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“Rough Estimates” Can’t Support a Conviction for Property Crimes.

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In State v. Williams, the WA Court of Appeals decided that a victim’s “rough estimate” regarding the value of stolen property of “roughly $800” will not support a conviction for possession of property in the second degree. While the owner of a chattel may testify to its market value without being qualified as an expert on valuation, the owner must testify to an adequate basis of his opinion of value to support a conviction.

FACTS & BACKGROUND

In May 2014, the Spokane Police Department received calls complaining of a man stalking through backyards in a west Spokane neighborhood. On May 6, 2014, one caller, Brad Dawson, observed the man carrying two sports duffel bags and possibly a screwdriver. Also on May 6, 2014, someone burglarized the home of David and Joan Nelson.

Joan Nelson’s brother, John Johnston, drove through the neighborhood in an attempt to apprehend the burglar. After inspecting five homes, Johnston espied a kneeling gentleman, with two duffels bags astride, employing a screwdriver to pry open a lock on a storage facility. The man fled when Johnston yelled.

Johnston called 911 and tracked the fleer as the fleer scattered from yard to yard and hid in changing locations. Johnston kept contact on his cellphone with Spokane police. Spokane police officers arrived and apprehended the burglar, Leibert Williams. Law enforcement officers found a duffel bag, a Bluetooth speaker, a laptop, running shoes, a jacket, and two rings belonging to Adam Macomber in the possession of Williams. Days earlier, Macomber had discovered the property missing from his apartment.

The State of Washington charged Leibert Williams with five crimes: (1) residential burglary, (2) second degree burglary, (3) attempted second degree burglary, (4) attempted theft of a motor vehicle, and (5) possession of stolen property in the second degree. The State added the final charge near the date of trial.

During trial, Macomber identified those items missing from his apartment. However, he only gave “rough estimates” of $800 for the value of his items.

The State presented no other testimony of the value of stolen goods. And the trial court denied a request by Leibert Williams for a lesser included offense instruction with regard to second degree possession of stolen property.

The jury found Williams guilty of first degree criminal trespass, attempted second degree burglary, vehicle prowling, and second degree possession of stolen property. The jury acquitted Williams of residential burglary.

Williams’ appeal concerns the possession of stolen property conviction.

ANALYSIS & CONCLUSION

The Court reasoned that Macomber’s testimony failed to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the value of his stolen property exceeded $750 when Macomber said, “I could give a rough estimate . . .  I would say roughly $800.”

It further reasoned that “value” for the purposes of theft means the market value of the property at the time and in the approximate area of the theft. “Market value” is the price which a well-informed buyer would pay to a well-informed seller, when neither is obliged to enter into the transaction. In a prosecution, value need not be proved by direct evidence. Rather, the jury may draw reasonable inferences from the evidence, including changes in the condition of the property that affect its value.

Here, Adam Macomber testified to a “rough estimate” value of the stolen goods to be $800, a figure close to the minimum amount required to convict of $750. He listed the property taken from him, but did not describe the condition of the property when stolen. He also failed to disclose the purchase date or the purchase price of each item.

“Macomber did not testify to the basis of his opinion of value. For all we know, he used the purchase price of the goods, the replacement cost of the goods, or some intrinsic value to himself.”

With that, the Court decided that the proper remedy for the insufficiency of evidence was to dismiss the charge for possession of stolen property in the second degree. This somewhat extreme measure was partially based on the trial court’s refused to instruct the jury on the lesser included offense of third degree possession: “This court lacks authority to direct the entry of judgment of the lesser included offense if the jury was not instructed on that offense.”

My opinion? Good decision. My heart goes out to the victim, however, courts need more than mere “rough estimates” when it comes to assigning a value to property. Indeed, property crimes are assigned a seriousness level – from simple misdemeanors through Class A felonies – by identifying the value of the property which was stolen or destroyed. These are not small matters. There’s a big difference between felonies and misdemeanors. Therefore, it’s extremely important to be specific and correct on these matters.

 

Independent Blood Tests

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In State v. Sosa, the WA Court of Appeals Div. III decided there is no requirement that an officer performing a blood draw on a DUI suspect must advise the driver that the driver has the right to an independent blood alcohol test.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On March of 2014, defendant Jose Sosa’s vehicle crossed the center line of U.S. Route 12, causing a two-car collision. Mr. Sosa called 911 and law enforcement responded to the scene. On contact, the responding officer noticed Mr. Sosa smelled of alcohol and showed signs of impairment. In response to questioning, Mr. Sosa disclosed that he had some beer earlier but did not provide any specifics. An ambulance transported Mr. Sosa to the hospital.

