Category Archives: Sentencing

The Feds on Crime Under Jeff Sessions

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 of the Washington Post describes the dramatic and controversial changes in policy Jeff Sessions has made since becoming the Attorney General under President Trump months ago.
“From his crackdown on illegal immigration to his reversal of Obama administration policies on criminal justice and policing, Sessions is methodically reshaping the Justice Department to reflect his nationalist ideology and hard-line views — moves drawing comparatively less public scrutiny than the ongoing investigations into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with the Kremlin.”
Apprently, Sessions has even adjusted the department’s legal stances in cases involving voting rights and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in a way that advocates warn might disenfranchise poor minorities and give certain religious people a license to discriminate.
“The Attorney General is committed to rebuilding a Justice Department that respects the rule of law and separation of powers,” Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior said in a statement, adding, “It is often our most vulnerable communities that are most impacted and victimized by the scourge of drug trafficking and the accompanying violent crime.”

Immigration
Zapotsky and Horwitz write that unlike past attorneys general, Sessions has been especially aggressive on immigration. He served as the public face of the administration’s rolling back of a program that granted a reprieve from deportation to people who had come here without documentation as children, and he directed federal prosecutors to make illegal-immigration cases a higher priority. The attorney general has long held the view that the United States should even reduce the number of those immigrating here legally.

Zapotsky and Horwitz said that in an interview with Breitbart News in 2015, then-Sen. Sessions (R-Ala.) spoke favorably of a 1924 law that excluded all immigrants from Asia and set strict caps on others.

“When the numbers reached about this high in 1924, the president and Congress changed the policy and it slowed down immigration significantly,” Sessions said. “We then assimilated through 1965 and created really the solid middle class of America, with assimilated immigrants, and it was good for America.”

According to Zapotsky and Horwitz, Vanita Gupta, the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division in the Obama administration who now works as chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said Sessions seems to harbor an “unwillingness to recognize the history of this country is rooted in immigration.”

“On issue after issue, it’s very easy to see what his worldview is of what this country is and who belongs in this country,” she said, adding that his view is “distinctly anti-immigrant.”

 

Police Oversight & Sentencing

Zapotsky and Horwitz write that questions about Sessions’s attitudes toward race and nationality have swirled around him since a Republican-led Senate committee in 1986 rejected his nomination by President Ronald Reagan for a federal judgeship, amid allegations of racism. In January, his confirmation hearing to become attorney general turned bitter when, for the first time, a sitting senator, Cory Booker (D-N.J.), testified against a colleague up for a Cabinet position. Booker said he did so because of Sessions’s record on civil rights.

Sessions ultimately won confirmation on a 52-to-47 vote, and he moved quickly to make the Justice Department his own. Two months into the job, he told the department’s lawyers to review police oversight agreements nationwide, currying favor with officers who often resent the imposition of such pacts but upsetting those who think they are necessary to force change.

Zapotsky and Horwitz also said that Sessions imposed a new charging and sentencing policy that critics on both sides of the aisle have said might disproportionately affect minority communities and hit low-level drug offenders with stiff sentences.

“Allies of Sessions say the policy is driven not by racial animus but by a desire to respond to increasing crime,” write Zapotsky and Horwitz. “The latest FBI crime data, for 2016, showed violent crimes were up 4.1 percent over the previous year and murders were up 8.6 percent — although crime remains at historically low levels. The Bureau of Prisons projects that — because of increased enforcement and prosecution efforts — the inmate population will increase by about 2 percent in fiscal 2018, according to a Justice Department inspector general report.”

Zapotsky and Horwitz wrote that Larry Thompson, who served as deputy attorney general in the George W. Bush administration and is a friend of Sessions, said that although he disagrees with the attorney general’s charging policy, he believes Sessions was “motivated by his belief that taking these violent offenders off the streets is the right way to address the public safety issues.”

Civil Rights & Hate Crimes

According to Zapotsy and Horwitz, Sessions’s moves to empower prosecutors have led to a concerted focus on hate-crimes prosecutions — a point his defenders say undercuts the notion that he is not interested in protecting the rights of minorities or other groups. Prosecutors have brought several such cases since he became attorney general and recently sent an attorney to Iowa to help the state prosecute a man who was charged with killing a gender-fluid 16-year-old high school student last year. The man was convicted of first-degree murder.

