTION’ CASES

The Court reasoned that the plain Language of the Promoting Prostitution statute unambiguously authorizes multiple convictions when an individual promotes prostitution of multiple people:

“While the ‘evil’ of promoting prostitution may be the same regardless of how many prostitutes are “promoted,” it does not follow that a person is ‘equally guilty’ whether he pimps one prostitute or several. Rather, in statutes that involve crimes against persons, that guilt compounds in magnitude depending on the number of lives that are affected.”

Ultimately, two “units” were clearly proper here: CW and BK are two distinct “persons” who were both exploited by Barbee.

CONCLUSION

In sum, the WA Supreme Court held that the legislature, by use of the language “a person,” unambiguously authorized a unit of prosecution for each person promoted. “When a defendant promotes prostitution of more than one individual, he or she may be prosecuted for more than one count.” Accordingly, the Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ decision that Barbee’s convictions for promoting prostitution of BK and CW did not violate prohibitions on double jeopardy.

Seattle v. Winebrenner/Seattle v. Quezada: Court finds Lenity for Defendants In the Face of Statutory Ambiguity

Great decision handed down by WA Supremes.  A “prior offense” applies only to offenses that occurred before the current offense, and does not encompass all offenses the defendant has before sentencing.

http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/index.cfm?fa=opinions.showOpinion&filename=812799MAJ

Both Scott Winebrenner and Jesus Quezada were arrested multiple times for driving under the influence (DUI). Each had a deferred prosecution agreement from one arrest which they violated with a subsequent arrest. For those who don’t know, a deferred prosecution is a contract entered into with the court.  Typically, a defendant obtains an alcohol evaluation which states they suffer from an alcohol problem; agrees to be on probation for five years; enters a grueling treatment regimen, and commits no new law violations.  If successful, the DUI gets dismissed.  If they fail, however, the court may revoke the entire agreement, find the defendant guilty, and issue a jail sentence.

Deferred sentences represent a “grey area” in criminal jurisprudence.  They are neither a conviction or a dismissal.  The issue was ripe to determine whether a deferred sentence counts as a prior conviction if the defendant violates the terms by garnering new charges.

Here, the Court reasoned that RCW 46.61.5055’s  use of “prior offense” is ambiguous because it is “subject to more than one reasonable interpretation.” The “rule of lenity” requires “that an ambiguous criminal statute cannot be interpreted to increase the penalty imposed.” The Court further reasoned that offenses committed after the original offense are not “prior offenses” and cannot be considered at sentencing for the original offense.

My opinion? I’m impressed the WA Supremes supported the Rule of Lenity.   The spirit of the rule of lenity – fundamental fairness – lies at the heart of a respectable criminal justice system. See McBoyle v. United States, 283 U.S. 25, 27 (1931) (the principle of “fair warning” motivates the lenity rule) (Holmes, J.). At a high level of generality, we all agree that ambiguous criminal statutes must be construed in favor of the accused.  But the rule of lenity is often not taken seriously.  Glad to see the WA Supremes gave teeth back to the rule.