At the emergency room, a state trooper contacted Mr. Sosa. Again, Mr. Sosa was noted to smell of alcohol and display signs of impairment. The trooper asked Mr. Sosa if he would be willing to do a voluntary field sobriety test. Mr. Sosa did not respond. The trooper then offered to administer a portable breath test (PBT), which would have provided a preliminary indication of Mr. Sosa’s BAC. Again, Mr. Sosa did not respond.

Based on the trooper’s observations, a warrant was obtained to procure a sample of Mr. Sosa’s blood. Three and a half hours after the accident, Mr. Sosa’s BAC was 0.12. Mr. Sosa was arrested and charged with vehicular assault.

Several days after the accident, the driver of the vehicle hit by Mr. Sosa returned to the hospital because of abdominal pain. Doctors performed a lifesaving partial splenectomy. Mr. Sosa’s case proceeded to trial. The jury found Mr. Sosa guilty of vehicular assault via all three of the charged alternatives: ( 1) operating a vehicle in a reckless manner, (2) operating a vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor or drugs, and (3) operating a vehicle with disregard for the safety of others.

On appeal, Mr. Sosa argues evidence of his blood test results should have been suppressed because he was not advised, at the time of the blood draw, of the right to independent testing. Former RCW 46.61.506(6) (2010) stated: “The person tested may have a physician, or a qualified technician, chemist, registered nurse, or other qualified person of his or her own choosing administer one or more tests in addition to any administered at the direction of a law enforcement officer. … ” On this argument, Mr. Sosa alleged his constitutional rights were violated.

COURT’S ANALYSIS

The Court reasoned that cases relied on by Mr. Sosa in support of his right-to-advice argument interpret prior versions of the Revised Code of Washington. The statutes in effect at the time of Mr. Sosa’s offense no longer required advice about independent testing in the context of a blood draw:

“Had Mr. Sosa’s offense taken place prior to the 2013 amendment, he undoubtedly would have been entitled to advice about independent blood testing. But this is no longer so. Our case law addressing the implied consent warning has always been based on statutory principles, not constitutional grounds.”

In short, the Court stated there is no independent constitutional right to such advice. Accordingly, any failure of law enforcement to advise Mr. Sosa about the right to an independent test had no bearing on the State’s evidence or Mr. Sosa’s conviction. With that, the court rejected Mr. Sosa’s challenge to his conviction based on the blood test results.

My opinion? Had Mr. Sosa’s offense taken place prior to the 2013 amendment, he undoubtedly would have been entitled to advice about independent blood testing. But this is no longer so. Washington’s implied consent law changed after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Missouri v. McNeely, which held the taking of a DUI suspect’s blood without a warrant violates the suspect’s rights under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the exigency exception to the warrant requirement generally does not apply.

 

 

“No-Impeachment Rule” vs. Race Bias

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In Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, the U.S. Supreme Court held that when a juror says he or she relied on racial stereotypes to convict a criminal defendant, the Sixth Amendment requires that the “No-Impeachment Rule” give way in order to permit the trial court to consider the evidence of the juror’s statement and any resulting denial of the jury trial guarantee.

BACKGROUND FACTS & PROCEDURAL HISTORY

In 2007, in the bathroom of a Colorado horse-racing facility, the defendant  Peña-Rodriguez allegedly sexually assaulted two teenage sisters. The girls told their father and identified  Peña-Rodriguez as an employee of the racetrack. The police located and arrested him. Each girl separately identified  Peña-Rodriguez as the man who had assaulted her.

At trial, a Colorado jury convicted the defendant  Peña-Rodriguez of harassment and unlawful sexual contact. During deliberations, a juror named “H. C.” had expressed anti-Hispanic bias toward the defendant and his alibi witness. Defense Counsel, with the trial court’s supervision, obtained affidavits from the two jurors who witnessed and heard the racially biased statements from juror “H.C.”

