Category Archives: Self-Defense

Self-Defense

Image result for self defense with a gun

In State v. Vela, the WA Court of Appeals held that the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to present evidence was violated when the trial court excluded testimony regarding why the defendant, who claimed self-defense, feared the victim.
BACKGROUND FACTS
On February 20, 2014, Duarte Vela shot and killed Antonio Menchaca in Okanogan County. The question at trial was why Duarte Vela shot and killed Menchaca.

Apparently, Menchaca was the ex-brother-in-law of Duarte. Vela and his family were living in Okanogan County. Apparently, Vela and his family were afraid of Menchaca, who just finished serving a prison sentence in California. Also, Vela had already contacted Menchaca when Menchaca returned from California and told Menchaca to stay away from his family.

On the date of the incident, Vela’s wife called Vela and said she thought she saw Menchaca driving by their house. Vela went home, retrieved a firearm and then was heading to Brewster to pick up a child, when he saw Menchaca parked along the road on old Hwy 97 near the Chiliwist Road. Vela stopped and confronted Menchaca. According to a witness at the scene, Vela then pulled out a pistol and shot the Menchaca two or three times. Menchaca died at the scene from the gunshots.

Vela then drove back to his home, put the gun away and called 911 to report the shooting. Vela told Deputies he was at his home and would be waiting for them. Deputies arrived and picked up Vela without incident. Vela was transported to the Okanogan County Jail and booked for various firearm offenses and Murder in the Second Degree.

The trial occurred in January 2015. Prior to jury selection, the State moved in limine to exclude evidence of Menchaca’s prior bad acts. Vela responded that he sought to admit certain prior bad acts of Menchaca known to him to establish the reasonableness of his fear of Menchaca. Specifically, Vela wanted to introduce testimony that (1) Menchaca threatened to return to Okanogan and kill Duarte Vela’s after being released from prison, (2) Menchaca kidnapped Vela’s younger sister in 2007 when she was just 15 years old, (3)
Menchaca had repeatedly battered Vela’s sister throughout their marriage, and that she had told Vela about this, (4) Vela’s wife witnessed the domestic violence abuse from Manchaca to Vela’s sister (5) Vela was told by his family members about Menchaca’s threat to kill his family and Menchaca’s domestic violence against Blanca, (6) Vela feared Menchaca being around his family, (7) Vela believed he needed to arm himself when he went to his sister’s apartment to confront Menchaca, (8) Vela’s wife told him the SUV driver  Martinez and Menchaca gave her a threatening look when the SUV first parked in or near the pullout, (9) why Vela followed the SUV the first time, (10) why Vela believed there were two people in the car when he followed the SUV the first time, (11) Martinez’s statement to him that he was alone in the SUV, (12) what he felt when he saw Martinez later drive by with Menchaca in the passenger seat, (13) why Vela had an elevated fear as he went after the SUV for the second time, (14) Vela’s wife being upset when he returned and explained that Menchaca was not in the SUV, (15) Vela’s belief that something was wrong when Martinez and Menchaca both got out of the car and walked toward him, (16) what Vela feared Menchaca and Martinez might do as they walked toward him, and (17) the degree of bodily harm Vela feared just before he shot Menchaca, as Menchaca became upset and reached into his pocket.

However, the trial court excluded the proferred evidence on the basis that the testimony was irrelevant, too remote in time and ultimately inadmissible.

