Category Archives: Theft of Motor Vehicle

Unlawful Opinion Testimony of Police Officer

Image result for police officer testifying pointing

In State v. Winborne, the WA Court of Appeals held that an officer’s use of the word “reckless” or “eluding” while testifying in a Felony Eluding trial was improper opinion testimony.

BACKGROUND FACTS

The State of Washington charged Tishawn Winborne with Theft of a Motor Vehicle, two counts of Attempting to Elude a Police Vehicle, one count of Second Degree Assault, and one count of Third Degree Assault. The assault charges arise from his resisting
of police officers.

At the start of trial, Tishawn Winborne made a motion in limine to prohibit the State’s witnesses from testifying regarding ultimate factual issues such as whether Winborne “eluded” or drove “recklessly.” However, the trial court denied the motion. For those who don’t know, a motion in limine is a pretrial motion asking that certain evidence be found inadmissible, and that it not be referred to or offered at trial.

During trial, State witnesses repeatedly testified to Tishawn Winborne’s driving “recklessly” or “eluding” law enforcement. At the close of the State’s case, the trial court dismissed the Theft of a Motor Vehicle charge because of insufficient evidence.

The jury found Tishawn Winborne guilty of both counts of Attempting to Elude a Police Vehicle, but acquitted Winborne of both assault charges.

Winborne appealed. Among other issues, he challenged the trial court’s denial of his motion in limine to prohibit any witness from testifying that Winborne drove “recklessly” or “eluded” police.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that no witness, lay or expert, may testify to his or her opinion as to the guilt of a defendant, whether by direct statement or inference. Whether testimony provides an improper opinion turns on the circumstances of the case, including (1) the type of witness involved, (2) the specific nature of the testimony, (3) the nature of the charges, (4) the type of defense, and (5) the other evidence before the trier of fact.

Next, the Court held this case was similar to the controlling precedent of State v. Farr-Lenzini:

“The state trooper in State v. Farr-Lenzini did not employ the word “reckless” in his testimony as did officers in Tishawn Winborne’s trial. Nevertheless, the same reasoning behind excluding the testimony applies. An officer can testify to his observations of the driving of the defendant without drawing conclusions assigned to the jury.”

Finally, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court abused its discretion by denying Tishawn Winborne’s motion in limine. It reasoned that the State’s police officer witnesses testified by direct statements to Tishawn Winborne’s guilt. “Whether Tishawn Winborne drove ‘recklessly’ or ‘eluded’ the officer is an element of attempting to elude a police vehicle,” said the Court. “A law enforcement officer’s improper opinion testimony may be particularly prejudicial because it carries a special aura of reliability.”

With that, the Court of Appeals reversed Tishawn Winbome’s convictions for Felony Eluding a Police Officer and remanded for a new trial.

My opinion? Good decision. The Court of Appeals is correct in saying that a police officer’s improper opinion testimony may be particularly prejudicial because it carries a special aura of reliability. This is true. Instinctively, most jurors give much weight to the testimony of police officers. And the police officers know that. For those reasons, it is imperative for defense attorneys to argue pretrial motions in limine asking the trial judge to prohibit the police officers from offering their opinions at trial and to take exception to the court’s adverse rulings; thus preserving the issue for appeal. Kudos to the defense attorney in this case.

Witness Tampering

Image result for jail call

In State v. Gonzalez, the WA Court of Appeals decided there was sufficient evidence that the defendant attempted to influence a witness to testify falsely where he asked the witness to give a different story than the one she told the police.

BACKGROUND FACTS

The defendant Leonel Gonzalez was in a relationship with Nona Hook for several years. Hook lived with her mother, Carol Salyers, and several other family members, and Gonzalez was frequently in the home. Salyers owned a Jeep and permitted Hook, but not Gonzalez, to drive it.

In the early morning hours of September 21, Gonzalez called Hook, and she asked him if
he had taken her Jeep. According to Hook, Gonzalez denied knowing anything about the Jeep, but he told her that he was “coming home.” At some point after this call, someone contacted the police.

The police were waiting when Gonzalez arrived at Hook’s home in the Jeep. Upon seeing
the police, Gonzalez drove away, jumped out of the Jeep while it was still moving, and attempted to flee on foot. The Jeep rolled into and damaged a parked vehicle. The police caught and arrested Gonzalez. Following his arrest, officers discovered a white substance that later tested positive for both methamphetamine and cocaine in Gonzalez’s back pocket.

Jail Call

While in jail following his arrest, Gonzalez called Hook. This call was recorded.

During the call, Gonzalez insisted that Hook listen to him and told her that some people
were trying to contact her and that when his “investigator” or “somebody” called her, she was to tell them that she “gave him permission.” Hook responded, “Tell them that I gave you permission,” and Gonzalez interrupted her and told her to “listen” and said adamantly, “That’s it.”

Hook responded by chuckling and saying, “That’s gonna be a little bit hard for me to do.”  Gonzalez appears to respond, “Well, then don’t do it.” The rest of Gonzalez’s response is unclear.