Defense Counsel motioned for a new trial on the grounds of juror bias. Although the trial court acknowledged racial bias, it denied Defense Counsel’s motion for a new trial on the ground that Colorado Rule of Evidence 606(b) generally prohibits a juror from testifying as to statements made by other jurors during deliberations. The case made it’s way to the U.S. Supreme Court

ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The U.S. Supreme Court held that when a juror makes a clear statement indicating that he or she relied on racial stereotypes to convict a criminal defendant, the Sixth Amendment requires that the no-impeachment rule give way in order to permit the trial court to consider the evidence of the juror’s statement and any resulting denial of the jury trial guarantee.

Curing Racial Bias

The Court began by saying that the Civil War Amendments created the imperative to purge racial prejudice from the courts. It explained that ever since then, time and again, this Court has enforced the Constitution’s guarantee against state-sponsored racial discrimination in the jury system. The Court has interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment to prohibit the exclusion of jurors based on race, struck down laws and practices that systematically exclude racial minorities from juries, ruled that no litigant may exclude a prospective juror based on race and held that defendants may at times be entitled to ask about racial bias during voir dire.

The Court further reasoned this specific case lies at the intersection of the Court’s decisions endorsing the “No-Impeachment Rule” and the need to eliminate racial bias in the jury system. Those lines of precedent need not conflict. Moreover, the Court said racial bias implicates unique historical, constitutional, and institutional concerns and, if left unaddressed, would risk systemic injury to the administration of justice.

ER 606(b): The “No-Impeachment” Rule

Under ER 606(b), a juror may not testify about any statement made or incident that occurred during the jury’s deliberations; the effect of anything on that juror’s or another juror’s vote; or any juror’s mental processes concerning the verdict or indictment. The court may not receive a juror’s affidavit or evidence of a juror’s statement on these matters.

However, exceptions exist. For example, a juror may testify about whether (a) extraneous prejudicial information was improperly brought to the jury’s attention; (b) an outside influence was improperly brought to bear on any juror; or (c) a mistake was made in entering the verdict on the verdict form.

“This case lies at the intersection of the Court’s decisions endorsing the no-impeachment rule and those seeking to eliminate racial bias in the jury system,” said the Court. “Racial bias . . . implicates unique historical, constitutional, and institutional concerns and, if left unaddressed, would risk systemic injury to the administration of justice.”

With that in mind, the Court reasoned that a constitutional rule that racial bias in the justice system must be addressed—including, in some instances, after a verdict has been entered—when necessary to prevent a systemic loss of confidence in jury verdicts; which is “a confidence that is a central premise of the Sixth Amendment trial right.”

The Test

The Court reasoned that before the “No-Impeachment” Rule can be set aside, there must be a threshold showing that one or more jurors made statements exhibiting overt racial bias that cast serious doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the jury’s deliberations and resulting verdict. “To qualify, the statement must tend to show that racial animus was a significant motivating factor in the juror’s vote to convict.”

The Court explained that whether the threshold showing has been satisfied depends on the circumstances, including the content and timing of the alleged statements and the reliability of the proffered evidence. In constructing this rule, the Court said that standard and existing safeguards may prevent racial bias in jury deliberations, including careful voir dire and a trial court’s instructions to jurors about their duty to review the evidence, deliberate together, and reach a verdict in a fair and impartial way, free from bias of any kind.

With that, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Mr. Peña-Rodriguez’s conviction and remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.

My opinion? Great decision. This case represents a substantial step toward eliminating racial bias in our courtrooms. Even better, this decision is consistent with pre-existing Washington law under Seattle v. Jackson.

Jail Mail

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In Mangiaracina v. Penzone, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that prisoners have a Sixth Amendment right to be present when legal mail related to a criminal matter is inspected.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Nick Mangiaracina was jailed as a pre-trial detainee in Maricopa County’s Fourth Avenue Jail in Phoenix, Arizona. The jail’s stated policy is to open legal mail addressed to a prisoner only in the presence of that prisoner. Mangiaracina alleged, however, that his mail was repeatedly opened outside his presence in contravention of this policy. His complaint included descriptions of nine specific instances of the jail improperly opening his mail to/from his attorney.

In describing his injury resulting from the improper opening of his legal mail, Mangiaracina alleged that he and his two attorneys “are afraid to communicate by mail which is hard as I have so many cases and so much paperwork to go back and forth.” He further explained that his “right to confidentiality and privacy was violated” and that his “defense strategy and his rights in general were just shredded.”