But while civil rights leaders praised his action in that case, Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said that it “stands in stark contrast to his overall efforts” to roll back protections for transgender people.

Shortly after he became attorney general, Sessions revoked federal guidelines put in place by the Obama administration that specified that transgender students have the right to use public school restrooms that match their gender identity. In September, the Justice Department sided in a major upcoming Supreme Court case with a Colorado baker, Jack Phillips, who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because he said it would violate his religious beliefs.

Sessions recently issued 20 principles of guidance to executive-branch agencies about how the government should respect religious freedom, including allowing religious employers to hire only those whose conduct is consistent with their beliefs. About the same time, he reversed a three-year-old Justice Department policy that protected transgender people from workplace discrimination by private employers and state and local governments.

The Justice Department has similarly rolled back Obama administration positions in court cases over voting rights.

In February, the department dropped its stance that Texas intended to discriminate when it passed its law on voter identification. And in August, it sided with Ohio in its effort to purge thousands of people from its rolls for not voting in recent elections — drawing complaints from civil liberties advocates.

At a recent congressional hearing, Sessions said the department would “absolutely, resolutely defend the right of all Americans to vote, including our African American brothers and sisters.”

According to Zapotsky and Horwitz, critics say that Sessions’ record shows otherwise. “We are seeing a federal government that is pulling back from protecting vulnerable communities in every respect,” Clarke said. “That appears to be the pattern that we are seeing with this administration — an unwillingness to use their enforcement powers in ways that can come to the defense of groups who are otherwise powerless and voiceless.”

My opinion? Watching the actions of the feds – and especially the top federal prosecutor for the United States – gives us a litmus test which defines the shape of things to come on a more local level. The reason why it’s important to watch the movements of federal prosecutions is because they impress upon – and persuade – the priorities of state prosecutions.

Let’s see what happens.

Black Men Sentenced Longer

PHOTO: Study says black men serve longer sentences for same crime than white men.

Does Sex Offense Registration Violate the Constitution?

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An article written by Jacob Sullum of www.reason.com talks about how a federal judge recently ruled that Colorado’s online database of sex offenders violates the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Last week, a federal judge recognized what anyone dealing with the burdens, obstacles, and dangers of life on the registry knows: Its punitive impact far outweighs any value it might have in protecting the public. In fact, U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch concluded, registration can violate the Eighth Amendment by imposing what amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

The three men who challenged Colorado’s Sex Offender Registration Act were sentenced to probation. Two of them also served 90 days in jail. Their real punishment began later, when they found that appearing in the state’s online registry of sex offenders made it impossible to lead a normal life.

David Millard

David Millard, who pleaded guilty to second-degree sexual assault on a minor in 1999, has been employed by the Albertsons grocery chain since 2003. His job was jeopardized after a customer saw his name and photo on a sex offender website.

Millard was forced to move repeatedly after his status as a registered sex offender was revealed, once by police and once by a local TV station. The second time, he had to fill out about 200 rental applications before finding an apartment he could rent.

Millard later bought a house in Denver, which is periodically visited by police officers seeking to verify his address. “If he is not home when they visit,” Matsch notes, “they leave prominent, brightly colored ‘registered sex offender’ tags on his front door notifying him that he must contact the Denver Police Department.”

Millard experienced name calling and vandalism, and he worries that worse may be coming. “Because of the fear and anxiety about his safety in public,” Matsch writes, “Mr. Millard does little more than go to work, isolating himself at his home.”

Eugene Knight

Eugene Knight was convicted of attempted sexual assault on a child in 2006 based on a crime he committed when he was 18. He’s a “full-time father” because he is unable to find work that pays well enough to cover the cost of child care. However, Knight is not allowed on school grounds to drop off his kids or attend school events.

Arturo Vega

Arturo Vega, who pleaded guilty to third-degree sexual assault as a juvenile but is listed in Colorado’s public database because he failed to comply with registration requirements he did not understand, has tried twice to get off the registry. Both times his petitions were rejected by magistrates who insisted he prove a negative: that he was not likely to commit another sexual offense.

