Category Archives: Sixth Amendment

Jury Bias

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In United States v. Kecheczian, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided a trial court mistakenly  allowed a juror to decide an aggravated identity theft and possession of unauthorized access devices case, when the juror admitted during jury selection that she had her social security number previously stolen and she was unable to explicitly state that she could put her personal biases aside.

BACKGROUND FACTS

After receiving a tip that Mr. Kechedzian was linked to a fugitive operating a large credit card fraud ring, federal agents conducted a trash pull from Kechedzian’s residence. In his trash, they found two counterfeit credit cards and, based on this, the agents obtained a search warrant. The resulting search of Kechedzian’s residence and cars uncovered two USB drives containing 1,451 stolen credit card numbers in text files, a Bluetooth-enabled “skimming device” commonly used to steal credit card information from gas station pumps, and several cards with stolen data re-encoded on the magnetic strips. Bank records revealed that many of the stolen card numbers had been used fraudulently at gas stations and other retail establishments across the United States.

Kechedzian was charged with two counts of possession of 15 or more Unauthorized Access Devices and two counts of Aggravated Identity Theft. The case proceeded to trial. At the beginning of jury selection, the federal district court judge read a general statement of the case, laying out the charges against Kechedzian. The judge then asked the following:

“Does anyone feel, just based on the charges in this case, based on what this case is about, that they could not be fair and impartial to both sides? Does anyone feel that way at this point in time?”

Juror # 3 raised her hand. From there, she informed the court she was a past victim of identity fraud. Furthermore, she did not know whether she could put aside her biases. Later, at sidebar, defense counsel sought to have Juror # 3 excused for cause. However, the judge denied the motion.

“I think at the end of the day she confirmed or committed to the principles of the presumption of innocence and burden of proof,” said the judge. “I would deny the motion.” Consequently, Juror # 3 sat on Kechedzian’s jury.

The jury ultimately returned a guilty verdict, and Kechedzian was sentenced to 65 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release. The district court also ordered $114,134.76 in restitution. Kechedzian timely appealed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & DECISION

The Court of Appeals began by saying the Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants a verdict by an impartial jury, and the bias or prejudice of even a single juror is enough to violate that guarantee. Accordingly, the presence of a biased juror cannot be harmless. The error requires a new trial without a showing of actual prejudice.  And any doubts regarding bias must be resolved against the juror. One important mechanism for ensuring impartiality is voir dire, which enables the parties to probe potential jurors for prejudice. After voir dire, counsel may challenge a prospective juror for cause, and a partial or biased juror should be removed if there is a showing of either implied or actual bias.

“Here, Kechedzian alleges bias under both theories,” said the Court.

Actual Bias Analysis

It explained that actual bias is the more common ground for excusing jurors for cause. Actual bias is the existence of a state of mind that leads to an inference that the person will not act with entire impartiality. Actual bias involves an inability to act impartially or a refusal to weigh the evidence properly It can be revealed through a juror’s express answers during voir dire, but it can also be revealed by circumstantial evidence during questioning.

The Court said that in contrast, implied bias is presumed only in extraordinary cases. “In analyzing implied bias, we look to whether an average person in the position of the juror in controversy would be prejudiced.”

Implied Bias Analysis

This Court described “implied bias” as applying to those extreme situations where the relationship between a prospective juror and some aspect of the litigation is such that it is highly unlikely that the average person could remain impartial in his deliberations under the circumstances.  Furthermore, the implied bias inquiry is an objective one. Even if a juror states or believes that she can be impartial, the court may find implied bias based on the circumstances.

The Court noted that here, although Juror # 3 was previously a victim of identity theft, this is not the type of “extreme” situation where we find implied bias. “Thus, we focus our analysis on the actual bias inquiry,” said the Court.

The Court reasoned that Juror #3 was ultimately asked if she could set aside her feelings, and act impartially and fairly to both sides of the case. She responded: “I believe so, yes.” The Court said that statement—“I believe so, yes”—appears somewhat equivocal. However, none of Juror #3’s equivocal statements could be understood as affirmative statements of impartiality. The Court reasoned that here, Juror #3 explicitly noted that she was unsure if she could put her personal biases aside.

“A juror can understand the presumption of innocence and burden of proof, yet still let personal prejudice infect her ability to be impartial.”

“When a juror is unable to state that she will serve fairly and impartially despite being asked repeatedly for such assurances, we can have no confidence that the juror will lay aside her biases or her prejudicial personal experiences and render a fair and impartial verdict,” said the Court. “Because this is precisely what occurred here, the district court was obligated to excuse Juror #3 for cause under an actual bias theory.”

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for a new trial.

My opinion? Good decision. In my trial experience, potential jurors who have suffered as victims of crime tend to be pro-prosecution. A potential juror who does not know if they can be fair or impartial should be excused for cause. Period.

Inadmissible & Irrelevant Evidence

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In State v. Burnam, the WA Court of Appeals held that the trial court correctly excluded evidence that the woman the defendant killed had four years earlier dated a man accused of murder and that she had hid the murder weapon.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Mr. Burnam was charged with first degree murder or, in the alternative, second degree murder and interfering with the reporting of domestic violence. As trial approached, Mr. Burnam wanted to testify in support of his self-defense claim. He also wanted to testify that the victim Ms. Sweet had been involved in a prior homicide.

Apparently, four years earlier, Ms. Sweet dated a man accused of murder and she had hid the murder weapon, which was a firearm. Sometime after the homicide, Ms. Sweet briefly gave the firearm away and then attempted to get it back. When law enforcement questioned her, she was evasive and misleading. She was charged and convicted of first degree rendering criminal assistance by means of concealing, altering, or destroying the gun.

Mr. Burnam claimed that this was character evidence and asked the court to analyze its admissibility under ER 404(b). Under this evidence rule, evidence of prior acts can be admissible for certain other reasons, including motive, opportunity, and intent

Mr. Burnam made a lengthy offer of proof in support of his motion. He argued that the evidence would help establish the reasonableness of his fear of serious harm or death during his struggle with Ms. Sweet. He repeatedly asserted the jury should know that Ms. Sweet was involved with a homicide or capable of being involved with a person who had committed a homicide.