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Mangiaracina initially filed suit in Arizona superior court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of his First and Sixth Amendment rights by a number of jail employees and John Doe defendants. The case was moved to federal court. Unfortunately, the U.S. district court ultimately dismissed Mangiaracina’s complaint with prejudice. it noted that Mangiaracina had failed to specifically allege that the pieces of mail were marked as “legal mail” and that, for most of the instances, he failed to explain how he knew the mail was opened outside his presence. He appealed to the Ninth Circuit.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Ninth Circuit reasoned that under the U.S. Supreme Court’s Wolff v. McDonnell  and the Ninth Circuit’s Nordstrom v. Ryan, that prisoners have a Sixth Amendment right to confer privately with counsel and that the practice of opening legal mail in the prisoner’s presence is specifically designed to protect that right.

Furthermore, other circuit courts have similarly recognized the importance of this practice. In Jones v. Brown, the Third Circuit recognized, in the context of a First Amendment challenge, that opening legal mail outside the addressee’s presence was unlawful.

The Ninth Circuit further reasoned that the jail failed to identify any legitimate penological interest that would be served by opening legal mail outside Mangiaracina’s presence: “As we have emphasized in the past, a criminal defendant’s ability to communicate candidly and confidentially with his lawyer is essential to his defense.”  By necessity, reasoned the court, prisoners and pre-trial detainees rely heavily on the mail for communication with their attorneys. Unfortunately, the Maricopa County jail system does not allow incoming phone calls or provide access to e-mail, and outgoing phone calls can only be placed as collect calls.

With that, the Ninth Circuit reversed the lower court’s dismissal of Mangiaracina’s Sixth Amendment and First Amendment claims with respect to some mail-opening incidents and affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the remaining counts of alleged improper mail opening.

My opinion? Excellent decision. It’s extremely difficult to communicate with jailed clients. Some jails offer limited hours of visitation and/or phone calls. Reading a defendant’s jail mail deprives the expression of confidentiality and chills the inmates’ protected expression. This is wrong, and violates a defendant’s First Amendment rights.

With respect to phone calls, I don’t discuss important details over the jail phones because the conversations are recorded. Although recorded phone calls with my clients are inadmissible at trial, these conversations are still surveillance which can “tip off” prosecutors to the strategies and tactics I develop with my clients.

Kudos to the Ninth Circuit for a very well-reasoned and substantial decision.

The Right to Hope for Jury Nullification

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Interesting article by Ilya Shapiro of the Cato Institute discusses whether jury nullification could aid a defendant who is facing deportation in lieu of receiving bad legal advice.

According to Ms. Shapiro, defendant Jae Lee came to the United States legally as a child but never became a citizen. In 2009, he pled guilty to a drug crime after his lawyer assured him that he could not be deported. The lawyer was wrong, unfortunately, because the conviction made Lee subject to deportation.

When Lee learned of this mistake, he asked the court to vacate his plea so he could instead face trial, arguing that his counsel’s assistance was ineffective. The court denied this motion because of the overwhelming evidence against Lee, ruling that his conviction at trial was so certain that his counsel’s bad advice didn’t actually harm him, particularly given the much longer prison sentence he would receive if convicted after trial.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit agreed with the law court’s ruling that a jury wasn’t needed to determine Lee’s guilt and that denying the “chance to throw a Hail Mary at trial is not prejudicial” and therefore doesn’t violate Lee’s Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. The court reasoned that that the only chance Lee had was acquittal by “jury nullification” and thus such a gambit was so irrational—and the idea of nullification so antiquated—that it is not to be allowed.

For those who don’t know, jury nullification occurs when a jury returns a verdict of “Not Guilty” despite its belief that the defendant is guilty of the violation charged. The jury in effect nullifies a law that it believes is either immoral or wrongly applied to the defendant whose fate they are charged with deciding.

According to Shapiro, Mr. Lee is now taking the matter at the United States Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear his argument, which Cato is supporting with this amicus brief.

The Supreme Court must now protect the right to pursue Mr. Lee’s potentially risky trial strategy. Although it may not be wise for Mr. Lee to seek acquittal by jury nullification, he should also have the right to decide whether the risk is worth facing as against the certainty of deportation. According to Shapiro, “It is not up to courts to pick which strategy is best for criminal defendants to follow, but judges should protect the right to choose a jury trial even when they might not make the same choice under the same circumstances.” The Supreme Court hears argument in Lee v. United States on March 28, 2017.

