Category Archives: Unlawful Imprisonment

Excessive Tasing

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In Jones v. Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Dept., the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that any reasonable officer would have known that continuous, repeated, and simultaneous tasings could only be justified by an immediate or significant risk of serious injury or death to officers or the public. However, such force generally cannot be used on a prone suspect who exhibits no resistance, carries no weapon, is surrounded by sufficient officers to restrain him and is not suspected of a violent crime.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In the early morning of December 11, 2010, Officer Mark Hatten of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department pulled over Anthony Jones for a routine traffic stop. Hatten ordered Jones out of the car so he could pat him down for weapons. Jones obeyed at first but then started to turn toward Hatten. Scared of the much larger Jones, Hatten drew his firearm, pointed it at Jones and ordered him to turn back around. Instead, Jones sprinted away.

Hatten called for backup and pursued Jones. Hatten didn’t believe deadly force was necessary because Jones hadn’t threatened him and didn’t appear to have a weapon.

As he waited for other officers to arrive, Hatten used his taser to subdue Jones. Hatten fired his taser twice, causing Jones’s body to “lock up” and fall to the ground face down with his hands underneath him. Hatten proceeded to kneel on Jones’s back in an attempt to handcuff Jones, keeping his taser pressed to Jones’s thigh and repeatedly pulling the trigger.

Hatten continued to tase Jones even after backup arrived. Backup consisted of four officers: Richard Fonbuena on Hatten’s right side, who helped handcuff Jones; Steven Skenandore, who controlled Jones’s legs and feet; Timothy English at Jones’s head, who applied a taser to Jones’s upper back; and Michael Johnson, who arrived last and ordered the tasing to stop. Johnson wanted his officers to “back off on the tasers so that Jones’s muscles would relax.” According to Johnson, Jones “didn’t look like he was physically resisting” and there were “enough officers” to take Jones into custody.

In all, Jones was subjected to taser shocks for over ninety seconds: Hatten tased Jones essentially nonstop that whole time—with some applications lasting as long as nineteen seconds—and, for ten of those seconds, English simultaneously applied his taser.

Once the officers stopped tasing Jones, his body went limp. They sat him up but Jones was nonresponsive and twitching; his eyes were glazed over and rolled back into his head. The officers tried and failed to resuscitate him. Jones was pronounced dead shortly thereafter. The coroner’s report concluded that “police restraining procedures”—including the tasings—contributed to Jones’s death.

Jones’s parents sued the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and all of the officers involved in restraining Jones. They alleged Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment violations as well as various state law torts. However, the lower district court granted summary judgment for the defendants on all claims. The plaintiff’s appealed.

LEGAL ISSUE

Whether police officers are entitled to qualified immunity when they’re alleged to have caused the death of a suspect by using tasers repeatedly and simultaneously for an extended period.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

As a preliminary matter, the Court of Appeals held that under Fed. R. Civ. P. 17, the lower district court abused its discretion by failing to give plaintiffs a reasonable opportunity to substitute the proper party and thus cure the defective complaint.

Next, the Court of Appeals addressed the issue of whether the officers were reasonable in the degree of force they deployed. They held that the officers’ repeated and simultaneous use of tasers for over ninety seconds was unreasonable and that a jury could reasonably conclude that the officers knew or should have known that these actions created a substantial risk of serious injury or death:

” . . . any reasonable officer would have known that continuous, repeated, and simultaneous tasings could only be justified by an immediate or significant risk of serious injury or death to officers or the public.”

The Court also reasoned that that such force generally cannot be used on a prone suspect who exhibits no resistance, carries no weapon, is surrounded by sufficient officers to restrain him and is not suspected of a violent crime. Furthermore, it reasoned that given that there was clearly established Fourth Amendment law and a jury could reasonably conclude that the officers used excessive force, the question of qualified immunity must proceed to trial.

Furthermore, the Court held that the plaintiff’s state law battery and negligence claims were triable, and should not have been dismissed by the lower district court. It said that while there was no evidence that any of the officers acted out of hostility or improper motive, there was a factual dispute as to whether the repeated and simultaneous tasings were so excessive under the circumstances that they amounted to willful or deliberate disregard of Jones’s rights. The Court of Appeals therefore remanded plaintiffs’ battery and negligence claims.

In a twist, however, The Court of Appeals affirmed the lower district court’s dismissal of the
Fourteenth Amendment claim. It said that even assuming all the facts Plaintiffs alleged, there was no evidence that the officers acted with a purpose of harming Jones that was unconnected to a legitimate law enforcement objective.

