Category Archives: Theft

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.

Elder Abuse Bill Goes to Vote

Image result for elder abuse

Washington State may pass new legislation protecting elderly, vulnerable adults against financial exploitation and neglect.

House Bill 1153 unanimously passed in the Senate earlier this month and was approved in the House in February. A date has not yet been set for the bill to be signed by Gov. Jay Inslee, though it will happen within the next few weeks.

The legislation, requested by the attorney general, would (1) lower the requisite mental state for the crimes of Criminal Mistreatment in the first and second degree from recklessness to criminal negligence, and (2) creates the crimes of Theft from a Vulnerable Adult in the first degree and second degree. A “vulnerable adult” is defined as any person 18 years or older who is clearly mentally or physically unable to care for himself or herself or suffers from a cognitive impairment.

Currently, for a standard theft offense, a person could serve zero to 90 days in a county jail if they have no prior criminal history. The new statute, however, would rank the crime at a higher seriousness level of theft by forcing an offender who has no priors to serve up to 12 to 14 months in prison. Additionally, if defendants were convicted of several crimes in the past, prosecutors say they could face up to 8 ½ years in prison compared to the existing maximum penalty, which is closer to five years.

Some people opposed this part of the bill during public hearings held earlier this year saying it goes from zero to prison too quickly, but the bill’s sponsor, Democratic Rep. Roger Goodman of Kirkland, says financial abuse of elderly and vulnerable adults is reaching epidemic proportions and the penalties are not strong enough to deter anyone.

“We need to send a strong message that abusing the elderly, financially or physically, is serious enough that you’re going to have a felony on your record and you’re going to go to prison and be supervised afterward,” Goodman said.

Last year, the state’s adult protective services received more than 35,000 complaints. Of those, nearly 8,700 were related to financial abuse of an elderly or vulnerable adult and more than 5,600 were complaints of neglect.

Also under the statute, the standard of proof for criminal mistreatment cases would change from “recklessness” to “criminal negligence,” something prosecutors say was needed to make it easier to prove cases.

“This is a major change that will allow us to hold more people accountable who cause vulnerable people serious injury or death,” said Page Ulrey, a King County senior deputy prosecuting attorney, who has prosecuted elder abuse cases since 2001.

Ulrey said the new statute seems like a more appropriate penalty for the degree of harm that is often done in these cases, which she says is committed most often by someone the person trusts or loves such as a family member or close friend.

Mike Webb, the legislative affairs director at the attorney general’s office, said he’s seen jurors fail to find recklessness beyond a reasonable doubt in cases when an offender didn’t remove a catheter leading to death or somebody didn’t turn a vulnerable person over for so long it led to bed sores to the bone.

“The existing law made it very challenging to bring about a felony criminal mistreatment charge because jurors struggled to find reckless behavior,” he said. “Most saw it as a failure to act rather than recklessness.”

Ulrey pointed out another significant change the bill would do is extend the statute of limitations as financial exploitation of vulnerable adults can take years to be uncovered. She said it gives law enforcement, prosecutors and other adult protection services six years instead of three to investigate and gather information surrounding the case.

Thirty-seven states have criminal penalties for financial exploitation of the elderly and vulnerable adults, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Thirty-four states currently have pending legislation.

My opinion? Elder abuse is awful. Still, lowering the standard of proof for criminal mistreatment cases from “recklessness” to “criminal negligence” may inadvertently create problems for jurors trying these cases. There are many components to “Negligence.” For example, was there actual negligence? Was there a duty of care? Was there a breach of duty? If so, was the breach foreseeable under the circumstances? Were there damages? Not every case is cut and dried.

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.

Wire Cutters Are NOT Theft Tools.

In State v. Larson, the WA Supreme Court overruled the WA Court of Appeals and decided that the crime of Retail Theft With Special Circumstances under RCW 9A.56.360(1)(b), which elevates theft to a more serious offense when the defendant is in possession of “an item, article, implement or device designed to overcome security systems,” only applies to an item that is created – whether by the manufacturer or the defendant – with the specific purpose of disabling or evading security systems.

Defendant Zachary Larson attempted to steal a $32 pair of shoes from a Marshall’s store in Bellingham, WA. The shoes were equipped with a security device that was attached to the shoes by wire. Yet, Larson, using wire cutters that he had brought into the store, severed the wire and removed the security device. When Larson tried to leave the store, he was stopped by security employees and, subsequently, was charged with one count of Retail Theft with Special circumstances, which criminalizes the commission of retail theft while in possession of a “device designed to overcome security systems.”