Also, toward the end of trial, Duarte Vela requested a “no duty to retreat” jury instruction.
However, the trial court denied the instruction. The jury returned a verdict of guilty on all counts. Vela appealed.
COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS
The Court of Appeals reasoned that right to present testimony in one’s defense is guaranteed by both the United States and the Washington Constitution. Here, Vela argued the trial court’s evidentiary rulings violated his right to present a defense. He principally argues the trial court committed reversible error when it excluded evidence relating to: (1) Menchaca’s prison threat, (2) Menchaca’s years of domestic abuse against Blanca, (3) Menchaca’s abduction of Maricruz, (4) why he feared Menchaca, and (5) the type of bodily harm he feared just before he shot Menchaca.
The Court reasoned that in considering a claim of self-defense, the jury must take into account all the facts and circumstances known to the defendant. “Because the vital question is the reasonableness of the defendant’s apprehension of danger, the jury must stand as nearly as practicable in the shoes of the defendant, and from this point of view determine the character of the act,” said the Court of Appeals.
Furthermore, the Court reasoned that evidence of a victim’s propensity toward violence that is known by the defendant is relevant to a claim of self-defense because such testimony tends to show the state of mind of the defendant and to indicate whether he, at that time, had reason to fear bodily harm. Thus, such evidence is admissible to show the defendant’s reason for fear and the basis for acting in self-defense.
“Here, Vela sought to introduce Menchaca’ s threat to kill Vela’s family and Menchaca’s past domestic violence not to prove they were true, but for the very relevant purpose of showing the reasonableness of his fear of Menchaca,” reasoned the Court of Appeals. “The evidence, therefore, was not hearsay. To the extent the trial court excluded this and
several miscellaneous statements offered by Duarte Vela to show his state of mind, the
trial court erred,” said the Court.
The Court also said that the reasonableness of Vela’s fear of Menchaca is one of two components of his self-defense claim, the other component being the degree of bodily harm he feared just before he shot Menchaca:
“Menchaca’s past threat to kill Vela’s family was central to Duarte Vela’s ability to explain the reasonableness of his fear. Unless the evidence was inadmissible under the State’s other arguments, the trial court’s exclusion of this evidence deprived Vela of the ability to testify to his versions of the incident.”
Furthermore, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the trial court’s evidentiary rulings precluded Vela from presenting a legal defense to the killing that he admitted to and omitted evidence that would have created a reasonable doubt that did not otherwise exist. “For this reason, the trial court’s evidentiary rulings violated Duarte Vela’s Sixth Amendment right to present a defense,” said the Court of Appeals.
Next, the Court of Appeals addressed whether the trail court erred in refusing to allow Vela the “No Duty to Retreat” jury instruction. “Because the facts would not support retreat as an option to someone pulling a gun at close range and because the State did not argue that Vela could have retreated, the trial court did not err in refusing the instruction.”
CONCLUSION
Although the Court of Appeals denied Vela’s argument of instructional error, it concluded the trial court’s evidentiary rulings denied his Sixth Amendment right to present
a defense. It therefore reversed and remanded for a new trial.
My opinion? Good decision. It’s wrong to hobble defendants of their right to self-defense when the defense is justified. For more on this topic, please read my Legal Guide titled, “Self-Defense.”  And don’t hesitate to call the Law Office of Alexander Ransom if you have friends or family accused of crimes involving self-defense.

Protective Sweeps of Homes

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In State v. Chambers, the WA Court of Appeals decided (1) the police’s “protective sweep” of the defendant’s home was improper because the defendant was arrested outside his home and the officers did not have specific facts that other armed individuals might be inside the defendant’s home, and (2) the defendant’s 3.5 Motion to Suppress statements made to police was rightfully denied because police scrupulously honored the defendant’s Fifth Amendment invocation of his right to remain silent.

In this case, defendant Lovett Chambers was drinking at the Feedback Lounge, a neighborhood bar in West Seattle that he frequented. Chambers was a convicted felon of African-American descent who moved to Seattle in 1989, worked in the construction industry, obtained degrees in computer science and started an IT business. In 1992, he got married and later purchased a house in West Seattle with his wife. A few years later, Chambers asked his wife to buy him a Colt .45 caliber semiautomatic handgun. She did so, apparently unaware that he was a convicted felon.

On the night of the incident, Mr. Chambers had numerous drinks at the Feedback Lounge. He carried and concealed his .45 pistol.   At some point, two Caucasian men entered the bar and began drinking. The gentlemen did not know Mr. Chambers. Later, all of the gentlemen departed the bar simultaneously and walked to their respective vehicles which were parked nearby each other in the parking lot.

For reasons unknown, words were exchanged between Chambers and the two gentlemen, who apparently uttered racial epitaphs to each other, Mr. Chambers, or both. One of the gentleman – Michael Travis Hood – pulled a shovel from his vehicle; apparently to defend himself from Mr. Chambers. However, Chambers shot Mr. Hood three times with his .45 pistol. Chambers walked away, got into his car and drove home in his BMW.

Mr. Hood died from lethal gunshot wounds to his back.

Seattle police arrested Chambers at his home at 10:49 p.m. Officer Belgarde read Chambers his Miranda rights at 10:51 p.m. Chambers smelled of alcohol. He was “swaying,” had trouble balancing, slurred his words, and was argumentative. Officer Galbraith drove Chambers to the precinct. Officers obtained a warrant to search Chambers’ home and seized a loaded .45 caliber handgun, a spare magazine, and the BMW keys. The police impounded the BMW. Later, officers interrogated Chambers and obtained numerous incriminating statements regarding the shooting.