Despite defense counsel’s offer of proof, the court nevertheless excluded all evidence of the homicide case that Ms. Sweet was involved in.

At trial, Mr. Burnam testified he responded in self-defense to Ms. Sweet. Despite his testimony, the jury found Mr. Burnam guilty of first degree murder and interfering with the reporting of domestic violence. Mr. Burnam appealed on arguments that the court should have admitted evidence that Ms. Sweet was involved in a murder from four years ago.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that both the United States Constitution and the Washington Constitution guarantee the right to present testimony in one’s defense. Furthermore, a defendant’s right to an opportunity to be heard in his defense, including the rights to examine witnesses against him and to offer testimony, is basic in our system of jurisprudence. However, defendants can present only relevant evidence and have no constitutional right to present irrelevant evidence. If relevant, the burden is on the State to show the evidence is so prejudicial as to disrupt the fairness of the fact-finding process at trial.

Admissibility of Self-Defense Evidence.

The Court further reasoned that in considering a claim of self-defense, the jury must take into account all of 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. “Thus, such evidence is admissible to show the defendant’s reason for fear and the basis for acting in self-defense.”

Moreover, evidence of a victim’s violent actions may be admissible to show the defendant’s state of mind at the time of the crime and to indicate whether he had reason to fear bodily harm. Thus, a defendant may, in addition to the character evidence, show specific acts of the victim which are not too remote and of which the defendant had knowledge at the time of the crime with which he is charged. Evidence of specific acts may be admissible for the limited purpose of showing the defendant had a reasonable apprehension of danger.

Finally, the court reasoned that an offer of proof should (1) inform the trial court of the legal theory under which the offered evidence is admissible, (2) inform the trial judge of the specific nature of the offered evidence so the court can judge its admissibility, and (3) create an adequate record for appellate review.

The Court of Appelas concluded that Mr. Burnam’s offer of proof failed to inform the trial judge of the specific nature of the offered evidence.

“Mr. Burnam’s offer of proof was lengthy but repeatedly vague on the specific nature of the offered evidence.”

The Court further concluded that Ms. Sweet merely pleaded guilty to rendering criminal assistance by disposing of a firearm used previously in a homicide. Nevertheless, rendering criminal assistance is a nonviolent felony.

“The mere fact that Ms. Sweet dated a man accused of murder and hid the murder weapon does not strongly imply that Ms. Sweet was violent. The prejudicial effect of excluding this questionable evidence is minimal. We conclude the trial court did not violate Mr. Burnam’s constitutional right to present a defense when it excluded this evidence.”

Consequently, the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision to exclude evidence that Ms. Sweet was indirectly involved in a homicide from four years earlier.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are involved in cases involving assault or self-defense. Generally speaking, evidence that the victim had prior bad acts and/or had violent tendencies is admissible. However, court must undergo a balancing test under the evidence rules to determine if the evidence being offered is relevant, probative and/or unfairly prejudicial. This case was fairly straightforward in determining that the dead victim’s prior conviction for a non-violent crime was irrelevant.

Outrageous Police Misconduct

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In State v. Solomon, the WA Court of Appeals held that the trial court properly dismissed a charge of attempted rape of a child for outrageous police misconduct, where an officer, posing as a fictional 14-year-old girl sent the defendant nearly 100 messages laden with graphic, sexualized language and innuendo and persistently solicited the defendant to engage in a sexual encounter with the fictional minor, notwithstanding that he had rejected her solicitations seven times over the court of four days.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In this matter, a law enforcement officer anonymously published an advertisement on an online Craigslist classifieds platform reserved for those over the age of 18 and indicated that she was “a young female” seeking an individual interested in a casual sexual encounter. The defendant Mr. Solomon responded to the advertisement. Thereafter, the police officer assumed the guise of a fictional 14-year-old girl and sent Solomon nearly 100 messages laden with graphic, sexualized language and innuendo and persistently solicited him to engage in a sexual encounter with the fictional minor, notwithstanding that he had rejected her solicitations seven times over the course of four days.

Mr. Solomon was charged with one count of communication with a minor for immoral purposes, one count of commercial sex abuse of a minor, and one count of attempted rape of a child in the third degree.

Before trial, Solomon moved to dismiss the charges against him, arguing that the State had engaged in outrageous governmental misconduct in violation of his due process right to fundamental fairness.

The trial court herein found that the actions of the law enforcement officer constituted outrageous misconduct in violation of Solomon’s right to due process and dismissed the charges against him. The State appealed.

ISSUE

Whether the trial court abused its discretion in dismissing the case due to outrageous conduct of the investigating law enforcement officer.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

As precedent, the Court of Appeals applied the State v. Lively “totality of the circumstances evaluation,” which identifies five factors to be considered by a trial court deciding issues of whether law enforcement engaged outrageous conduct: (1) whether the police conduct instigated a crime or merely infiltrated ongoing criminal activity, (2) whether the defendant’s reluctance to commit a crime was overcome by pleas of sympathy, promises of
excessive profits, or persistent solicitation, (3) whether the government controls the criminal activity or simply allows for the criminal activity to occur (4) whether the police motive was to prevent crime or protect the public, and (5) whether the government conduct itself amounted to criminal activity or conduct repugnant to a sense of justice.

Here, the Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court’s analysis that Solomon’s reluctance to commit the crime was manifested by his repeated—seven times—attempts to discontinue the conversation. Furthermore, the Court of Appeals agreed that the State had engaged in persistent solicitation of Solomon, given that the detective continued to solicit Mr. Solomon each of the seven times that he sought to withdraw and, in addition, sent the majority of the over 200 messages exchanged between the two parties.

Additionally, the Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court that the investigating law enforcement detective controlled the criminal conduct both by initiating the interaction between her and Solomon and by stringing him along over the course of the four days of exchanges.

“In this way, the court determined that the detective’s use of graphic and highly sexualized language amounted to a manipulation of Solomon that was repugnant to a sense of justice.”