In another twist, the Court of Appeals held that the Plaintiffs’ false arrest and false imprisonment claims failed because there was no evidence that the decision to arrest Jones lacked justification, let alone that it was made in bad faith. The Court of Appeals therefore affirmed the dismissal of that claim.

My opinion? A well-reasoned, good decision. Although the Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of some of the Plaintiffs’ claims due to lack of evidence, the Court was ultimately convinced that the officers’ repeated and simultaneous use of tasers for over ninety seconds was unreasonable. Good decision.

Interpreting Gone Wrong

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In State v. Aljaffar, the WA Court of Appeals held that although the court failed to (1) appoint a certified Arabic interpreter during Mahadi Aljaffar’s felony trial, and (2) failed to make a good cause finding prior to utilizing the services of an uncertified interpreter, the defendant nevertheless failed to establish prejudice because he failed to adequetely preserve the Constitutional issues for appeal. Therefore, his convictions were affirmed.

BACKGROUND FACTS.

Defendant Mahadi Aljaffar is a Saudi Arabian national living in the United States on a
student visa. His primary language is Arabic. He was charged in Spokane County
Superior Court with several felony sex offenses arising from incidents involving two
separate women inside a nightclub bathroom.

On the morning of Mr. Aljaffar’s trial, the State said it was unable to obtain the assistance of a certified Arabic interpreter. Washington has only one certified Arabic interpreter and that individual resides in the Seattle area. The State claimed this circumstance made arranging for the assistance of a certified interpreter logistically difficult. Rather than proceed with a certified interpreter, the State proposed proceeding to trial with an interpreter named Imad Beirouty. Mr. Aljaffar objected. The Court overruled his objection. Aljaffar was forced to proceed with the available interpreter. However, the court never made any findings with respect to whether the State had established good cause to proceed without a certified interpreter.

At trial, Mr. Aljaffar testified in his own defense. He denied assaulting the two
female victims, explaining that he is not interested in women because he is gay. He
testified he believed the bar where the assault took place was a gay bar and he did not
realize the bathroom in question was a women’s bathroom.

During his testimony, Mr. Beirouty frequently utilized a third person narrative in
recounting Mr. Aljaffar’s testimony. For example, when Mr. Aljaffar’s attorney asked
why he mistakenly chose to use the women’s bathroom, the interpreter stated, “He saw
two bathroom. There is one bathroom with more privacy than the other one.” Also, on cross-examination, the prosecutor asked Mr. Aljaffar whether he was the only male that entered the women’s bathroom. The interpreter Mr. Beirouty responded, “He observed two-two men dressing like women go into the bathroom.” Also, at other times during Mr. Aljaffar’s testimony, Mr. Beirouty provided commentary on what Mr. Aljaffar was saying, rather than interpretation.

The jury found Mr. Aljaffar guilty of two counts of indecent liberties by forcible compulsion and one count of unlawful imprisonment with a sexual motivation.

THE APPEAL.

Mr. Aljaffar filed a timely appeal. The arguments on appeal focus solely on the adequacy of the court appointed interpreter.  At issue is whether the trial court’s use of Mr. Beirouty as an interpreter violated Mr. Aljaffar’s statutory and constitutional rights.

COURT’S DECISION AND ANALYSIS.

Defendant Failed to Exercise His Constitutional Right to a Certified Interpreter.

The Court began by saying that non-English speakers involved in court proceedings are entitled to the assistance of a court-appointed interpreter. This right is guaranteed both by Washington statute and the United States Constitution.  Such a right is implied in the Fifth, Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment.

In light of these rights, however, during trial Mr. Aljaffar only voiced one objection to the use of Mr. Beirouty as an interpreter. Also, while Mr. Aljaffar adequately informed the trial court of his statutory concerns, he never alerted the court to any constitutional issues.

Furthermore, neither Mr. Aljaffar nor his attorney ever said there were misunderstandings with the interpreter or a breakdown in communication. Because the trial court was never asked to address any constitutional concerns, it was never provided the opportunity to remedy problems with Mr. Beirouty’s services prior to the jury’s verdict.

There Was No Good Cause to Excuse Certified Court Interpreter.

The Court addressed the issue of whether the trial court had good cause to excuse a certified interpreter from the proceedings. Here, good cause did not exist to not use a certified interpreter because Mr. Aljaffar was charged with serious felony offenses:

“Not only did he face substantial prison time, his immigration status made him vulnerable to deportation. Given the nature of Mr. Aljaffar’s legal proceedings, the State was obliged to make a substantial, good faith effort to obtain the services of a certified interpreter. There is no record this took place.”

Having determined good cause did not justify the use of an uncertified interpreter, the Court next tumed to the question of remedy.

There Was No Prejudice to the Defendant.