The Court’s Rationale

Judge Matsch held that the lower court’s justices did not foresee the ubiquitous influence of social media, the proliferation of commercial websites peddling information from sex offender registries, or the cheap scare stories that local news outlets would produce based on that information. Those developments have magnified the life-disrupting potential of registration, as illustrated by the experiences of the plaintiffs in this case.

Judge Matsch noted that because of the registry, these men face “a known, real, and serious threat of retaliation, violence, ostracism, shaming, and other unfair and irrational treatment from the public…regardless of any threat to public safety based on an objective determination of their specific offenses, circumstances, and personal attributes.”

By forcing sex offenders into this precarious situation, Judge Matsch reasoned, the state is punishing them. He noted that State or federal courts have reached the same conclusion in AlaskaMaineMichiganNew HampshireOklahoma, and Pennsylvania.

“Maybe someday the Supreme Court will stop pretending otherwise,” wrote Sullum.

Join Offenses = Bad Results

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In State v. Linville, the WA Court of Appeals held that the defendant’s numerous criminal charges cannot be “joined” to a charge of leading organized crime.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Following an increase in residential burglaries in Thurston County, law enforcement
officers noticed similarities among several burglaries. Officers ultimately recovered numerous items taken during the burglaries from Linville’s home.

The State charged Linville with 1 count of leading organized crime, 35 counts of
residential burglary, 1 count of attempted residential burglary, 4 counts of first degree burglary, 3 counts of second degree burglary, 39 counts of trafficking in stolen property, 17 counts of first degree theft, 18 counts of second degree theft, 1 count of attempted second degree theft, 3 counts of third degree theft, 5 counts of theft of a firearm, 5 counts of identity theft, 4 counts of unlawful possession of a firearm, 1 count of possession of stolen property, and 1 count of possession of a controlled substance, for a total of 138 charges with numerous deadly weapon sentencing enhancements. The State alleged that Linville was armed with a firearm during the commission of the four first degree burglaries.

At no point did Linville argue that joinder of any offenses was improper under RCW 9A.82.085.

During the jury trial, the State presented testimony from numerous co-defendants who identified Linville as the instigator and leader of the burglary scheme. The co-defendants’ testimony was corroborated by law enforcement officers and victims who described the common characteristics among the burglaries and identified stolen goods recovered from the homes of Linville and his co-defendants. The jury found Linville guilty of 137 offenses, and he was sentenced to 914 months in prison, which included 240 months for four firearm sentencing enhancements.

Linville appealed on the argument that his defense counsel gave ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to move for severance of offenses that were not part of the pattern of criminal profiteering activity from the charge of leading organized crime under RCW 9A.82.085.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

Ultimately, the Court agreed with Linville. It reasoned that the Sixth Amendment guarantees the effective assistance of counsel in criminal proceedings. To show ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant must show that (1) defense counsel’s conduct was deficient, and (2) the deficient performance resulted in prejudice. To show deficient performance, Linville must show that defense counsel’s performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness. To show prejudice, Linville must show a reasonable possibility that, but for counsel’s purportedly deficient conduct, the outcome of the proceeding would have differed.

  1. Counsel Rendered Deficient Performance.

First, the Court reasoned that RCW 9A.82.085 states the following, in relevant part:

“In a criminal prosecution alleging a violation of leading organized crime, the state is barred from joining any offense other than the offenses alleged to be part of the pattern of criminal profiteering activity.”

RCW 9A.82.010(12) defines “pattern of criminal profiteering activity” as “engaging in at least three acts of criminal profiteering.” RCW 9A.82.010(4) defines “criminal profiteering” as:

“any act, including any anticipatory or completed offense, committed for financial gain, that is chargeable or indictable under the laws of the state in which the act occurred and, if the act occurred in a state other than this state, would be chargeable or indictable under the laws of this state had the act occurred in this state and punishable as a felony and by imprisonment for more than one year, regardless of whether the act is charged or indicted, as any of the following: . . . .”