“In ruling to dismiss the charges, the trial court did not adopt a view that no reasonable judge would take,” said the Court of Appeals. “Given the court’s finding that law enforcement had initiated and controlled the criminal activity, persistently solicited Solomon to commit the crimes so initiated, and acted in a manner (through the use of
language and otherwise) repugnant to the trial judge’s view of the community’s
sense of justice, the trial court’s determination was tenable.

“Accordingly, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by ordering that the charges against Solomon be dismissed. There was no error.”

With that, the Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of Mr. Solomon’s charges.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or loved one face criminal charges which are stemmed by questionably actions of law enforcement officers. It’s extremely important to hire competent defense counsel who willing to argue compelling motions to dismiss similar to defense counsel’s motion in this case.

Expert Witnesses & Meth

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In State v. Richmond, the WA Court of Appeals held that a defense expert witness’s proposed testimony regarding the effects of methamphetamine was properly barred at trial because the expert never met or examined the victim and increased aggression is only one possible effect of methamphetamine ingestion.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Dennis Higginbotham went to Joseph Richmond’s property with two other individuals, Veronica Dresp and Lonnie Zackuse. Ms. Dresp was Mr. Richmond’s estranged girlfriend. Ms. Dresp had asked Mr. Higginbotham and Ms. Zackuse to accompany her to Mr. Richmond’s property so that she could remove some of her belongings.

A verbal argument ensued between Mr. Richmond and Mr. Higginbotham. After the verbal argument, Mr. Richmond went into his house. His return to the house was a relief. It appeared the hostility had come to an end.

Unfortunately, this turned out not to be true. Instead, Mr. Richmond ran out of his house, armed with a two-by-four piece of lumber that was nearly four feet in length. Mr. Richmond and Mr. Higginbotham then started exchanging more words. Mr. Richmond warned Mr. Higginbotham not to come any closer to him. When Mr. Higginbotham took a step forward, Mr. Richmond struck Mr. Higginbotham with the two-by-four. According to Ms. Dresp and Ms. Zackuse, Mr. Richmond held the two-by-four like a baseball bat and swung it at Mr. Higginbotham’s head. After he was hit, Mr. Higginbotham spun around and fell face first on the ground.

When emergency personnel arrived at the scene, it was determined Mr. Higginbotham had suffered severe head trauma. He was unconscious and eventually transported to
Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. He died shortly thereafter.

Mr. Richmond was charged with second degree murder.

Mr. Richmond lodged a self-defense theory against the State’s murder charges. In support of this theory, Mr. Richmond sought to introduce testimony from several experts. One of the experts was David Predmore. Mr. Predmore was offered to testify about the general effects of methamphetamine consumption on human behavior. According to the defense, this testimony was relevant because high levels of methamphetamine had been found in Mr. Higginbotham’s system at the time of his death.

Although Mr. Richmond was not aware of Mr. Higginbotham’s methamphetamine consumption at the time of the assault, the defense theorized that Mr. Predmore’s testimony was relevant to corroborate Mr. Richmond’s claim that Mr. Higginbotham was behaving aggressively the night of the attack. However, the trial court excluded Mr. Predmore’s testimony as speculative and irrelevant. The jury convicted Mr. Richmond of second degree murder. He appealed.

ISSUE

On appeal, the issue was whether the trial court violated Mr. Richmond’s constitutional right to present a defense by excluding his expert’s testimony.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

“Mr. Richmond argues the trial court violated his constitutional right to present a
defense by excluding expert testimony,” said the Court of Appeals. “We disagree.”

The Court of Appeals reasoned that Evidence Rule 702 governs the admissibility of expert testimony. “Under this rule, a witness may provide expert opinion testimony to the jury if (1) the witness is qualified as an expert, and (2) the witness’s testimony would help the trier of fact,” said the Court of Appeals.

“Expert testimony is helpful if it concerns matters beyond the common knowledge of the average layperson and does not mislead the jury. A proposed expert’s testimony is not helpful or relevant if it is based on speculation.”

Furthermore, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the trial court properly excluded Mr. Predmore’s proposed testimony regarding the effects of methamphetamine because it was not shown to be potentially helpful to the jury. “Mr. Predmore had never met or examined Mr. Higginbotham. He had no basis to assess how Mr. Higginbotham’s body may have processed methamphetamine,” said the Court of Appeals. It further reasoned that according to Mr. Predmore’s proposed testimony, methamphetamine can have a wide range of effects. Increased aggression is only one possibility. “It is therefore nothing but speculation to connect Mr. Higginbotham’s methamphetamine use with Mr. Richmond’s claim of victim aggression,” said the Court of Appeals. “The evidence was properly excluded, consistent with long standing case law.”

With that, the Court of Appeals upheld the conviction.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime after responding in self-defense. Hiring competent and experienced counsel is the first step toward receiving a just resolution.

Felony Harassment (DV)

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In State v. Horn, the WA Court of Appeals held that the trial court’s refusal to admit evidence of the defendant’s and the victim’s engagement and trip taken after the date of a domestic violence offense did not violate the defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Horn and Ms. Oubre became romantically involved while Oubre was estranged from another man with whom she had had a relationship. Horn and Oubre began openly dating in January 2015.

In January 2015, Horn and Oubre were at Oubre’s residence drinking alcoholic beverages. While Oubre was using her cellphone, Horn grew angry and accused her of texting the man with whom she had been involved. According to Oubre, she had never seen him have “an episode like this before.” Horn grabbed Oubre’s night shirt and ripped it open, hitting her on the chest in the process.

Scared that the downstairs neighbor would hear the scuffle, Oubre and Horn went to Horn’s home. Once they arrived and got out of the car, Oubre told Horn that she was going to leave, but Horn grabbed her. They began wrestling when Horn pushed her against a wall and down into a flower bed. He bit her multiple times. Oubre did not call the police.

On August 7, 2015, Horn and Oubre were together at her home. Oubre was on her cell phone playing a game. Horn grew aggressive, believing that Oubre was texting an ex-boyfriend. A violent exchange occurred between Horn and Oubre. Horn straddled Oubre on the bed, pointed a gun at himself and Oubre, and gave numerous threats against her life.