While the case was pending, Larson argued a Knapstad motion to dismiss. The trial court denied the motion and found Larson guilty as charged. He was sentenced to 60 days of confinement. Larson appealed. Ultimately, the Court of Appeals confirmed Larson’s conviction. Larson appealed again to the WA Supreme Court.

The WA Supreme Court addressed the specific issue of whether ordinary wire cutters are “designed to overcome security systems” within the context of retail theft.

The Court reasoned that whenever it must interpret the meaning and scope of a statute, “our fundamental objective is to determine and give effect to the intent of the legislature.” Furthermore,  lined bags and tag removers – of which the Defendant did not possess – are highly specialized tools with little to no utility outside of the commission of retail theft. “From this fact, it can be reasonably inferred that there is no reason a person would be in possession of these items except to facilitate retail theft.”

Furthermore, reasoned the court we must interpret statutes to avoid absurd results:

For example, where a person slips a stolen item into his pocket to hide it from a store’s security camera, the pocket has arguably become a “device designed to overcome security systems.” Similarly, a person who happens to have in her pocket a pair of nail clippers, a Leatherman multi tool, or any other tool that people commonly carry with them, at the time she shoplifts would be guilty of retail theft with extenuating circumstances. As these practical examples demonstrate, the State’s over-inclusive approach belies the statute’s primary purpose of capturing retail theft that occurs under certain aggravating circumstances.

The Court concluded that the plain language of the Retail Theft statute indicates that the legislature intended the statute to have a narrow scope:

We hold that “designed to overcome security systems” for the purposes of retail theft . . . is limited to those items, articles, implements, or devices created-whether by the defendant or manufacturer-with the specialized purpose of overcoming security systems. Ordinary tools, such as pliers or the wire cutters used by Larson, do not fall within the scope . . .  The evidence is insufficient to support Larson’s conviction for third degree retail theft with extenuating circumstances, and we reverse the Court of Appeals.

My opinion? Good decision. In interpreting the statute, the WA Supreme Court correctly applied a narrow scope because, quite frankly, any household tool found in the pockets of an alleged thief can be viewed as a tool “designed to overcome security systems.” This is unjust. Retail Theft With Special Circumstances is a Class C felony exposing defendants up to 5 years prison and a $10,000 fine. That’s quite serious. Do we want to punish thieves with Class C felonies for stealing shoes from Marshall’s store while carrying a Swiss Army knife in their pocket? Do these circumstances warrant sending people to prison? No. The WA Supreme Court got this one right.

State v. Meza: Freezing Funds Without a Warrant Is Unlawful

In State v. Meza, the WA Court of Appeals Division II held that a trial court’s order to freeze the defendant’s bank account was not a search warrant, and therefore did not satisfy the warrant requirement for the seizure of funds.

In June 2014, John Armstrong spoke with the Lewis County sheriff’s office and alleged that Rafael Meza had swindled money from him. Deputy Justin Rogers investigated Armstrong’s allegations. Rogers contacted the Twin Star Credit Union and verified that Meza held an account that had received large wire transfers recently. Rogers also learned from Mansfield that Meza recently had informed him that he was planning to go to Mexico.

Rogers served Twin Star Credit Union with a valid search warrant for Meza’s account information. Meza’s bank statements showed a check and four wire transfers from Mansfield totaling $105,000, with the last transfer on June 18. They also showed a single wire transfer from Armstrong in the amount of $15,000 on April 11. Meza’s checking account showed that between October 2013 and June 2014, he withdrew approximately $89,000 in cash in 41 transactions involving between $3,000 and $5,000 each.

On June 27, 2014, the State charged Meza with one count of Theft in the First Degree. On the same day, the State presented an ex parte “Motion for an Order Freezing and Holding Funds” to the judge. The State asserted that the funds in Meza’s credit union accounts were “evidence in a felony offense.” The State’s motion was based on the probable cause affidavit filed with the information and asserted that there was “a high likelihood, based on the affidavit regarding probable cause, that Meza will remove said funds and leave the country.”

Importantly, the State did not request a search warrant for the credit union funds or reference CrR 2.3 in its motion.

Nevertheless, the trial court signed an order directing Twin Star Credit Union to “freeze and hold all accounts in the name of . . . Meza . . . as evidence in a criminal proceeding, until further order of this Court.” Also, neither the motion nor the order cited any legal authority for freezing Meza’s accounts.

In January 2015, Meza filed a motion to vacate the trial court’s order. Meza argued that there was no legal authority for the order. The trial court denied Meza’s motion to vacate the order, saying there was probable cause to believe that Meza’s account was related to the charged crime. The court concluded that it had the authority to freeze Meza’s funds under CrR 2.3. In addition, the trial court ruled that Meza’s account qualified as both evidence of a crime and the proceeds of a crime. Meza filed a motion for discretionary review. The WA Court of Appeals accepted the case.