Hook replied, “I mean, for one thing, I was—you already know what the deal was.” And Gonzalez told her aggressively to “listen” and that they were not “going to talk about all that.” He then stated, “You know what to do, so.” Gonzalez and Hook then talked about when Hook could visit so they could talk about their relationship and whether they would marry even if he was in prison. During this part of the conversation, Hook commented about how hard it was for her to be away from him, and Gonzalez responded by asking her whether she “would rather deal with” 6 or 15 years.

Criminal Charges

The State charged Gonzalez with theft of a motor vehicle, unlawful possession of a controlled substance (methamphetamine), hit and run, and tampering with a witness.

Jury Trial & Appeal

At trial, Ms. Hook testified about the jail calls. Ultimately, the jury found Gonzalez guilty of unlawful possession of a controlled substance and tampering with a witness.

Gonzalez appealed under arguments that the evidence was insufficient to support the witness tampering conviction because (1) he asked Hook to speak to his investigator and never discussed her testimony and (2) there was no evidence he was asking Hook to testify falsely.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

Gonzalez argues that the State failed to prove that he was attempting to influence Hook to
testify falsely because he asked her to tell the defense investigator only something different than she told the police. He asserts that speaking to the defense investigator is not the equivalent of testimony.

“We disagree,” said the Court of Appeals. The Court reasoned that Gonzalez’s request that Hook tell the defense investigator a different story than she told the police would have little effect if it did not also imply that Hook needed to also be willing to testify consistently with what she told the defense investigator. “Thus, a rational finder of fact could have easily found that Gonzalez was attempting to influence Hook’s potential testimony,” said the Court.

Gonzalez also argued that there was insufficient evidence to establish that he asked Hook
to testify falsely.

“Again, we disagree,” said the Court of Appeals. “At no point in her testimony did Hook testify that she had given Gonzalez permission to take the Jeep on September 18th,” said the Court. Instead, she testified that she dropped Gonzalez off, drove the Jeep home and parked it, and left the keys near the back door. Although Gonzalez came into her bedroom the next morning, Hook did not testify that he asked for or that she gave him permission to drive the Jeep.

The Court of Appeals further reasoned that taking this evidence in the light most favorable to the State, the jury could find that Hook’s testimony established that Gonzalez took the Jeep without her permission and that Hook’s testimony was truthful.

“Given that Gonzalez asked Hook to state that she had given him permission, a rational finder of fact could have easily found that Gonzalez was asking Hook to testify falsely. Accordingly, Gonzalez’s insufficient evidence arguments fail, and we affirm his witness tampering conviction.”

In sum, the Court of Appeals affirmed Gonzalez’s convictions, but remanded for re-sentencing on the unlawful possession of a controlled substance conviction consistent with this opinion.

Lawnmowers Aren’t Vehicles.

Image result for steal riding lawnmower

In State v. Barnes, the WA Court of Appeals Division III held that a riding lawnmower is not a “motor vehicle” for the the crime of Theft of a Motor Vehicle, RCW 9A.56.065.

On June 22, 2015, defendant Joshua Barnes and a female companion, Danielle Goodman, drove a white pickup to Judy Fraker’s property near Leavenworth. Fraker was home. Barnes exited the pickup, mounted Fraker’s riding lawnmower, and started the mower’s motor. The mower was a Craftsman, gas-powered, self-propelled riding lawnmower, with a twenty-six horse power engine. Barnes drove the lawnmower up a ramp and into the bed of his pickup.

Fraker exited her home, confronted Barnes, ordered him to remove her lawnmower from his pickup and leave her premises. Barnes obeyed. Two days later, Barnes admitted to law enforcement that he attempted to steal the riding lawnmower.

The State of Washington charged Barnes with Theft of a Motor Vehicle, Driving With License Suspended in the Third Degree, and Criminal Trespass in the Second Degree. Barnes argued a Knapstad Motion to dismiss the allegation of Theft of a Motor Vehicle under arguments that the evidence was insufficient because a lawnmower is not a “motor vehicle.” The trial court agreed and dismissed the charge of theft of a motor vehicle without prejudice. The State pursued appealed.

The Court began by saying that Washington follows the “Plain Meaning” rule. In other words, to determine legislative intent, this court looks first to the language of the statute. If the statute’s meaning is plain on its face, the court will give effect to that plain meaning as the expression of what was intended. Here, the Court reasoned that a riding lawnmower meets the elements· of ‘motor vehicle’ if we read RCW 46.04.320 and .670 literally.