Later, Oubre went to the hospital. She spoke with the police while at the hospital, and Horn was then arrested. Among other offenses, Horn was charged with domestic violence felony harassment based on the August incident. Horn posted bail on August 20, 2015.

Oubre and Horn got engaged on September 5 and took a trip together.

Horn was later charged with violating a no-contact order, to which he pled guilty. As part of the events related to that charge, videotape evidence showed Horn naked while jumping on top of Oubre’s car.

Before trial on the felony harassment charge, the State sought to introduce evidence of
the January 2015 incident under ER 404(b) to show that Horn’s threat to kill Oubre in August 2015 placed her in reasonable fear that the threat would be carried out. One of the elements of felony harassment is that the victim be placed in reasonable fear that a threat will be carried out.

Before trial, both the State and defense counsel argued over whether the evidence of the January 2015 incident should be admitted. The defense objected and in the alternative argued that if the State was permitted to introduce this evidence, the defense should be able to introduce evidence of Oubre and Horn’s engagement and trip after August 2015. In the defense’s view, this evidence showed that Oubre did not have a reasonable fear that Horn would carry out his threat to kill her on August 7.

The State opposed the admission of evidence of their engagement and trip because “it triggers a bunch of things,” including Horn’s later violation of a no-contact order where he was naked and jumping on top of Oubre’s vehicle. The State also did not believe the evidence was relevant to whether Oubre was fearful in August 2015.

The jury found Horn guilty of two counts of fourth degree assault, unlawful possession of
a firearm, and domestic violence felony harassment. Horn appealed. He argued that his Sixth Amendment right to present his defense was violated because the trial court did not admit evidence of Oubre and Horn’s engagement and trip taken after the August 2015 incident.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

“We review a Sixth Amendment right to present a defense claim under a three-step test,” said the Court of Appeals. First, the evidence that a defendant desires to introduce must be of at least minimal relevance. A defendant only has a right to present evidence that is relevant. Second, if relevant, the burden shifts to the State to show that the relevant evidence is so prejudicial as to disrupt the fairness of the fact-finding process at trial. Third, the State’s interest in excluding prejudicial evidence must also be balanced against the defendant’s need for the information sought, and relevant information can be withheld only if the State’s interest outweighs the defendant’s need.

The Court reasoned that to show a violation of the right to present a defense, the excluded evidence, that of Horn and Oubre’s engagement and trip, must first be of at least minimal relevance. Evidence is relevant if it has any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence. The threshold to admit relevant evidence is very low.

Impeachment evidence is relevant if: (1) it tends to cast doubt on the credibility of the person being impeached and (2) the credibility of the person being impeached is a fact of consequence to the action.

The court reasoned that here, Oubre’s subsequent engagement and trip with Horn thus would be relevant, if at all, to impeach her testimony that she feared Horn at the time he threatened to kill her.

“With the frightening nature of the threats and violence against Oubre on August 7 and the passage of nearly a month until their engagement, Oubre’s change of heart casts little doubt on her testimony that on August 7, in the face of repeated violence and death threats, she feared for her life.”

The court said that for these reasons, especially in combination with the cycles of violence and reconciliation in domestic violence relationahips, the evidence of Oubre’s engagement to and trip with Horn was not relevant.

“The trial court’s exclusion of that evidence was neither manifestly unreasonable, based on untenable grounds, nor based on untenable reasons,” said the Court of Appeals. “Thus, under the abuse of discretion standard, the exclusion of this evidence did not deprive Horn of his right to present a defense.” Furthermore, because Horn does not meet the first requirement of the three-step test, his claim that the trial court deprived him of the right to present a defense fails.

With that, the Court of Appeals ruled that Horn’s right to present a defense was not violated. Therefore, his convictions were affirmed.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face domestic violence charges.

Jail Mail

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In State v. Irby, the WA Court of Appeals held that an inmate’s 6th Amendment rights were violated and has case was prejudiced when jail guards opened and read his confidential “jail mail” letters written to his defense attorney.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In April 2005, Irby was charged with one count of burglary in the second degree, alleged to have occurred on March 6, 2005, and the following counts alleged to have occurred on March 8, 2005: one count of aggravated murder in the first degree with an alternative allegation of first degree felony murder, one count of burglary in the first degree, one count of robbery in the first degree, three counts of unlawful possession of a firearm in the first degree, and one count of attempting to elude a police vehicle. The latter charges arose out of a robbery and bludgeoning death.

In January 2007, a jury found Irby guilty of murder in the first degree with aggravating circumstances, felony murder in the first degree, and burglary in the first degree. Four years later, the Washington Supreme Court reversed the judgment of conviction and remanded the cause for a new trial in light of the court’s determination that Irby’s due process rights had been violated during jury selection. See State v. Irby, 170 Wn.2d 874, 246 P.3d 796 (2011).

Irby’s retrial was held in 2013. The State prosecuted the same charges that were brought during the first trial and Irby was convicted as charged. Notably, at the retrial, Irby was allowed to proceed pro se. He also voluntarily absented himself from the trial. We subsequently reversed the judgment of conviction and remanded the cause for yet another new trial because the trial judge had erroneously seated a juror who had demonstrated actual bias against Irby during voir dire.

In March 2016, pretrial proceedings began for Irby’s third trial. He was represented by a public defender. In mid-March, the State filed an amended information charging Irby with one count of premeditated murder in the first degree and one count of burglary in the first degree. Two days later, Irby appeared in court and was arraigned on the charges. He entered pleas of not guilty.

In mid-March and again in late March, Irby requested to represent himself. Following a colloquy with the trial court in mid-April, Irby’s request was granted. Four months later, Irby filed a pro se motion to dismiss the charges against him. In his motion, Irby alleged misconduct by jail guards, claiming that (during the period of time during which his public defender represented him) they had improperly opened outgoing mail containing privileged legal communication intended for his attorney.

The trial court denied Irby’s motion. The trial court did determine that the jail guards had violated Irby’s right to counsel by opening and reading privileged attorney-client communications. Although Irby argued that the trial court’s determination mandated that a presumption of prejudice be imposed, the trial court placed on Irby the burden of proving prejudice and concluded that he did not do so.