My opinion? This is a very relevant, timely, progressive and news-worthy development. The new administration’s goals to deport criminal immigrants puts a lot of pressure on our courts to enforce these policies.

Ultimately, I predict an increase in post-conviction Motions to Withdraw guilty pleas based on Ineffective Assistance of Counsel under Padilla v. Kentucky, a 2010 United States Supreme Court case which held  that defense attorneys must inform their clients whether his plea carries a risk of deportation.

Contact the Law office of Alexander F. Ransom if you, family or friends are not U.S. citizens, yet face possible deportation for entering past guilty pleas which were ill-advised by defense counsel. Deportation is a terrible consequence for a prior attorney’s ineffective assistance of counsel.

Author of Confidential Informants Book Exposes the Truth

 

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A new book discusses how confidential informants negatively impact the criminal justice system. In “11 Days a Snitch,” author Alexandra Natapoff discusses how removing confidential informants information from investigations bolsters law enforcement authority while reducing the ability of legislatures, the press and the public “to evaluate executive actors and hold them accountable.”

Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, is considered one of the nation’s leading experts in the use of confidential informants. She has testified before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee in 2007 and had a hand in writing legislation in Florida known as Rachel’s Law, which was enacted in the wake of a young drug informant’s death. Natapoff discuses the negative impacts that confidential informants have had upon the justice system:

  1. CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS ARE VIOLATED IN FAVOR OF KEEPING AN INFORMANT SECRET.

The Fourth Amendment protects against unlawful search and seizure. That means, generally, police need a warrant and a judge’s signature for permission to enter a house or listen in on a private conversation. A confidential informant wearing a wire, however, does not have to jump through those hoops (though some states have barred warrantless use of informants in this regard).

The Sixth Amendment guarantees defendants the right to confront any witnesses against them. With informant witnesses, however, judges have chipped away at this right, in some cases allowing prosecutors to keep informants’ identities a secret. In 2002, for example, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals tried to strike a balance by allowing a confidential informant to wear a “wig-and-mustache disguise” on the stand.

The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees defendants due process, which includes a right to know all the evidence the state has, including evidence that could discredit the state’s witnesses. For snitches, that evidence could include criminal history and any benefit (such as leniency for their own crimes or cash) they receive in exchange for cooperating with law enforcement. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that defendants are not entitled to that information before trial. Specifically, the court was concerned that revealing those details “could ‘disrupt ongoing investigations’ and expose prospective witnesses to serious harm.'”

Natapoff argues this is significant because about 95 percent of criminal cases end in plea deals. That means most defendants are pleading guilty without knowing if the evidence against them is completely legit.

2. THE WAR ON DRUGS IS DRIVING THE USE OF INFORMANTS.

In 1995, decades into the war on drugs, lawyer and journalist Mark Curriden published an in-depth look at law enforcement’s extensive use of informants by analyzing more than 1,000 federal search warrants from 1980 to 1993. In that time frame, warrants that solely relied on information from a confidential source increased by nearly 200 percent — from 24 percent to 71 percent.

Although it’s impossible to get an accurate number of informants in the U.S., a recent audit of the DEA’s CI program cited more than 18,000 active confidential sources from October 2010 to September 2015. However, that same report found that “the DEA did not appropriately track all confidential source activity.”

3. THE RISK FOR ABUSE IS HIGH.

Natapoff discusses the case of four NYPD cops, who for decades have apparently fabricated sworn statements and arrests with the help of fictitious informants. A State Supreme Court judge in Brooklyn called one of the detectives “extremely evasive,” and did not find him “to be credible.” A judge in another federal case remarked: “I believe these officers perjured themselves. In my view, there is a serious possibility that some evidence was fabricated by these officers.”

“Given the reality that informant deals are baked into the criminal justice system, we are obligated to better regulate it,” Natapoff says. “We have fallen down in that regard. We have given such broad discretion to police and prosecutors and failed to create transparency and accountability mechanisms that would give us the confidence that these deals are being made in responsible ways.”

My opinion?
Transparency is essential to a fair and equitable criminal justice system. Knowing how we handle criminal behavior and dole out punishment allows the public to hold law enforcement accountable. The use of confidential informants, however, can pervert that premise in many ways. As a criminal defense attorney, I’ve always believed the use of confidential informants entrap many into committing crimes they would otherwise not commit. Snitches are motivated/biased actors who are not professionally trained in law enforcement and have significant criminal histories. All of these facts decrease their credibility. Kudos to Natapoff for showing the truth.