RCW 9A.82.010(4) then lists 46 crimes and their defining statutes. First and second degree theft, trafficking in stolen property, leading organized crime, and identity theft are included in the list. However, residential burglary, first degree burglary, second degree burglary, attempted residential burglary, theft of a firearm, third degree theft, unlawful possession of a firearm, and possession of stolen property are NOT included in the list. 

Consequently, the Court reasoned that a plain reading of the statutes made it clear that the State was barred from joining charges of residential burglary, first degree burglary, second degree burglary, attempted residential burglary, theft of a firearm, third degree theft, unlawful possession of a firearm, and possession of stolen property to Linville’s prosecution for leading organized crime.

“The unreasonable failure to research and apply relevant statutes without any tactical purpose constitutes deficient performance. Here, defense counsel’s failure to object to the State’s improper joinder of charges was unreasonable and constitutes deficient performance.”

2. Counsel’s Deficient Performance Resulted in Prejudice to the Defendant’s Case.

The Court said that in order to succeed on his claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, Linville must also show that but for his attorney’s deficient performance the outcome of the trial would have differed, and therefore the deficient performance was prejudicial.

To this end, the Court reasoned that this issue is somewhat different than the related issue of discretionary joinder or severance pursuant to CrR 4.4(b). Under CrR 4.4(b), a trial court must grant a motion to sever offenses if it determines that “severance will promote a fair determination of the defendant’s guilt or innocence of each offense.” A defendant seeking such a severance under CrR 4.4(b) must show that a trial involving all counts would be so manifestly prejudicial as to outweigh the concern for judicial economy.

In contrast, the Court explained that RCW 9A.82.085 leaves no room for the trial court’s discretion. Under that statute, the State is barred from joining offenses other than those alleged to be part of the criminal profiteering activity in a prosecution for leading organized crime.

“Because of defense counsel’s failure to object, Linville was improperly tried for 138 total charges and convicted of 137 offenses,” said the Court. “Had counsel properly objected to the joinder, 56 of the charges, including all of the burglary charges, would have been severed, the trial would not have included convictions for those 56 improperly joined charges, and the outcome of this trial would have been different.”

The Court extrapolated the prejudicial consequences of the joinder. It explained that each of the four firearm enhancements – which resulted in a mandatory minimum sentence of 240 months – were associated with the four counts of first degree burglary. The firearm enhancements would not have been considered but for defense counsel’s deficient performance.

“The improper joinder had additional prejudicial consequences,” stated the Court. For example, by improperly joining four charges of unlawful possession of a firearm, the State was permitted to introduce evidence of Linville’s prior felony for possession of a controlled substance without a prescription. This prior conviction evidence was highly prejudicial given that the State’s theory was that Linville’s crime ring was motivated by drugs. Also, the State relied heavily on the burglaries as evidence of Linville’s guilt for leading organized crime. A jury separately considering the burglary charges would not necessarily have heard testimony of Linville’s accomplices accusing him of orchestrating a broad scheme.

Consequently, the Court held that Linville’s defense counsel rendered ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to object to the joinder of offenses in violation of RCW 9A.82.085. The Court therefore reversed Linville’s convictions and remanded them back to the trial court for separate trials.

My opinion? Good decision. A defense attorney’s failure to sever “joined” offenses into separate trials can have profoundly devastating effects. Put simply, juries are more biased against the defendant in a joinder trial versus a trial with a single charge. Consequently, they are more likely to convict on a particular charge in a joinder trial with multiple charges than in a trial on the same single charge. It’s imperative that competent defense attorneys sever counts whenever possible.

Life Sentences Increase

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Article by Samantha Michaels of Mother Jones discusses how one out of every nine prisoners in the United States is currently serving a life sentence—a record high—even as the overall prison population has fallen.

That’s according to a depressing new report by the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group that’s been tracking life sentences since 2004. Almost 162,000 people are now serving life behind bars, up from 132,000 about a decade ago and 34,000 in 1984.