The State charged Chambers with murder in the second degree of Hood while armed with a deadly weapon. Chambers asserted a claim of self-defense. Before trial, Chambers filed a CrR 3.6 motion to suppress the evidence seized from his house and the statements he made. The court denied the motion to suppress the evidence seized from the house. The court concluded the police “were authorized to enter the house to conduct a protective sweep to ensure their safety.” The court also denied the motion to suppress Chambers’ statements to police and reasoned his “right to remain silent was scrupulously honored” under Michigan v. Mosley.

The jury found Chambers guilty of the lesser-included offense of manslaughter in the first degree. By special verdict, the jury found Chambers was armed with a firearm at the time he committed the crime. The court imposed the low-end standard range sentence of 78 months plus the mandatory consecutive 60-month firearm enhancement. Chambers appealed.

  1. Evidence Seized from the House Was Obtained Through a Unlawfully Conducted “Protective Sweep,” However, The Trial Court’s Decision to Deny Chambers’ Suppression Motion Was Harmless Error.

Chambers contends the court erred in denying his motion to suppress the evidence the police seized from his house: the Colt .45, a magazine clip with .45 caliber bullets, and the keys to the BMW.

The Court of Appeals reasoned that the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution prohibit a warrantless search and seizure unless the State demonstrates that one of the narrow exceptions to the warrant requirement applies. One recognized exception to the warrant requirement is a “protective sweep” of the home. The court further reasoned that under Maryland v. Buie the U.S. Supreme Court describes a protective sweep as a limited cursory search incident to arrest and conducted to protect the safety of police officers or others.

The Court of Appeals decided the trial court erred in concluding the police had the authority to conduct a protective sweep of Chambers’ house. First, a warrantless search of “spaces immediately adjoining the place of arrest” without probable cause or reasonable suspicion does not apply when the police arrest an individual outside his home.

Here, the undisputed facts do not support the warrantless entry and protective sweep of the kitchen under Buie and the court erred in denying the motion to suppress:

“The record does not support the conclusion that there were “articulable facts” that the kitchen harbored “an individual posing a danger.” The police had information that only Chambers shot Hood and was alone when he drove away. The findings establish the only individual in the house when police arrested Chambers was his spouse. The front door was open after the arrest and the police could see Sara was sitting on the living room couch watching television and remained in the living room.”

However, the Court of Appeals also ruled that the verdict would have been the same absent the trial court’s error. Chambers testified he acted in self-defense when he shot Hood with the Colt .45. Chambers admitted that he parked his BMW in front of the Beveridge Place Pub on January 21, that he kept a .45 caliber gun under the passenger seat of the BMW, and that he used the Colt .45 to shoot Hood near Morgan Junction Park. For these reasons, the trial court’s decision to deny Chamber’s motion to suppress was harmless error.

2. Chamber’s Incriminating Statements Are Admissible.

On appeal, Mr. Chambers asserts the detectives did not “scrupulously honor” his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. The court reasoned that the Fifth Amendment provides, in pertinent part, “No person shall be . .. compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” In Miranda v. Arizona, the Supreme Court adopted “procedural safeguards” to protect the privilege and held that before questioning an individual in custody, the police must clearly inform the suspect of the following:

That he has the right to remain silent, that anything he says can be used against him in a court of law, that he has the right to the presence of an attorney, and that if he cannot afford an attorney one will be appointed for him prior to any questioning if he so desires.

Here, the Court of Appeals decided that because the circumstances leading up to the police’s interview with Chambers show the police scrupulously honored Chambers’ right to cut off questioning, the court did not err in denying the motion to suppress the statements Chambers made.

The Court of Appeals reasoned that the record shows the police advised Chambers of his Miranda rights at 10:51 p.m. when he was arrested on January 21. Chambers stated he understood his rights and unequivocally said he did not want to talk to the police. The record establishes the police did not “ask the defendant any questions or persist in repeated efforts to wear him down or change his mind after he invoked his rights.” After he invoked his right to remain silent at 10:51 p.m. on January 21, the police did not question Chambers while at police headquarters. And while driving to Harborview to obtain a blood draw at 3:07 a.m. on January 22, the detectives did not ask Chambers any questions.

Nonetheless, on the way to Harborview, Chambers said he did not want to talk about what happened. While at Harborview, Chambers seemed to have “sobered up.” When they left Harborview approximately 45 minutes later, Detective Steiger advised Chambers of his Miranda rights again. Chambers stated he understood his rights and did not invoke the right to remain silent.

With that, the Court of Appeals concluded the undisputed facts support the conclusion that the right to cut off questioning was scrupulously honored.

The Court affirmed the jury verdict.