Exonerations On the Rise

 

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News reporters Alanna Durkin Richer  and Curt Anderson of the Associated Press wrote an article describing how last year, 68 out of 157 exonerations were cases in which the defendant pleaded guilty. In Trial or Deal? Some Driven to Plead Guilty, Later Exonerated the article describes the difficult dilemma of many defendants in the criminal justice system: either accept the Prosecutor’s plea offer or risk facing much harsher consequences if found guilty at trial.

Apparently, more than 300 of the more than 1,900 people who have been exonerated in the U.S. since 1989 pleaded guilty, according to an estimate by the National Registry of Exonerations. The registry is maintained by the University of Michigan Law School using public information, such as court documents and news articles.

Last year, 68 out of 157 exonerations were cases in which the defendant pleaded guilty, more than any previous year. The numbers reflect an overwhelmed criminal justice system with public defenders taking more cases than they can handle; as well as court officials who try saving the government money with plea bargains compared with costly trials.

The data is even more daunting. Last year, more than 97 percent of criminal defendants sentenced in federal court pleaded guilty compared with about 85 percent more than 30 years ago, according to data collected by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. The increase in guilty pleas has been a gradual rise over the last three decades.

No one knows exactly how many innocent people are behind bars for pleading guilty. Sociologists have estimated that between 2 and 8 percent of people who plead guilty are in fact innocent.

The article emphasized how defendants who were exonerated after pleading guilty often have prior criminal records and come from poor backgrounds and are not well-educated. They’re typically represented by public defenders juggling dozens of cases in a day.

Many exonerees were cleared of wrongdoing by taking a new look at DNA evidence in blood or other body fluids, according to the University of Michigan database. Some were the victims of prosecutorial misconduct, while shoddy police work was to blame in other cases — such as a mistaken FBI hair analysis or falsified fingerprint evidence. Some falsely confessed because of improper interrogation techniques while others maintained their innocence throughout.

Making the matter worse, it’s not just prosecutors and defense attorneys who seek to cut plea deals. The article said many judges prefer that route, too. Judges who resolve cases rather than let them languish tend to be seen as more successful. Similarly, explained the article, prosecutors who close cases tend to rise faster in their careers.

My opinion? People facing criminal charges MUST seek experienced defense counsel to defend their rights, investigate the facts, interview witnesses, argue pretrial motions, put their clients in the best light possible and conduct an active; fair trial when necessary.

Contact my office as soon as possible if you, a friend or family member is facing criminal charges. The epidemic of increased exonerations due to injustice in our courts as well as our incoming administration’s trampling of individual rights shows a growing need for competent representation. Put simply, defendants should not plead guilty to criminal charges they are not guilty of.

I-873: Police Accountability

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We’ve all heard it. Killings by police in the line of duty have surged in Washington and the United States over the past decade, according to a Seattle Times analysis. During that period, only one police officer has been criminally charged in state courts with the illegal use of deadly force on the job.

In fact, that case is the only one to be brought in the three decades since Washington enacted the nation’s most restrictive law on holding officers accountable for the unjustified use of deadly force.

Not This Time! and Washington For Good Policing (W4GP) are a grass-roots movements that evolved from the  killing by the Seattle Police Department of Mr. Che Andre Taylor on February 21, 2016. The campaigns  are working to collect 350,000 signatures to put Initiative 873 in front of Washington State’s legislature in January 2017.

This is the first legislative initiative of its kind in the nation that would put forth police accountability. If passed, the legislative initiative may be a model for other states.

The initiative appears to be gaining momentum. It is endorsed by the Seattle Police Department, the ACLU of Washington, numerous state senators, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, Kshama Sawant and Lorena Gonzalez of the Seattle City Council, Lisa Duggaard of the Public Defenders Association, Jim Cooper and Jessica Bateman of the Olympia City Council.

Also, the following newspapers and media outlets have discussed and encouraged the passage of the bill:

It’s refreshing that I-873 has such a broad range of support, especially from the Seattle Police Department. Let’s move forward with the hope that holding officers accountable for unjustified shootings increases respect for police and professionalism within police ranks. For sure, it’s step in the right direction.

Lawnmowers Aren’t Vehicles.

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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.