On this issue, the Court held that the trial court’s failure to comply with the certification requirements of RCW 2.43.030 was not prejudicial. Basically, despite having the assistance of counsel and a certified interpreter, Mr. Aljaffar did not present any evidence at the reference hearing and did not challenge Mr. Beirouty’s testimony that he and Mr. Aljaffar had no problems communicating. “Given these circumstances, Mr. Aljaffar’s argument that inadequacies existed outside of his trial testimony lacks factual support,” said the Court.

CONCLUSION.

The Court concluded by saying that the failure to enlist the services of a certified interpreter without good cause was a serious violation. Given the fact that Mr. Aljaffar testified and placed his credibility before the jury, inadequate interpretation could have impacted the jury’s verdict.

Nevertheless, the Court was also satisfied Mr. Aljaffar was not prejudiced by the use of an uncertified interpreter. With that, Mr. Aljaffar’s conviction was affirmed.

My opinion? It’s difficult to say Mr. Aljafar was not prejudiced. Although his defense attorney apparently failed to perfectly preserve the Constitutional issues, he did adequately mention the statutory concerns; which, in my mind, are ultimately rooted in protecting Constitution rights. Indeed, the fact that interpreter issues were made a matter of record at all by defense counsel should have been enough to preserve the Constitutional issues for appeal. The fact of the matter is, there was an interpreter problem. Period. Otherwise, we’re substituting form over substance and sacrificing Constitutional rights in the process. Hopefully, this case gets appealed.

State v. Ashley: Prior Bad Acts of DV

In  State v. Ashley, the WA Supreme Court decided a trial court properly admitted evidence of the defendant’s prior acts of domestic violence against the victim. Here, defendant Baron Ashley was charged with Unlawful Imprisonment Domestic Violence (DV) for detaining his girlfriend Makayla Gamble in the bathroom without her consent.

Apparently, Ashley and the victim Makayla Gamble had a long-term DV relationship. Gamble testified that Ashley had physically abused her in the past. She explained that she had been in a relationship with Ashley for several years and that he had abused her multiple times during that relationship. In total, Gamble described four specific instances of abuse, including three instances when Gamble was pregnant. Gamble explained that she suffered bruises, black eyes, and a popped eardrum as a result of these attacks, but that she called the police only once and later retracted her complaint because she loved Ashley. Specifically, Gamble testified that these instances affected her decision to get into the bathroom when instructed.

The jury found Ashley guilty as charged.

On appeal, Ashley argued the trial court wrongfully admitted evidence of his prior misconduct under Evidence Rule (ER) 404(b). The Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction, and the WA Supreme Court granted review. ER 404(b) provides in full:

Evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith. It may, however, be admissible for other purposes, such as proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident. By its plain language, the rule absolutely prohibits certain types of evidence from being used “to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith,” but allows that same evidence to be introduced for any other purpose, depending on its relevance and the balancing of its probative value and danger of unfair prejudice.

The Court  explained that ER 404(b) prohibits certain types of evidence from being
used “to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity
therewith,” but allows that same evidence to be introduced for any other purpose,
depending on its relevance and the balancing of its probative value and danger of
unfair prejudice. The Court also referred to its four-part test to determine if ER 404(b) evidence is admissible:

“To admit evidence of a person’s prior misconduct, the trial court must (1) find by a preponderance of the evidence that the misconduct occurred, (2) identify the purpose for which the evidence is sought to be
introduced, (3) determine whether the evidence is relevant to prove an element of the crime charged, and (4) weigh the probative value against the prejudicial effect.”

Here, Defendant Ashley argued that the State did not establish that the incidents of prior domestic violence even occurred. He also said that this evidence was irrelevant to Gamble’s credibility and to the elements of the crime, and that the prejudice of the prior bad acts dramatically outweighed any probative value of the evidence.

However, the WA Supreme Court rejected Ashley’s arguments.

The Court decided the Prosecution satisfied the first prong of the test: “The trial court heard undisputed testimony describing a series of instances of domestic violence by Ashley against Gamble and reviewed a 2004 police report. The trial court found Gamble’s testimony credible. Ashley presents no legal or factual argument for disturbing this finding; he simply disagrees with it.”

The Court also found the prosecution satisfied the second and third prong of the test:

“The State’s theory was that Ashley intimidated Gamble, forcing her to remain in the bathroom. The trial court found that the State demonstrated that Ashley’s history of domestic abuse against Gamble was highly probative of whether Ashley restrained Gamble using intimidation and fear based on this history of domestic abuse. Essentially, the trial court found-and the Court of Appeals agreed-that the domestic violence evidence was both material and relevant to Gamble’s lack of consent and to whether Ashley restrained Gamble by intimidation. We agree.”