To put that in perspective, for every 100,000 people in America, 50 have been locked up for life. That’s roughly the total incarceration rate—including inmates whose sentences are just a few months—in Scandinavian countries like Denmark, Sweden, and Finland.  And it doesn’t even account for the tens of thousands of Americans handed sentences of 50 years or more, which are considered “de facto life sentences,” says Ashley Nellis, a senior research analyst at the Sentencing Project who co-authored the report.

What’s driving the uptick? It’s not a rise in violent crime or murder—both have dropped substantially since the mid-1990s. Nor is it an increase in the number of criminals behind bars: A majority of states saw declining overall prison populations from 2010 to 2015.

According to Michaels, the continuing rise in lifers is a legacy of three-strikes laws and mandatory minimum sentencing.

“It may also be related to the shift away from capital punishment,” she says. She further elaborates that in some states that no longer allow executions, elected officials like governors and prosecutors have championed life-without-parole sentences—which account for the biggest increase in life sentences nationally—as a way to appear tougher on crime.

“Going forward, we will have a system that allows us to put these people away for life, in living conditions none of us would want to experience,” Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, said in 2012 when his state abolished the death penalty. But these lengthy punishments probably aren’t keeping the public safer. “The impulse to engage in crime, including violent crime, is highly correlated with age,” the Sentencing Project notes. “Most criminal offending declines substantially beginning in the mid-20s and has tapered off substantially by one’s late 30s.”

The biggest losers of all this? Minorities. Of all the lifers and de facto lifers in the country, almost half are African American. What’s more, 12,000 of the total are locked up for crimes they committed as kids, though some are eligible for release thanks to recent court decisions.

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that life-without-parole sentences are unconstitutional for juveniles who didn’t commit homicide. In 2012, the justices went further, saying that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for kids, including those who committed homicide, are also unconstitutional. Nineteen states and DC now ban any kind of life-without-parole sentence for juveniles.)

Finally, according to Michaels, it’s important to remember that many of the prisoners serving these long sentences never actually hurt anyone: Two-thirds of lifers or de facto lifers in the federal system committed nonviolent crimes—and one-third of them are serving time for drug crimes.

With Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the helm of the Justice Department alongside his team of tough-on-crime advisers, there’s a good chance that won’t be changing anytime soon.

My opinion? I couldn’t agree more.

Sessions Seeks Harsher Prosecutions & Stricter Sentences

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Today, CNN Reporter Laura Jarrett broke the story that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has a new directive for federal prosecutors across the country: charge suspects with the most serious offense you can prove.

Friday’s announcement follows a line of several other significant departures from Obama-era domestic policies at the Justice Department, but this decision crystalized Sessions’ position in the criminal justice realm.
In a brief one-and-a-half-page memo, Sessions outlined his new instructions for charging decisions in federal cases, saying that his new first principle is “that prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense.”
“The most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences,” Sessions later adds.
While the federal sentencing guidelines are advisory — and take into account everything from a defendant’s criminal history to cooperation with authorities — some judges have felt handcuffed by mandatory minimums, which provide a statutory sentencing minimum of months below which the judge cannot depart.
The move was harshly criticized by the New York University School of Law Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute focused on democracy and justice.
“The Trump administration is returning to archaic and deeply-flawed policies,” Inimai Chettiar, the center’s justice program director, said Friday. “Sessions is leaving little to no room for prosecutors to use their judgment and determine what criminal charges best fit the crime.”
“That approach is what led to this mess of mass incarceration,” she added. “It exploded the prison population, didn’t help public safety, and cost taxpayers billions in enforcement and incarceration costs.”
Sessions also formally withdrew a signature part of Attorney General Eric Holder’s “Smart on Crime” initiative, which sought to target the most serious crimes and reduce the number of defendants charged with non-violent drug offenses that would otherwise trigger mandatory minimum sentences.
“We must ensure that our most severe mandatory minimum penalties are reserved for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers,” Holder wrote in a 2013 memo. “In some cases, mandatory minimum and recidivist enhancements statutes have resulted in unduly harsh sentences and perceived or actual disparities that do not reflect our Principles of Federal Prosecution.”
As a result, during the Obama era, federal prosecutors were instructed not to charge someone for a drug crime that would trigger a mandatory minimum sentence if certain specific factors were met: (a) the relevant conduct didn’t involve death, violence, a threat of violence or possession of a weapon; (b) the defendant wasn’t an organizer, leader or manager of others within a criminal organization; (c) there were no ties to large-scale drug trafficking operations; and (d) the defendant didn’t have a “significant” criminal history (i.e., prior convictions).
All of those charging factors are now gone under Sessions’ reign and not surprising, as he has previously telegraphed his desire to prosecute more federal cases generally.
My opinion? We’re bringing back the War on Drugs. As it stands, the federal government typically prosecutes only the most serious offenses, and does so with what can seem to be a crushing investigation and avalanche of evidence. Their resources are vast. Mounting a defense can feel daunting.
Here, the effects of Session’s decision will most immediately be felt in the context of drug crimes. Federal mandatory minimums can be harsh because the sentences are dictated based on drug type and quantity.
Said differently, Sessions decision could bring back the War on Drugs. His actions are already embracing it’s worst features: confidential informants, harsh plea bargains and long sentences.