Backpack Searches When Jailed

In State v. Dunham, the WA Court of Appeals Division II decided that a warrantless search of a suspect’s locked backpack pocket was a lawful inventory search where the defendant was booked into jail, a search of his person produced knives, the backpack was to be logged into the jail’s temporary storage area and the officer felt knives on the outside of the backpack.

On January 29, 2014, Sergeant Gwen Carrell of the Chehalis Police Department responded to a reported shoplifting at a local department store. Upon arrival, Sgt. Carrell met with loss prevention officers. They told Sgt. Carrell that defendant Jason Dunham had multiple knives in his backpack and that they had removed the backpack from Dunham’s reach. Sgt. Carrell placed Dunham in handcuffs for officer safety and searched him for weapons. She located two more knives on Dunham’s person, arrested Dunham for theft and booked him into jail.

Sgt. Carrell searched Dunham’s backpack for items to be logged into the jail’s temporary storage. This is called an inventory search. In short, it is every police department’s policy to inventory items to be held in its storage facility for any dangerous items. As part of this policy, knives are to be kept in secure containers, preventing them from puncturing anything.

Sgt. Carrell used Dunham’s keys to unlock the backpack pocket. She opened the pocket and observed a flashlight, a butane torch, and a glass pipe. What Sgt. Carrell thought was a knife was actually the butane torch. The residue in the glass pipe tested positive for methamphetamine. The State charged Dunham with Possession of a Controlled Substance and Theft in the Third Degree.

Dunham filed a motion to suppress the evidence found during Sgt. Carrell’s search of the locked portion of his backpack pursuant to CrR 3.6, arguing that the search violated his constitutional rights. The trial court denied the motion and ruled that the inventory search was valid. Later, the trial court found him guilty on both counts at a bench trial.

Dunham appealed. He argued that the warrantless search of his backpack’s locked pocket violated the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution. He claims that the search was not a valid inventory search.

Unfortunately for Dunham the Court of Appeals disagreed. First it reasoned that  inventory searches are an exception to the requirement that police have a warrant to search people’s personal property. Second, the Court described the purpose of an Inventory Search:

“The purpose of an inventory search is not to discover evidence of a crime, but to perform an administrative or caretaking function. The principal purposes of an inventory search are to (1) protect the owner’s property, (2) protect the police against false claims of theft by the owner, and (3) protect the police from potential danger. The scope of an inventory search should be limited to those areas necessary to fulfill its purpose.”

Third, the Court reasoned that Officer Carrel’s safety concern about potentially exposed knives in the locked pocket was reasonable based on the facts that (1) several knives were found on Dunham’s person, (2) additional knives were found in the unlocked portion of Dunham’s backpack, (3) one of the knives found in the backpack was unsheathed, and (4) Sgt. Carrell felt what she believed to be another knife in the locked pocket of the backpack. Therefore, a manifest necessity existed for searching the locked portion of the backpack.

Finally, the Court concluded that the inventory search was valid and affirmed Dunham’s conviction:

“Substantial evidence supports the challenged finding of fact. Given the reasonable indication that the locked portion of the backpack contained dangerous items along with Sgt. Carrell’s reasonable fear of being stabbed, we hold that a manifest necessity existed to search No. 46169-2-II 8 inside the locked portion of the backpack. Therefore the trial court’s findings of fact support its conclusion that the inventory search was valid. We affirm Dunham’s conviction.”

My opinion? Search and seizure issues are a HUGE aspect of unlawful possession cases. The legal issues come down to whether the search was lawful, and if not, whether the evidence can be suppressed. Here, the court’s decision appears sound. Under Washington law, officers may search a suspect’s person if they feel “hard and sharp” objects through the outside of a suspect’s clothing. This is done for officer safety. Similarly, Inventory Searches are conducted under the same policy of preserving officer safety. Here, the hard and sharp objects felt through Dunham’s backpack raised a safety concern. Therefore, the search appears lawful.

For more information on Search and Seizure Issues please review my Legal Guide titled, “Search & Seizure: Basic Issues Regarding Their Search for Weapons, Drugs, Firearms and Other Contraband.” There, I provide links to my analysis of Washington cases discussing searches of persons, vehicles, cars and homes. Also, please go the search engine of my Blog if you have specific queries about these issues.

Finally, I am available for free consultations if you face criminal charges involving search and seizure issues.

Good luck!