One month later, Irby informed the trial court that he had decided not to attend the trial and waived his right to be present at trial.

After a jury was selected without Irby’s participation, the evidentiary stage of Irby’s third trial began. Irby did not attend the trial. The State presented its case in chief and gave closing argument. No defense or closing argument were presented on Irby’s behalf.

The jury returned verdicts finding Irby guilty as charged. Irby was sentenced to concurrent terms of incarceration of 388 months for the murder in the first degree conviction and 54 months for the burglary in the first degree conviction.

ISSUES

1. Did a State actor participate in the infringing conduct alleged by the defendant?

2. If so, did the State actor(s) infringe upon a Sixth Amendment right of the defendant?

3. If so, was there prejudice to the defendant? That is, did the State fail to overcome the presumption of prejudice arising from the infringement by not proving the absence of prejudice beyond a reasonable doubt?

4. If so, what is the appropriate remedy to select and apply, considering the totality of the circumstances present, including the degree of prejudice to the defendant’s right to a fair trial and the degree of nefariousness of the conduct by the State actor(s)?

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

First, the Court of Appeals decided  the “State actors” engaged in misconduct.

“Irby’s motion to dismiss alleged that the confrontation between himself and the State involved conduct by jail guards employed by the county jail in which he was being housed,” said the Court of Appeals. “Thus, Irby established that the conduct underlying his claim involved State actors.”

Second, the Court decided  that the jail guards’ conduct infringed upon his Sixth Amendment right.

“Plainly, a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to assistance of counsel is violated when the State intrudes into a privileged attorney-client communication,” said the Court of Appeals.

The court reasoned that here, Irby’s motion to dismiss—and accompanying exhibits and addendum—alleged that he had sent 14 pieces of confidential correspondence containing privileged information to his attorney that, he argued, had been improperly opened and read by jail guards in the Skagit County Jail. The correspondence constituted Irby’s handwritten statements on both a “Public Defender Request Form” and jail kites—multi-purpose request forms available to inmates in the Skagit County Jail.

Prior to sending the correspondence, Irby folded each piece of paper in half, sealed each piece of paper with tape, and written on the outward facing side, “CONFIDENTIAL,” and “ATTORNEY BOX.” Consequently, the Court of Appeals said the folded and taped pieces of paper were intended to be confidential and included privileged attorney-client information. “Thus, the aforementioned correspondence from Irby to his counsel contained privileged attorney-client information protected by the Sixth Amendment.”

Third, the Court of Appeals held that the  jail guards’ opening and reading of Irby’s privileged attorney-client correspondence infringed upon his Sixth Amendment right to counsel. The parties do not dispute the trial court’s finding that jail guards had opened and read Irby’s privileged attorney-client communications. “Thus, the jail guards—and therefore the State—infringed on Irby’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel. This constitutes misconduct, within the meaning of CrR 8.3.

Finally, the Court of Appeals decided Irby was prejudiced by the misconduct:

“More than half a century ago, our Supreme Court ruled that, when State actors pry into a defendant’s privileged attorney-client communications, prejudice to the defendant must be presumed . . . We must assume that information gained by the sheriff was transmitted to the prosecutor and therefore there is no way to isolate the prejudice resulting from an eavesdropping activity, such as this.”

The Court of Appeals further reasoned that recently, our Supreme Court in Pena Fuentes reaffirmed this ruling and, in light of a State actor’s eavesdropping on privileged attorney-client communications, imposed a presumption of prejudice.

Furthermore, because the State actors here at issue—jail guards—infringed upon Irby’s Sixth Amendment right, prejudice must be presumed. Thus, the trial court erred by not imposing a presumption of prejudice after it determined that the jail guards had opened and read Irby’s communications containing privileged attorney-client information.

With that, the Court of Appeals reversed the order denying Irby’s motion to dismiss and remanded this matter for an evidentiary hearing with instructions to the trial court.

My opinion? Excellent decision by the Court of Appeals. It most certainly violates a defendant’s constitutional rights for state actors like jailers, law enforcement and Prosecutors to read mail from an inmate intended for an attorney.

Contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges and are incarcerated awaiting trial. Being in jail is never wise if it can be avoided. Chances are, a qualified and competent attorney can argue for personal release, lowered bail or convince the judge to release the defendant to a family member who is willing to supervise the defendant’s whereabouts.

“Original Gangster” Comment Improper, But Not Prejudicial

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In In re Personal Restraint of Sandoval, the WA Supreme Court held that it was improper for the prosecutor to refer to the defendant as an “OG” (original gangster) in closing argument, where no one testified that simply being a longtime gang member was sufficient for “OG” status.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Sandoval is a member of the Eastside Lokotes Surefios (ELS) gang in Tacoma.
On February 7, 2010, ELS members, in a stolen van, pulled up to a car and fired no less
than 12 gunshots from at least two firearms into the passenger door of the car. The
driver, Camilla Love, was hit three times and died from her injuries.

Sandoval was arrested in September 2010. The State ultimately charged Sandoval
with three counts: first degree murder (by extreme indifference) of Camilla Love (count
I), first degree assault of Joshua Love (count 2), and conspiracy to commit first degree murder (count 3). The other ELS members involved in the shooting were similarly
charged. They were tried along with Sandoval in the same proceeding, but pleaded guilty
after the prosecution rested in exchange for reduced charges. Only Sandoval took his
case to the jury.

During trial, the Prosecutor presented evidence indicating that Sandoval was a longtime ELS member. Sandoval concedes this. Evidence was also presented that OGs have elevated status. The trial court found this evidence sufficient to support a reasonable inference that
Sandoval was an OG.

Later, the jury ultimately convicted Sandoval as charged. The court sentenced Sandoval to a total sentence of 904 months of confinement. The ELS members who pleaded guilty received reduced charges.