No-Contact Order Held Invalid

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In State v. Torres, the WA Court of Appeals decided a lower court improperly imposed a 5-year no contact order between the defendant and his son in a Witness Tampering prosecution.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Mario Torres is the father of M.T. (born 2003) and N.B. (born 2012). N.B. lived with his mother. However, on the morning of December 22, 2014, he was left in Mr. Torres’s care while N.B.’s mother went shopping. M.T. was also with Mr. Torres at the time. On December 23, N.B.’s mother and grandmother took him to receive medical care after he was found unresponsive. N.B. died a few days later. N.B.’s injuries suggested his death was a homicide.

Police Interview With M.T.

Part of law enforcement’s investigation into N.B. ‘s death involved a forensic interview of M.T. He originally told the interviewer that N.B. was responsive while in Mr. Torres’s care and ate some “Chicken McNuggets” during this time. But M.T. later told the interviewer this was not true. M.T. then said that he heard a loud bang while Mr. Torres was caring for N.B. and N.B. started loudly crying. Mr. Torres later told M.T. he had accidentally stepped on N.B. ‘s leg causing him to fall and strike the bedpost. M.T. never saw N.B. get up again after this. M.T. told the interviewer that both his parents approached him at his grandmother’s home earlier that day and told him to make up a story about N.B. eating Chicken McNuggets, and not mention that N.B. had bumped his head. Additionally, Mr. Torres allegedly told M.T. to “make up lies” about what happened.

Police interview with Mr. Torres.

The police talked to Mr. Torres the day after M.T’s interview. After being advised of his Miranda rights, Mr. Torres denied injuring N.B. but admitted N.B. fell and struck his head on a bedpost. Mr. Torres also admitted he did not want M.T. to talk to the police and had a private conversation with him to outline what M.T. would say. Mr. Torres claimed he told M.T. to tell the truth and say Mr. Torres did not cause the injuries to N.B. He did not offer any specific details on what M.T. was told.

Criminal Charges, Guilty Verdicts, Sentencing & the 5-Year No Contact Order.

The State charged Mr. Torres with one count of Witness Tampering under RCW 9A.72.120(l)(c). Although the case progressed toward trial, Mr. Torres ultimately pled guilty and entered an Alford plea on February 25. His case then proceeded directly to sentencing. During the sentencing colloquy, the court ultimately imposed a five-year no-contact order, prohibiting Mr. Torres from all contact with M.T. except by written mail. Mr. Torres also received a sentence of six months and $1,960 in court fines. Torres appealed.

For those who don’t know, a no contact order is also called a restraining order, and prohibits a person from being in physical or verbal contact with another person. The court must order the no contact agreement, and usually specifies how many feet, or yards, away the individuals must stay from one another. If broken the defendant may receive a fine, or jail time with a felony or misdemeanor charge.

COURT OF APPEALS’ DECISION AND REASONING.

The Court began with stating RCW 9.94A.505(9) authorizes a trial court to impose crime related prohibitions as sentencing conditions. A No-Contact Order is such a prohibition. The court further reasoned that conditions interfering with fundamental rights, such as the right to a parent-child relationship, must be “sensitively imposed” so they are “reasonably necessary to accomplish the essential needs of the State and public order.” A trial abuses its discretion if the trial court employs the wrong legal standard.