The WA Court of Appeals reasoned that The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” Similarly, article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution provides that “no person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law.” These provisions generally prohibit warrantless searches and seizures unless one of the narrow exceptions to the warrant requirement applies.

Consequently, reasoned the court, a person’s banking records fall within the constitutional protection of private affairs. Although no Washington case has addressed whether funds in a bank account can be seized without a warrant it defies reason to extend constitutional protection to bank account records but not to the funds reflected in those records. The Court emphasized that the seizure of funds is as much a threat to security in a person’s effects and a disturbance of a person’s private affairs as the seizure of the records regarding those funds:

“Here, the State cites no statute, court rule, or other authority allowing the seizure of a defendant’s bank account in these circumstances. Therefore, the seizure was not authorized by law.”

Finally, the Court rejected the State’s argument that under State v. Garcia-Salgado the trial court’s order is the functional equivalent of a search warrant.

“We hold that the Garcia-Salgado holding is limited to cases where the trial court’s order is authorized by law. Allowing a court order to function as a warrant when there is no independent authority for a seizure would render CrR 2.3 meaningless. Limiting the scope of Garcia-Salgado preserves the integrity of CrR 2.3. We hold that Garcia-Salgado is inapplicable and that the trial court’s order cannot be treated as the functional equivalent of a warrant.”

Based on these decision the Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred in ordering the seizure of Meza’s credit union account.

My opinion? GOOD opinion. Very sensible and reasonable. It’s refreshing that the COurt of Appeals followed the law and made the right decision.

State v. Larson: Retail Theft With Extenuating Circumstances

Interesting opinion.

In State v. Larson wire cutters, which were used to sever the wire that attached a department store security device to a pair of Nike shoes, are a “device designed to overcome security systems” for purposes of RCW 9A.56.360(1)(b). 

Defendant Zachary Larson attempted to steal a pair of shoes from a retail store. The shoes were equipped with a security device that was attached to the shoes by wire. Yet, Larson, using wire cutters that he had brought into the store, severed the wire and removed the security device. When Larson tried to leave the store, he was stopped by security employees and, subsequently, was charged with one count of Retail Theft with Extenuating circumstances under RCW 9A.56.360(1)(b), which criminalizes the commission of retail theft while in possession of a “device designed to overcome security systems.”

While the case was pending, he argued a Knapstad motion seeking dismissal of the charge. Therein, he argued that, as a matter of law, wire cutters do not constitute a “device designed to overcome security systems.” The trial court denied his Knapstad motion. On December 18, the trial court found Larson guilty as charged. He was sentenced to 60 days of confinement. Larson appealed on the argument that the trial court improperly denied his Knapstad motion and that wire cutters do, in fact, constitute a device designed to overcome security systems.

The court disagreed with Larson and stated the following:

“The plain meaning of the statute reveals the legislature’s intent to punish thieves who, anticipating that the possession ofa device which may be able to foil a store’s security system will be expedient to their cause, commit retail theft while in possession of such a device. In recognition of the fact that wire cutters are designed to cut wire, which is a common feature ofsecurity systems, we hold that, within the meaning of former RCW 9A.56.360(1 )(b), wire cutters constitute a ‘device designed to overcome security systems.'”

The Court also reasoned that the Division II Court of Appeals decision in State v. Reeves, ___ Wn. App. ___, 336 P.3d 105 (2014) – a recent opinion which held that “ordinary pliers” do not constitute a device designed to overcome security systems – was wrongfully decided :

“To exclude wire cutters from the statute’s reach on the basis that wire cutters may be used in other settings to achieve different ends would frustrate the legislature’s intent, while providing those inclined to commit retail theft with an unmistakable incentive to employ “ordinary devices,” as characterized by the Reeves court, to pursue their nefarious ends. Surely, the legislature did not intend such a result.”

With that, the Court upheld Larson’s conviction.

State v. Button: Public Shaming Sentence Struck

VERY interesting opinion from the WA Court of Appeals says that a “shaming” sentence for a defendant convicted of is unlawful. More specifically, the Sentencing Reform Act does NOT support a sentencing court’s requirement that a defendant convicted of Theft First Degree must stand on a street corner holding a sign that states, “I stole from kids. Charlotte Button.” 