Sandoval appealed. Among other issues on appeal, he argued that comments made by the prosecutor during rebuttal closing argument constituted misconduct and that this misconduct violated his constitutional right to a fair trial.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

  1. The Prosecutor’s “OG” References were Improper But Did Not Prejudice
    Sandoval.

The court explained that in order to make a successful claim of prosecutor misconduct, the defense must establish that the prosecuting attorney’s conduct was both improper and prejudicial. To be prejudicial, a substantial likelihood must exist that the misconduct affected the jury’s verdict. The Court further reasoned that when a defendant objects to an allegedly improper comment, it evaluates the trial court’s ruling for an abuse of discretion. Failure to object to an allegedly improper remark constitutes waiver unless the remark is so flagrant and ill-intentioned that it evinces an enduring and resulting prejudice that could not have been neutralized by an admonition to the jury.

“While some of the prosecutor’s comments were improper, Sandoval fails to demonstrate prejudice,” said the Court. The Supreme Court agreed that the prosecutor’s repeated references to Sandoval being an “OG” during his rebuttal closing argument was an improper attempt to embellish Sandoval’s culpability to the jury because the inference was not reasonably supported by the record.

“But no one testified that simply being a longtime gang member was sufficient for OG status,” said the Court. The court reasoned that although a witness testified that an OG was one of the older original members of the gang, the witness did not identify Sandoval as such, instead naming older gang members who were incarcerated at the time of the Love shooting. “Thus, the evidence presented at trial was insufficient for the prosecutor to reasonably infer that Sandoval was an OG,” said the Court. “As a result, the OG comments were improper.”

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court also reasoned that the prejudice generated from such comments is negligible. Sandoval freely admitted he needed to be involved in the attack, attended planning meetings for the attack, and voluntarily assisted a co-defendant in searching out a target and keeping an eye on police that evening. “Given these admissions, it is not substantially likely that the jury’s mistaken belief that Sandoval may have been an OG would have affected the outcome in this case. “This claim has no merit,” said the Court.

2. The Prosecutor’s Racial Comments Were Not Improper.

Here, Sandoval claimed that the prosecutor improperly distinguished between the
gang status of Asian/Pacific Islanders and Latinos during rebuttal closing argument.
The Supreme Court explained that it is improper and a Sixth Amendment violation for a
prosecutor to “flagrantly or apparently intentionally appeals to racial bias in a way that
undermines the defendant’s credibility or the presumption of innocence.”

The court explained that when racial bias is implicated, the normal prejudicial standard for prosecutorial misconduct is elevated. To avoid a constitutional violation from prosecutorial misconduct based on comments appealing to racial bias, the State must demonstrate that the misconduct did not affect the verdict “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

“However, this heightened standard does not apply every time a prosecutor mentions
race,” said the Court. “It applies only when a prosecutor mentions race in an effort to appeal to a juror’s potential racial bias, i.e., to support assertions based on stereotypes rather than evidence.”

The Supreme Court reasoned that here, the prosecutor referred to Asian/Pacific Islanders one time and did so to explain the hierarchy of the ELS membership; that is, only Latinos such as Sandoval could be full-fledged members.

The Supreme Court further reasoned that Sandoval, rather than the State, has the burden of demonstrating that the prosecutor’s comment regarding the role of Asian/Pacific Islanders was improper and prejudicial, and he fails to do so. The trial court did not err when it held that the prosecutor’s statement about gang hierarchy was a reasonable inference based on all the testimony that came out at trial.

“It is not substantially likely that any alleged improper comments by the prosecutor
prejudiced Sandoval,” said the Supreme Court. “This claim has no merit.”

With that, the Supreme Court upheld Sandoval’s conviction and sentence.

My opinion? Prosecutors are bound by a sets of rules which outline fair and dispassionate conduct, especially during trial. Generally, prosecutorial misconduct is an illegal act or failing to act, on the part of a prosecutor, especially an attempt to sway the jury to wrongly convict a defendant or to impose a harsher than appropriate punishment. If prosecutors break these rules, then misconduct might have happened.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member faces criminal charges, especially if it appears the prosecution is unfairly prosecuting your case. It’s important to hire defense counsel who know the scope and limits of which the government can go about proving its case.

Who Is The Toxicologist?

Image result for toxicologist testimony

In the deeply divided 5-4 court decision State v. Salgado-Mendoza, the WA Supreme Court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the defendant’s motion to suppress the toxicologist’s testimony under CrRLJ 8.3(b) even though the defendant was not informed which State toxicologist would testify.

I originally discussed this case in my blog titled, “Prosecutors Must Reveal Toxicologist Identities in DUI Trials.” At that time, the WA Court of Appeals Division II reversed the defendant’s DUI conviction because the Prosecutor failed to give Defense Counsel the name of their Toxicologist expert witness before trial.

On appeal, however, the WA Supreme Court decided differently. It overturned the Court of Appeals and said the trial court, in fact, was correct in denying the defendant’s motion to suppress the toxicologist’s testimony.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On the evening of August 11, 2012, a Washington State Patrol trooper stopped and arrested Mr. Salgado-Mendoza for DUI. His BAC test showed a blood alcohol concentration of 0.103 and 0.104; which is over the .o8 limit.

Before trial, the State initially disclosed the names of nine toxicologists from the Washington State Patrol toxicology laboratory, indicating its intent to call “one of the following.” It whittled the list to three names the day before trial, but did not specify which toxicologist it would call until the morning of trial, noting that it provided the witness’s name “as soon as we had it and that’s all that we can do in terms of disclosure.”

Mendoza moved to suppress the toxicologist’s testimony under CrRLJ 8.3(b) based on
late disclosure, asking the court to “send a message to the state patrol crime lab and
say this isn’t okay anymore.” The trial court refused, finding no actual prejudice to the defense and observing that the practice of disclosing a list of available toxicologists rather than a specific witness was driven more by underfunding of the crime labs than by mismanagement.

Salgado-Mendoza appealed to the superior court, which found the district
court had abused its discretion. The Court of Appeals affirmed, reasoning that the
delayed disclosure violated the discovery rules and caused prejudice. Again, however, the WA Court of Appeals disagreed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Supreme Court reasoned that while the State’s disclosure practice amounted to mismanagement within the meaning of CrRLJ 8.3(b), Salgado-Mendoza has not demonstrated actual prejudice to justify suppression.