The Court further reasoned that here, at sentencing, the trial court imposed a five-year no-contact order, prohibiting almost all contact between Mr. Torres and his son. The Court reasoned that in so doing, the court failed to acknowledge Mr. Torres’s fundamental right to parent his child or explain why a five year prohibition on all personal contact was reasonably necessary to further the State’s interests. “This was error, even under the deferential abuse of discretion standard,” said the Court of Appeals. “While the trial court certainly can impose a no-contact order to advance the State’s fundamental interests in protecting children, it must do so in a nuanced manner that is sensitive to the changing needs and interests of the parent and child.”

“The State suggests we can infer the reasons for the court’s no-contact order from the record. We disagree. The record before us is scant. The trial judge did not explain why he decided to impose a no-contact order that was 10 times longer than what was requested by the State. We are unable to discern the court’s likely reasoning from the limited information presented. It is the trial court’s duty to balance the competing interests impacted by a no contact order.”

With that, the WA Court of Appeals remanded the case back to the trial court for further reconsideration – and instructions – on re-creating the no contact order.

“How to Create a No Contact Order.”

This portion of the Court opinion was very instructive to the lower court. For example, it was instructed that the trial court shall first address whether a no-contact order remains reasonably necessary in light of the State’s interests in protecting M.T. from harm. If it is, then the court shall endeavor to narrowly tailor the order, both in terms of scope and duration. When it comes to the order’s scope, the court shall consider less restrictive alternatives, such as supervised visitation, prior to restricting all personal contact between Mr. Torres and his child. In addition, the court’s order should recognize that “what is reasonably necessary to protect the State’s interests may change over time.” Accordingly, the court shall consider whether the scope of the no-contact order should change over time. The court shall also reconsider whether the ultimate length of the no-contact order remains appropriate. Finally, the trial court should keep in mind that a sentencing proceeding is not the ideal forum for addressing parenting issues.

My opinion?

This was a great decision. I’m impressed that the Court of Appeals gave specific instructions on creating no contact orders in the future. Good opinion.

State Senate Passes Bill Making Fourth DUI a Felony.

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The WA State Senate has unanimously passed a bill that would make driving under the influence (DUI) a felony if the driver has three or more prior offenses on their criminal record within 10 years.

Senate Bill 5037 passed Thursday and now heads to the House, where it has stalled in previous years. The bill’s sponsors are as follows: Padden, Frockt, O’Ban, Darneille, Miloscia, Kuderer, Zeiger, Carlyle, Pearson, Conway, Rolfes, Palumbo, Angel, and Wellman.

Under the measure, a person who is charged with a fourth DUI, and has no other criminal history, would be subject to a standard sentencing range of 13 to 17 months in jail.

However, this bill allows first-time felony offenders to spend up to six months in jail, instead of nine, and finish out the rest of their sentence under supervision, such as attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and other programs.

My opinion? We shouldn’t be surprised. Over the past 20 years, Americans have seen a significant increase in the harsh penalties for intoxicated drivers. Perhaps this is necessary move given the thousands of lives lost to drunk drivers. Speaking as a criminal defense attorney, there’s serious question as to whether people commit these violations purely out of willful disregard for the law and for the safety of others or because of an untreated mental illness or alcohol addiction. Nevertheless, public outcry has led to increased sentences.

Many attorneys in Whatcom County and Skagit County claim to represent clients in DUI cases, but not all attorneys have the experience and successes of attorney Alexander F. Ransom.  To learn more about DUI laws or if you have been charged with a driving offense, make your first call count. Call the Law Office of Alexander F. Ransom today.

“Joining” Multiple Offenses

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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.

Apology Letters & Free Speech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An interesting case, no doubt.

My opinion?

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

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


Alexander F. Ransom

Attorney at Law
Criminal Defense Lawyer

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

117 North 1st Street
Suite #27
Mount Vernon, WA 98273

Phone: (360) 746-2642
Fax: (360) 746-2949

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