          

http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/D2%2044036-9-II%20%20Order%20Publishing%20Opinion.pdf

The defendant Charlotte Button was convicted for First Degree Theft for embezzling funds from a high school club. The trial court sentenced her to two months in jail and imposed an additional conditionwhich intended to “send a message to the community.” The court explained the sentencing condition: “Before you begin your jail time, you are going to spend 40 hours standing at the corner of Wishkah and Broadway with a sign that says, ‘I Stole Money From Kida. Charlotte Burton.’ You’re going to do it two hours at a time twice a day from 7:00 to 9:00 in the morning and 4:00 to 6:00 in the afternoon.” Along with the “public shaming condition, the judge also imposed 60 days jail.

Ms. Button appealed the “public shaming” portion of her sentence on the grounds that it violated her Constitutional Rights under the First Amendment and 8th Amendment of the Constitution. In other words, her Free Speech rights were violated and the judge’s sentence was arguably Cruel & Unusual Punishment.

The Court of Appeals decided that although Washington’s Sentencing Refor Act allows a number of sentencing alternatives – including drug treatment for drug offenders and sexual deviance treatment for sex offenders – “public shaming” is not a designated sentencing alternative. “Nor does any other Sentencing Reform Act provision independently authorize the sign-holding condition, which clearly requires Button to affirmatively engage in some conduct. Thus, there is no statutory authority allowing the imposition of a sign-holding condition in the first instance.”

The Court did not address Ms. Button’s Constitutional arguments.

My opinion? Good decision. It’s well-grounded in statory authority (and lack thereof). Sure, the defendant’s actions leading to the conviction were bad. Nevertheless, she paid her debt to society by serving a significant amount of jail (60 days). And I’m sure the court imposed restitution and court fines, as well. Good decision.

State v. Reeves: Retail Theft Charges Dismissed With Knapstad Motion

Good case. Recently, the WA Court of Appeals upheld a trial court’s decision to grant a defendant’s Knapstad motion to dismiss a charge of Retail Theft With Extenuating Circumstances.

http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/D2%2044811-4-II%20%20Published%20Opinion.pdf

The Defendant was accused of using  a pair of ordinary pliers to remove an anti-theft secutory device at a store. He was caught and charged with Retail Theft With Extenuating Circumstances. His attorney argued a Knapstad motion to dismiss on the basis that ordinary pliers were not “an item, article, implement or device designed to overcome security systems including, but not limited to, lined bags or tag removers. The judge granted the motion and reasoned that including common tools into the definition of devices designed to overcome security systems would render every act of removing a security device an extenuating circumstance. The State appealed.

Some background on Knapstad motions is necessary. In State v. Knapstad, 107 Wash.2d 346 (1986), the Supreme Court created a procedure similar to summary judgment in a civil case, under which a criminal defendant can, by way of pre-trial motion, challenge the sufficiency of the prosecution’s evidence. In essence, if the prosecution cannot show by competent affidavit that it has a prima facie case of guilt on all elements, the court must dismiss the charge. In evaluating sufficiency of evidence, the court looks at the undisputed material facts already in the court record from the finding of probable cause, and ascertains whether as a matter of law, the prosecution has established a prima facie showing of guilt. For more information on Knapstad Motions, please read my Legal Guide titled, “Dismissing Cases Through Knapstad Motions.” http://www.avvo.com/legal-guides/ugc/getting-cases-dismissed-through-knapstad-motions

Likewise, some background on the felony charge of Retail Theft With Extenuating Circumstances. Under former RCW 9A.5.360(1)(b), an extenuating circumstance for retail Theft charges includes being in possession of an item, article, implement, or device designed to overcome security systems including, but not litmited to, lined bags or tag removers.

 Here, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s dismissal pursuant to the defendant’s Knapstad motion. They reasoned the criminal statute was ambiguous about the definition of the class of “tools” which created the aggravating factor of “Retail Theft.”

Also, the “Rule of Lenity” made another basis for upholding the trial court’s decision: “Because the language of former RCW 9A.56.360(1)(b) is ambiguous, we first turn to the principles of statutory construction, the legislative history and the statutory scheme to determine the legislature’s intent. If this analysis still does not clearly show the legislature’s intent, the Rule of Lenity requires us to interpret the statute in Reeve’s favor.” Here, the Court ruled that the principles of statutory construction and an analysis of the legislative history and statutory scheme do not resolve the ambiguity of the statute in the State’s favor. For these reasons, the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision.

My opinion? Good decision. Both the trial court and the court of Appeals got it right.

State v. Lindsay: When Attorneys Act Unprofessionally

VERY interesting opinion from the WA Supreme Court discusses the issue of attorneys having bad manners in court.