The majority Court explained that under CrRLJ 8.3(b), the party seeking relief bears the burden of showing both misconduct and actual prejudice.

“In this case, Salgado-Mendoza can demonstrate misconduct within the meaning of the rule, but not actual prejudice. He can prove misconduct because a discovery violation need not be willful—simple mismanagement will suffice. Here, the State’s failure to at least narrow the list of possible toxicology witnesses pretrial reflects mismanagement,” said the Court. “However, Salgado-Mendoza cannot show prejudice that wan’ants complete suppression of the toxicologist’s testimony.”

With that, the WA Supreme Court held that Mr. Mendoza has not demonstrated actual prejudice to justify suppression of the toxicologist’s testimony. “Because there was no abuse of discretion, we reverse the Court of Appeals.”

THE DISSENT

Justice Madsen authored the dissenting opinion. She was joined by Justices Yu, Gordon McCloud and Johnson.

In short, the dissenting judges disagreed with the majority because they believed the defendant was prejudiced by this delayed disclosure of the possible toxicologists who would testify. They reasoned that forcing a defendant to bear the burden of preparing to cross-examine a long list of witnesses when the State only intends to call one is not how our system of justice operates.

“The State cannot cite funding deficiencies and simply shift its burden of prosecution onto defense counsel,” wrote Judge Madsen. “If the State wishes to pursue prosecution, it must allocate sufficient resources to its departments so that they may operate in a way that is consistent with a defendant’s right to a fair trial.”

“By under-staffing the State’s toxicology laboratory so that they cannot confirm who will testify until the day of trial, the State is not meeting this burden and defendants are being forced to compensate for the deficiency. Therefore, I would find that the trial court abused its discretion by denying Salgado-Mendoza’s motion to suppress the toxicologist’s testimony.”

My opinion? I must agree with the dissenting opinion. Under the Sixth Amendment and the WA Constitution, The State bears the burden of proving their charges beyond a reasonable doubt. Also, the State must follow discovery rules under CrR 4.7. One of the State’s discovery obligations is to name their witnesses who they call to testify. Period. Collateral issues revolving around the State’s under-staffing and a lack of funding should not excuse violating a defendant’s Constitutional rights.

Evidence of Self-Defense

Image result for self-defense

In State v. Lee, the WA Court of Appeals held that the trial court violated the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to present a defense by excluding evidence of self-defense.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On January 25, 2015, the defendant Chevalier  Lee’s girlfriend, Danielle Spicer, visited the home of Alice Gonzalez and her husband, Louis Gonzalez -ernandez. Spicer went to the Gonzalez’s house and stayed there with Gonzalez and Gonzalez Hernandez’s’ five children while Gonzalez and Gonzalez-Hernandez ran errands. Gonzalez and Gonzalez-Hernandez returned home to find Lee at their house playing cards with their children and Spicer. Although they had not invited him, Lee had been to their home many times and was generally welcome there.

Later that evening, Lee and Spicer began arguing about whether they would spend the night with Gonzalez and Gonzalez-Hernandez or return to their respective individual residences. Lee loudly cursed at Spicer as the argument escalated. Gonzalez-Hernandez told Lee that he did not like “that kind of behavior” in his house and Lee would have to leave. Lee refused and said that he didn’t have to leave. Gonzalez-Hernandez told Lee to leave approximately three-to-five times. According to Lee, he then cursed at Gonzalez-Hernandez who “came right at” him. Gonzalez-Hernandez had his hands up. Lee was scared and hit Gonzalez-Hernandez. The two men then wrestled. Lee left after seeing the scared looks Gonzalez, Spicer, and the children had.

According to Gonzalez-Hernandez, Lee called him a “f**king b***h” and hit him in the
face. Another witness saw Lee approach Gonzalez-Hernandez and get within inches of his face. Gonzalez-Hernandez again told Lee to leave and Lee “swung at him.” After they fought for a few minutes, Gonzalez called 911 and Lee and Spicer left.

Jury Trial

At trial, the defense sought to elicit testimony from Spicer that she and Lee had witnessed
Gonzalez-Hernandez being “physical with his wife” in a separate incident four days prior to the assault. Lee’s attorney argued that this evidence would show that Lee had actual knowledge that Mr. Gonzalez-Hernandez actually had the capacity to be aggressive and/or violent. According to Lee’s defense attorney, this evidence would show Lee’s state of mind regarding his need to defend himself.

The judge sustained the City’s objection, finding the evidence was “more prejudicial than probative” and that allowing such evidence would open the door to evidence about Lee’s prior misconduct. The defense suggested it would then elicit testimony that Lee “had prior information that Mr. Gonzalez-Hernandez had been known to be aggressive.” The trial court sustained the City’s objection to this evidence, finding it “more prejudicial than probative of anything.”

In fact, during Lee’s testimony, Lee stated that he “had reason to be scared of Gonzalez-Hernandez already,” to which the City objected and the court sustained. Neither the City nor the court stated any specific grounds for this objection or ruling.

A jury found Lee guilty of Assault Fourth Degree. He appealed to the Pierce County Superior Court which affirmed the conviction. The WA Court of Appeals granted Lee’s motion for discretionary review.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals held that the trial court violated Lee’s Sixth Amendment right to present a defense by excluding evidence of self-defense.

The Court agreed with Lee that evidence he had witnessed regarding Gonzalez-Hernandez’s recent violent behavior was critical to his defense because it both increased the likelihood he had a subjective fear of Gonzalez-Hernandez and it made his fear more objectively reasonable, thus strengthening his self-defense argument.

The Court of Appeals reasoned that self-defense is a complete defense under RCW 9A.16.020. A defense of self-defense requires proof (1) that the defendant had a subjective fear of imminent danger of bodily harm, (2) that this belief was objectively reasonable, and (3) that the defendant exercised no more force than was reasonably necessary. The City has the burden of proving the absence of self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Court further reasoned that evidence of self-defense is evaluated from the standpoint of the reasonably prudent person, knowing all the defendant knows and seeing all the defendant sees. This standard incorporates both objective and subjective elements. The subjective portion requires the jury to stand in the shoes of the defendant and consider all the facts and circumstances known to him or her; the objective portion requires the jury to use this information to determine what a reasonably prudent person similarly situated would have done.