Nevertheless – and in a surprising twist – the Court questioned whether we should always follow the Plain Meaning principle. First, “The legislature sometimes uses inept language in expressing its intent,” reasoned the Court. Second, courts should interpret statutes to affect their purpose. “Therefore, any unlikely, absurd, or strained consequences resulting from a plain and literal reading of the statute should be avoided and a literal reading of RCW 46.04.320 and its definition of “motor vehicle” would lead to unintended and silly results,” reasoned the Court:

“As argued by Joshua Barnes, a literal reading ofRCW 46.04.320 and its definition of ‘motor vehicle’ would lead to unintended and silly results. An iRobot Roomba, a self-propelled vacuum, would be a motor vehicle, since one could transport small property on the Roomba. A jokester could place her cat on top of the vacuum and send the iRobot Roomba down her neighborhood street. Theft of a child’s remote control car that includes a doll in the driver’s seat would also qualify for theft of a motor vehicle if we literally read RCW 46.04.320 and .670. Therefore, the purposes behind RCW 9A.56.065 should assist in limiting a literal meaning of the ‘motor vehicle’ definition.”

With that, the Court of Appeals affirmed the superior court’s dismissal of charges against Joshua Barnes for theft of a motor vehicle. “A riding lawnmower is not a motor vehicle for purposes of theft.”

My opinion? Good decision. I’ve argued many pretrial motions where my opponent’s statutory interpretations lead to absurd results. Sometimes, we must point out the obvious.

State v. Howerton: Citizen 911 Call Supports Terry Stop

 

In State v. Howerton, the WA Court of Appeals held that a citizen informant’s 911 call was reliable enough to support a Terry stop. The citizen informant provided her name, address, and telephone number to the dispatch, included a statement that she had just witnessed the crime, objective facts that indicated criminal rather than legal activity, and an offer to speak with the police if they needed to contact her.

On September 29, 2013, at 2:00 a.m., Laura Parks called 911 from her cell phone to report that she just witnessed someone break into a van parked across the street from her house. She provided her name, address, and telephone number to the dispatcher. Parks described the suspect as a black male, average build, five feet seven inches tall, wearing a baggy black leather jacket and baggy pants. She stated he left the area on foot and was heading south on Second Avenue in Burien, Washington.

Police responded to the call and began searching the area for the subject. They contacted a man identified as Delante Howerton matching the description. Howerton was handcuffed. Police noticed a blade sticking out of Howerton’s sleeve. When searched Howerton for weapons, police officers found a foot-long bread knife and a screwdriver on Howerton’s person.

Ms. Parks confirmed that Howerton was the individual she saw break into the van earlier.

Howerton was charged with attempted Theft of a Motor Vehicle, Making or Possessing Vehicle Theft Tools, and Intimidating a Public Servant. The trial court later dismissed the charge of intimidating a public servant. Howerton moved to suppress evidence obtained as a result of the investigatory detention. Specifically, Howerton argued Hutchinson lacked reasonable articulable suspicion to detain him when Hutchinson’s only source of information was from a named but unknown telephone informant. After a CrR 3.5 and CrR 3.6 hearing, the trial court denied Howerton’s motion to suppress.

A jury convicted Howerton of misdemeanor second degree attempted taking of a motor vehicle without permission and making or having vehicle theft tools. He appealed.

The Court of Appeals upheld Howerton’s conviction and ruled his stop/arrest was lawful under Terry v. Ohio. They reasoned that an investigatory Terry stop is permissible ifthe investigating officer has a reasonable and articulable suspicion that the individual is involved in criminal activity. A reasonable suspicion is the substantial possibility that criminal conduct has occurred or is about to occur. A reasonable suspicion can arise from information that is less reliable than that required to establish probable cause.

The Court further reasoned that an informant’s tip can provide police with reasonable suspicion to justify an investigatory Terry stop if the tip possesses sufficient “‘indicia of reliability.'” Courts employ the totality of the circumstances test to determine whether an informant’s tip possessed sufficient indicia of reliability to support reasonable suspicion. When deciding whether this indicia of reliability exists, the courts will generally consider several factors, primarily “(1) whether the informant is reliable, (2) whether the information was obtained in a reliable fashion, and (3) whether the officers can corroborate any details of the informant’s tip.” Known citizen informants are presumptively reliable.

Here, the Court further reasoned that Parks’s 911 call demonstrated a sufficient factual basis to provide reasonable suspicion for the seizure:

Here, Parks unequivocally indicated to the 911 dispatcher that she was an eyewitness. When she called 911, she told the dispatcher, “I just saw a robbery.” She provided her full name, her address, and her telephone number. She indicated that she was willing to speak with police if they needed to contact her. She told the dispatcher the incident occurred “directly across the street” from her house and that it “just now happened.” She stated that an individual “broke into a car.” She said she actually saw him enter the car. She gave a detailed description of the suspect—black male, average build, short hair, five feet seven inches tall, wearing a baggy black leather jacket and baggy pants. The dispatcher immediately broadcast this description via radio to officers. Parks stated that the suspect just left the scene heading south on Second Avenue. She also accurately described the street location. Further, Parks reported objective facts that indicated criminal rather than legal activity.

The court further elaborated that Ms. Parks reinforced her factual basis for these allegations by stating that the incident “just now happened” and that the car was directly across the street from her house. Parks reported facts she personally observed. The Court decided the information was reliably obtained and that the police corroborated the information from Ms. Parks’ tip.

Consequently, the totality of the circumstances supported Howerton’s  Terry stop. The Court of Appeals upheld his conviction.