In short, the WA Supremes reversed a defendant’s conviction because the lawyers “engaged in unprofessional behavior, trading verbal jabs and snide remarks throughout the proceedings in this case.”

http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/884374.pdf

The defendants were charged with Robbery, Burglary, Kidnapping, Assault and Theft of a Firearm. The jury convicted them of some, but not all counts. The WA Supreme Court reasoned that although the trial court attempted to maintain civility, the magnitude of the problem, which spilled into the prosecutor’s closing argument, requires reversal. In short, a prosecutorial misconduct involves a two-part inquiry: (1) whether the prosecutor’s comments were improper, and (2) whether tjhe improper comments caused prejudice.

The court noted that although the conflict from both the Prosecutor and Defense Counsel seemed mutual and both attorneys were at fault, Prosecutors are held to a higher standard of conduct. Additionally, some of the Prosecutor’s hijinks at Closing Argument required reversal of the conviction. For example, the Court noted that Prosecutors may not refer to defense counsel’s closing argument as a “crock.” These comments impugn Defense Counsel, and imply deception and dishonesty. The Prosecutor also said that the defendant Holmes’s testimony was “funny,” “disgusting,” “comical,” and “the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”

Additionally, the Prosecutor’s attempts at coupling the jigsaw puzzle analogy with a percentage of missing pieces in the defense attorney’s case was also reversible error. Moreover, comparing the reasonable doubt standard to the decision made at a cross-walk is error. In addition, telling the jury that its job is to ‘speak the truth,’ or some variation thereof, misstates the burden of proof and is also improper. A prosecutor’s stating that a witnesses’ testimony is “the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard” is an improper expression of personal opinion as to credibility. Finally, a prosecutor’s behavior in whispering to the jury is improper, highly unprofessional and potentially damaging to the fairness of the proceedings.

My opinion? The WA Supremes made a good decision. Practicing law is hard. Conducting jury trials is very hard. Now imagine dealing with another attorney’s unprofessional conduct during trial. Unbelievable! Yes, these instances of misconduct happen. I speak from experience when I say it’s easy to get sucked into malicious and negative behavior, especially when attorney’s advocate in the heat of battle. Nevertheless, section 3.2 of Washington’s Rules of Professional Conduct require that attorneys be civil toward one another and the tribunal. It’s incredibly difficult for judges to analyze the legal issues over the furor of shouting attorneys. And it hurts the credibility of the entire legal institution when our citizens see us behaving badly. My heart goes out to the lawyers involved in the case. Hopefully, they worked out their differences.

State v. Green: When Inventory Searches Become Overbroad

The WA Court of Appeals decided that evidence of Identity Theft (receipts) was not admissible when the officer obtained the evidence after searching the defendant’s car during a DUI and Hit & Run investigation.

http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/684442.pdf

Mr. Green was arrested for DUI after his vehicle struck a pedestrian who later died. After arrest, police searched Mr. Green’s car. They found a paper bag containing numerous receipts. After more investigating,  it was later determined the receipts were evidence of purchases using stolen credit cards. The car was later towed to a police impound lot. The officer began investigating the defendant for theft/fraud charges in addition to the Vehicular Homicide charge. However, the officer’s search warrant was only specific to the Vehicular Homicide charge.

A few days later, the officer obtained a second search warrant to search the car for evidence of fraud and identity theft. Mr. Green moved to suppress the receipts. The state argued the receipts were properly seized pursuant to an inventory search and were admissible pursuant to the independent source doctrine.

Some background is necessary. Under the 4th Amendment to the U.S Constitution and article I section 7 of the Washington Constitution, warrantless searches and seizures are unconstitutional. However one exception to the warrant requirement are Inventory Searches accompanying a lawful vehicle impound. The purpose of an inventory search is to (1) protect the vehicle owner’s property; (2) protect the police against false claims of theft by the owner, and (3) protect the police from potential danger. The direction and scope of an inventory search must be limited to the purpose of justifying the exception. nder the Independent Source Exception, evidence obtained by unlawful governmental action is not suppressed under the exclusionary rule if the evidence was obtained pursuant to a valid search warrant or other lawful means independent of the unlawful action.

In this case, the officer did not find the receipts as part of an inventory search. Stated different, the officer looked in the paper bag but did not consider the receipts to be relevant to the inventory search. Therefore, there was no evidence that he inventoried them. The officer seized the receipts for investigatory purposes on a different matter altogether, namely, the soon-to-be-pending Identity Theft charges.

The Court further reasoned the receipts were not admissible under the Independent Source doctrine because the officer neither found the receipts nor had knowledge of them through an independent source.

My opinion? This was a reasonable, practical approach. In this case, it makes no sense to allow the police to conduct investigations of different crimes other than the one they are already working on, especially if they lack independent evidence to begin with.