Finally, the Court held the Prosecution satisfied the fourth prong of the test:

“Here, the trial court properly balanced these interests, concluding that Ashley’s long history of domestic violence toward Gamble was highly probative in assessing whether Ashley intimidated Gamble, such that she was restrained without her consent.”

In conclusion, the Court held that the trial court undertook the proper ER 404(b) analysis, the domestic violence evidence presented was highly probative of the victim’s lack of consent, and the State met its burden of demonstrating the evidence’s overriding probative value to establish a necessary element of the crime. However, the Court also held that the trial court committed harmless error by instructing the jurors that they could consider the evidence for the purpose of bolstering Gamble’s credibility. Ashley’s conviction was affirmed.

For more information on Domestic Violence issues please review my Legal Guide titled “Defending Against Domestic Violence Charges.” There, I provide links to my analysis of Washington cases discussing domestic violence. 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 domestic violence.

Good luck!

State v. McDonald: Prior Misdemeanor DV Convictions Count Toward Pointable “Offender Score” in Present Felony DV Charges & Convictions.

Questionable opinion from Division I WA Court of Appeals. The Court ruled that violations of a DV No-Contact Order are included in an offender score for felony DV convictions.

https://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/720376.pdf

In this case, the defendant Christopher McDonald was charged with assaulting his girlfriend Julianne Vanas  during a car ride. The court entered No-contact Orders prohibiting contact between the defendant and his girlfriend. The defendant contacted Vanas via phone numerous times while he was in custody. The jail recorded the phone calls. At one point, the defendant told Vanas she needed to be persistent about calling the Prosecutor and saying she would not follow through with the charges.

At trial, the defendant was convicted of Felony Tampering With a Witness and six gross misdemeanor violations of a No-Contact Order. Regarding the charge of Assault in the Second Degree, the jury returned a guilty verdict on the lesser offense of Assault in the Fourth Degree, also a gross misdemeanor. By special verdicts, the jury found each count was domestic violence. The jury returned not guilty verdicts on Unlawful Imprisonment and Assault Fourth Degree.

At sentencing, the court calculated McDonald’s offender score as “7” based on prior convictions. Because McDonald’s current conviction was a domestic violence offense, the court added 1 additional point for each of the current domestic violence gross misdemeanors, yielding a total offender score of 14 points (this is HIGH). The court sentenced McDonald to 51 months prison for Tampering With a Witness and imposed consecutive sentences for the Assault Fourth Degree and No-Contact Order convictions. The defendant appealed, saying the trial court miscalculated.

The Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s calculations of the defendant’s felony score pursuant to RCW 9.94A.525(21).

For those who don’t know, RCW 9.94A.525 provides: “If the present conviction is for a felony domestic violence offense where domestic violence as defined in RCW 9.94A.030 was plead and proven . . . count points as follows: (c) Count one point for each prior conviction for a repetitive domestic violence offense as defined in RCW 9.94A.030, where domestic violence as defined in RCW 9.94A.030, was plead and proven after August 1, 2011.”

Here, the defendant argued (1) the statute does not apply, (2) the court gave erroneaous jury instructions, (3) he was given ineffective assistance of counsel, and (4) the trial court improperly included his six current convictions for violating a domestic violence No-Contact order in calculating his offender score for Tampering With a Witness – a domestic violence conviction.

The court rejected the defendant’s arguments. It reviewed the legislative intent of the statute from the plain language enacted by the legislature, considering the text of the provision in question,the context of the statute in which the provision is found, related provisions, and the statutory scheme as a whole. The Court also stated, “We must avoid constructions that yield unlikely, strange or absurd consequences.” And here, apparently the defendant’s interpretation of the law was unpersuasive.

My opinion?  . . . it doesn’t seem fair. Yes, domestic violence is an awful situation. It has horrible effects on people’s lives, including the families and children of those involved. Still, it doesn’t seem fair or equitable that a person with minor domestic violence convictions have those convictions count toward a felony score. Let’s assume these “minor convictions” for domestic violence included a Malicious Mischief Third Degree conviction for breaking a vase while arguing with a girlfriend, or a minor Assault Fourth Degree domestic violence conviction involving a “push & shove” with no injuries,  mutual combat and drugs/alcohol ingested by the defendant and victim prior to the argument. It seems over-the-top that these types of domestic violence convictions can count toward a felony offender score and expose a defendant to substantially more months, if not years, in prison should they face a pending felony domestic violence charge.  This type of math inevitably kills negotiations between defendants and prosecutors. It forces defendants to go to trial. Is that justice?