My opinion? The police should have advised Mr. Chambers of his Ferrier warnings, a topic which I have blogged many times. Ferrier warnings must be given if police officers seek to enter the home to conduct a warrantless search for evidence of a crime or contraband. Still, even if Ferrier warnings were given and Mr. Chambers denied the police entry into his home, his incriminating statements to police ultimately assigned harmless error to the unlawful search.

State v. W.R.: Defendants Do NOT Need to Prove Consent in Rape Cases

Good opinion.

Overruling the decisions in State v. Camara and State v. Gregory, the WA Supreme Court held that it violates due process to make the defendant prove the alleged sexual act in question was consensual when the crime charged is Rape in the Second Degree by Forcible Compulsion.

http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/883416.pdf

The defendant, a minor named W.R., was found guilty at his bench trial of Rape in the Second Degree by Forcible Compulsion. The event in question was a sexual encounter between W.R. and J.P. that occurred on January 2, 2011, while J.P. was visiting her aunt, who resided with W.R. and his sister. J.P. was also a minor at the time. Throughout trial, the juvenile court judge found W.R. lacked credibility. Consequently, the court explained that the State had proved rape in the second degree beyond a reasonable doubt and that W.R. had failed to prove the defense of consent by a preponderance of the evidence.

W.R. appealed, arguing the juvenile court erred in allocating to him the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that the act was consensual.

The WA Supreme Court granted review of the case on this one issue: When the State charges the defendant under a rape statute that includes “forcible compulsion” as a necessary element of the crime, does due process forbid requiring a criminal defendant to prove consent by a preponderance of the evidence?

The court reasoned that once a defendant asserts a consent defense and provides sufficient evidence to support the defense, the State bears the burden of proving lack of consent as part of its proof of the element of forcible compulsion. It analyzed the decision in State v. Camara and other cases which applied a “negates” analysis. In short, the Court held that when a defense necessarily negates an element of the crime, it violates due process to place the burden of proof on the defendant. It stated, “The key to whether a defense necessarily negates an element is whether the completed crime and the defense can coexist.”

Furthermore, the court said other courts have recognized that when a person consents to sexual intercourse, such consent negates forcible compulsion. In addition, the defendant cannot be burdened with proving consent by a preponderance of the evidence, as the burden must remain on the State to prove forcible compulsion beyond reasonable doubt.

We hold that consent necessarily negates forcible compulsion. For this reason, due process prohibits shifting the burden to the defendant to prove consent by a preponderance of the evidence. While the defendant may be tasked with producing evidence to put consent in issue, such evidence need only create reasonable doubt as to the victim’s consent. Our prior decisions in Camara and Gregory are inconsistent with this holding; we thus must explain why these cases must be overruled.

My opinion? Good decision, on many levels. It’s satisfying that the WA Supremes overruled bad caselaw and reasoned their way back to the one of the oldest standards in American jury trial jurisprudence: it is the State, and not the defendant, who carries the burden. Making the defendant carry this burden violates due process.

Although it appears Camara and Gregory tried to carve out an exception to this general rule in much the same way a defendant must prove self-defense by a preponderance of the evidence if charged with Assault, making a defendant prove consent in rape and sex cases is far too difficult to prove. This is especially true when the Rape-Shield statute suppresses information about a victim’s past sexual history. Good decision, WA Supremes.

State v. Werner: Who Let The Dogs Out?

Good case.

A defendant is entitled to a jury instruction on self-defense in the prosecution for first degree assault after accidentally discharging a firearm when confronted by a neighbor’s pack of dangerous dogs.

http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/index.cfm?fa=opinions.showOpinion&filename=843881MAJ

“Victim” Daniel Barnes moved to the property next door to to defendant Gary Werner. Almost immediately, Werner and Barnes  began an ongoing property dispute concerning a shared easement.  Barnes kept seven dogs on Barnes’s property, including a Rottweiler and pit bulls. At least  three times before the incident giving rise to criminal charges, the dogs came onto Werner’s property and acted menacingly, barking and circling Werner. Werner started carrying a handgun with him on the property because he was afraid of the dogs.

The property dispute  intensified.  On the day of the incident, Werner was on his property in the easement area when one of Barnes’s pit bulls approached him, baring its teeth. Werner noticed six other dogs with the pit bull, including the Rottweiler and other pit bulls.  The dogs started circling Werner.  He pulled out his pistol, thinking he could scare the dogs, and started yelling for Barnes to call off the dogs.  Werner panicked and called 911 on his cell phone, but due to his arthritis, the gun went off, discharging into the ground.  The police were contacted.