Also, said the Court, a fact finder evaluates self-defense from the defendant’s point of view as conditions appeared to him at the time of the act. For the subjective portion of the self-defense test, jurors must place themselves in the shoes of the defendant and evaluate self-defense in light of all that the defendant knew at the time. All facts and circumstances known to the defendant should be placed before the jury. Thus, reasoned the court, under ER 404(B) and ER 405 (B), where a defendant claims self-defense, a victim’s prior acts of violence known to the defendant are admissible to establish a defendant’s reason for apprehension and his basis for acting in self-defense.

ER 404(B)

To determine whether a specific act should be admissible under rule 404(B), the trial court must (1) find by a preponderance of the evidence that the misconduct occurred, (2) identify the purpose for which the evidence is sought to be introduced, (3) determine whether the evidence is relevant to prove an element of the crime charged, and (4) weigh the probative value against the prejudicial effect. The trial court is required to conduct an ER 404(b) analysis on the record.

“In this case, Lee sought to admit evidence of Gonzalez Hernandez’s prior acts of violence
to prove that Lee had knowledge of those acts, giving him reason to fear Gonzalez-Hernandez,” said the Court.

Furthermore, the Court reasoned that evidence that Lee had witnessed Gonzalez-Hernandez being “physical” with his wife four days before the incident was relevant to Lee’s state of mind. “The evidence would allow the jury to assess Lee’s reason to fear
bodily harm from the victim,” said the Court.

Finally, the Court weighed the probative value of Gonzalez-Hernandez’s history of violence against its prejudicial effect. “Because the evidence in this case was relevant and otherwise admissible, the trial court should only exclude it if the City showed that the evidence was so prejudicial as to disrupt the fairness of the fact-finding process at trial,” said the Court. “Here, the proffered evidence went to Lee’s complete defense. Its probative value is to allow Lee to present a defense.”

Consequently, the Court ruled that the City failed to demonstrate that evidence of Gonzalez-Hernandez’s prior violent conduct known to Lee would be so prejudicial as to outweigh Lee’s Sixth Amendment right to present his defense. “This type of evidence should be heard by a jury so it can assess the reasonableness of Lee’s actions,” said the Court.

With that, the Court of Appeals reversed Lee’s conviction.

My opinion? Good decision. Under the Sixth Amendment, citizens have a right to an adequate defense. Under Washington statute, self-defense is a complete defense. Therefore, suppressing evidence which proves self-defense violates the Sixth Amendment.

‘Sanctuary’ Cities Targeted by ICE in Immigration Raids

Image result for ice raids sanctuary cities

Erik Ortiz reported that a federal operation to arrest undocumented immigrants netted nearly 500 people in cities and states that have openly opposed the Trump administration’s deportation initiatives.

According to Ortiz, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials said last Thursday that its four-day “Operation Safe City” targeted people in residing in the so-called “Sanctuary Cities” of New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Denver, Washington and Baltimore as well as Cook County, Illinois; Santa Clara County in California’s Bay Area; Portland, Oregon; and Massachusetts.

Officials in those places — some referring to themselves as “sanctuary  communities” — have been vocal about not fully cooperating with federal immigration authorities, at times clashing with state leaders who support President Donald Trump’s agenda. Sanctuary communities have passed ordinances limiting compliance with federal immigration laws and seek to shield undocumented immigrants who may be deported simply over their immigration statuses or low-level criminal offenses.

“Sanctuary jurisdictions that do not honor detainers or allow us access to jails and prisons are shielding criminal aliens from immigration enforcement and creating a magnet for illegal immigration,” Tom Homan, ICE’s acting director, said in a statement. “As a result, ICE is forced to dedicate more resources to conduct at-large arrests in these communities.”

It is not unusual for ICE to round up immigrants by the hundreds or even low thousands, although the latest raid comes on the heels of a planned operation that would have targeted about 8,400 undocumented immigrants this month.

But the Department of Homeland Security scrapped the operation after the agency said it was halting nationwide enforcement actions in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Harvey. This latest effort indicates the administration is ready to renew its efforts.

“ICE’s goal is to build cooperative, respectful relationships with our law enforcement partners to help prevent dangerous criminal aliens from being released back onto the streets,” Homan said.

According to ICE, of the 498 people arrested this week, 317 had criminal convictions. Some were also categorized as “immigration fugitives,” “previously deported criminal aliens,” and/or associated with a gang.

Most of the criminal convictions were for driving under the influence as well as assault- and drug-related offenses, ICE said. Others were arrested for marijuana possession, traffic offenses and even charges of being a “peeping tom.”

City officials declared Portland a sanctuary city in March, and its mayor, Ted Wheeler, has criticized the Trump administration’s push to end the Obama-era program that has allowed undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children to remain in the country.

The administration, meanwhile, has faced setbacks as it seeks to overhaul immigration — an issue that has failed repeatedly to gain traction in Congress. Weeks ago, a U.S. district judge in northern Illinois gave sanctuary cities a temporary victory, saying the Justice Department can’t withhold public safety grants to Chicago because officials there don’t want to impose certain immigration policies.

My opinion? As a criminal defense attorney, my role is to protect people’s Constitutional Rights under the Fourth Amendment. Therefore, I have a natural inclination to prevent warrantless, unlawful searches and seizures.

That said, I understand if the government declares a state of emergency holding that exigent circumstances warrants the immediate seizure and deportation of undocumented immigrants.

However, there’s lots of controversy surrounding the subject of ICE raids on Sanctuary Cities. Some civil rights advocates say the raids fit with the Trump administration’s pattern of scapegoating, criminalizing, and demonizing immigrants. Also, courts have said that holding someone without a warrant could violate their constitutional rights, putting jailers at risk of lawsuits. Finally, others have accused Trump’s attack on sanctuary cities as a malignant executive power grab that subverts the Spending Clause and tramples the 10th Amendment.

Let’s see what happens . . .



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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