The State charged Werner with Assault First Degree and Malicious Harassment. The jury acquitted him of the Malicious Harassment charge but found him guilty of Assault First Degree.  He appealed.  The case ended up before the WA Supremes.

The Court reviewed the law on self-defense.  “To prove self-defense, there must be evidence that (1) the
defendant subjectively feared that he was in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm; (2) this belief was objectively reasonable; [and] (3) the defendant exercised no greater force than was reasonably necessary.” Callahan, 87 Wn. App. at 929 (citation omitted).

The Court reasoned that here, Werner stated that he was afraid. That fear was arguably reasonable, given that he was facing seven snarling dogs, including several pit bulls and a Rottweiler.  Pursuant to State v. Hoeldt, 139 Wn. App. 225, 160 P.3d 55 (2007), a pit bull can be a deadly weapon under RCW 9A.04.110(6). There is evidence that Barnes’s friend refused requests to call off the dogs. By that conduct, Werner could reasonably have believed that Barnes’s friend personally posed a threat through the agency of a formidable group of canines that were under his control.

As to the firing of the weapon, the WA Supremes beleived Werner’s accounting that it was an accident.  They found sufficient evidence of both accident and self-defense to warrant instructing the jury on self-defense.  “Since the outcome turns on which version of events the jury believed, the failure to give a self-defense instruction prejudiced Werner.” Accordingly, the WA Supremes reversed Werner’s conviction.

My opinion?  Good decision.  A pack of wild dogs surrounding and growling at you definitley warrants self-defense.  That’s a no-brainer!  The “victim” is lucky none of his dogs were killed.

State v. Kyllo: When It Makes Sense, Argue Self Defense

Interesting opinion is great teacher for defense attorneys.

http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/index.cfm?fa=opinions.showOpinion&filename=811644MAJ

State v. Kyllo arises out of Division Two Court of Appeals, and concerns whether Kyllo received effective counsel in his trial for second degree assault of a fellow inmate. Kyllo appealed on the grounds that his attorney made several errors, primarily related to jury instructions about his self-defense claim.

On June 12, 2004, while an inmate at the Cowlitz County jail on other charges, defendant Kenneth Kyllo was involved in a fist fight with another inmate during the course of which Kyllo bit the other inmate’s ear off. Kyllo was charged with second degree assault and he claimed he acted in self-defense. Defense counsel proposed a self-defense jury instruction that stated:

A person is entitled to act on appearances in defending himself, if that person believes in good faith and on reasonable grounds that he is in actual danger of great bodily harm, although it afterwards might develop that the person was mistaken as to the extent of the danger. Actual danger is not necessary for the use of force to be lawful.

Kyllo was convicted on the charge of second degree assault. On appeal Kyllo asserted ineffectual assistance of counsel, arguing that the instruction above improperly lowered the State’s burden of proof. The Supreme Court agreed, with Justice Barbara Madsen writing a unanimous opinion. The Court held that the jury instruction misstated the law, and that the jury should have been informed that a person is entitled to act in self-defense when he reasonably apprehends that he is about to be injured—“One is not required to believe he is about to be grievously harmed or killed.”

The Court held that Kyllo was denied effective assistance of counsel, and remanded the case for a new trial.

My opinion?  Excellent decision.  Reminds defense attorneys to stay cognizant of the jury instructions they provide.  For those who don’t know, a jury instruction is an instruction given by the court to a jury at the conclusion of presentation of all evidence in a trial, and after the lawyer’s closing arguments, to advise the jury of the law that applies to the facts of the case, and the manner in which they should conduct their deliberations.  The attorneys prepare the instructions.

Here, the defense attorney gave the “Acting on Appearances” instruction.  The instruction presents a good starting point for the circumstances surrounding this particular case (Convict A is mad-dogging Convict B, Convict B attacks Convict A first  — and acting on Convict A’s appearances — because he believes Convict A will attack and get the advantage of surprise).  Unfortunately, the instruction, by itself wasn’t enough.

As a matter of practice, I believe both a self defense instruction AND and “Acting on Appearances” instruction work best in combination with each other.  Speaking from my own trial experience, everyone on the street embraces self defense.  It allows us to fight back when we’re attacked.  Simple.  However, the soft-spoken pacifists out there (who are INCREDIBLY hard to spot at jury selection) are downright offended by the “Acting on Appearances” instruction.  Many juries simply cannot promote violence beyond the context of self defense.  Yet even a pacifist will fight to save their own life.

When it makes sense, argue self defense . . .