Category Archives: Washington Court of Appeals

Pretrial Publicity & Change of Venue

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In State v. Munzanreder, the WA Court of Appeals held that the jury selection process used by the trial court – which included a written questionnaire with a number of questions regarding exposure to media reports and questioning each juror individually about media exposure – protected the defendant’s constitutional rights to an impartial venue. Therefore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it denied the motion to change venue.

BACKGROUND FACTS

John J. Munzanreder appealed his conviction for the first degree murder of his wife. Because of the sensational nature of the alleged crime, local media extensively covered his case from arrest through trial.

Munzanreder worked with Juan Ibanez at Valley Ford in Yakima, Washington. In
early February 2013, Ibanez approached Munzanreder and asked him for money for a
toolbox. Munzanreder agreed to give him the money ifhe helped get rid of somebody.
Munzanreder told Ibanez that he wanted help killing his wife, Cynthia, and would give
him $20,000. Ibanez said he would help, but he would not kill her.

Munzanreder gave Ibanez cash and directed him to purchase a gun. Munzanreder
told Ibanez his plan: Munzanreder and his wife would go the movies, he would shoot her
with the new gun, he would then throw the gun to Ibanez in some nearby bushes, and
Ibanez would run away with the gun.

On February 28, 2013, the Munzanreders went to see a movie at the Majestic
Theater in Union Gap, Washington, a small city immediately south of Yakima. Ibanez received a prearranged text message from Munzanreder that the plan would be executed
and went to the theater and waited in the bushes adjacent to the theater’s parking lot.

After the movie, as the couple approached their car, Munzanreder shot his wife with the
gun purchased by Ibanez. Munzanreder then threw the gun into the bushes where Ibanez
waited. As Ibanez left the scene with the gun, he ran past a couple near his car.

Law enforcement arrived and questioned witnesses. Munzanreder told law
enforcement he heard a shot and saw a man in black clothes running away. Munzanreder
said he had followed the man, but fell and injured himself, developing a black eye.

Munzanreder’s wife later died from her injuries.

Law enforcement continued to investigate. They interviewed Ibanez, whose car
had been reported at the crime scene. Ibanez quickly confessed and told law enforcement
of the details of the crime. Media coverage of both the murder and the arrests quickly
saturated Yakima County.

Munzanreder was charged with Murder in the First Degree. The State also sought a Deadly Weapon Enhancement because the crime occurred with a handgun.

The Jury Questionnairre

Defense counsel and the State had worked together to create an agreed juror
questionnaire. The purpose of the questionnaire was to uncover juror bias, so that the
trial court and the parties could individually interview venire jurors with possible bias in
open court but outside the presence of other venire jurors.

The questionnaire contained many questions, including questions focusing on
pretrial publicity about the case. Those questions asked the venire jurors to list media
sources they used, whether they generally believed the media, whether they thought the
media was fair to both sides of a case, and what criminal cases they followed in the
media. It also specifically asked about Munzanreder’s case. The questionnaire asked
venire jurors if they knew information about the case from any sources, and concluded the
section by asking if they had formed any opinions about the case. The questionnaire also
asked venire jurors if they wanted to discuss their answers separately from other jurors.

The completed questionnaires revealed that 105 of the remaining 128 venire jurors knew
about the case; of these 105, 24 had formed opinions; and of these 24, most believed
Munzanreder was guilty.

Before the remaining venire panel returned to the courtroom, Munzanreder orally
moved for a change of venue. The motion was anticipated because Munzanreder had
earlier said he would make such a motion, and had provided the trial court and the State
with copies of local media stories and media Facebook posts.

The State, although opposing Munzanreder’s motion, indicated the trial court might give additional peremptory challenges. Munzanreder responded that he might ask for additional peremptory challenges, but would not do so until after the court ruled on his motion. The trial court took the motion under advisement and said it would make its ruling later in the jury selection process.

The parties completed voir dire and then went through the process of selecting the
Jury. The trial court permitted each party 6 peremptory challenges for the first 12 jurors,
and 1 additional peremptory challenge for each of the 3 alternate jurors. Munzanreder
never asked for additional peremptory challenges.

The panel was sworn in. The trial court provided the panel various preliminary
instructions and then excused them for lunch. With the panel excused, the trial court gave
its oral ruling denying Munzanreder’s motion to change venue.

Over the next several days, the parties presented their evidence.

The jury returned a guilty verdict on 1st degree murder with a firearm
enhancement. The trial court sentenced Munzanreder to 340 months of incarceration.

Munzanreder timely appealed. His principal arguments on appeal are the trial court abused its discretion when it denied his motion to change venue, and the voir dire process used by the trial court failed to protect his constitutional right to an impartial jury.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

First, the Court applied a Gunwall analysis to determine if the Washington Constitution provides greater protection than the United States Constitution in a particular context.  A Gunwall analysis must be performed, if litigants want the court to consider whether a parallel constitutional provision affords differing protections.

Here, the Court found that Munzanreder’s state constitutional right to an impartial jury should be interpreted as providing the same degree of protection as the parallel federal constitutional right. The Court similarly held that article I, section 22 of the WA Constitution’s right to an impartial jury does not provide any more protection than the Sixth Amendment.

Second, the Court of Appeals raised and dismissed Munzanreder’s arguments that the voir dire process employed in his case was insufficient. It reasoned that under Lopez-Stayer v.
Pitts, a trial court has considerable discretion in conducting voir dire. Abuse of discretion occurs when a trial court bases its decision on untenable grounds or untenable reasons.

Here,  the Court of Appeals discussed how extensive and meticulous jury selection was in this case. The trial court summoned 243 potential jurors. The parties worked together to craft an extensive juror questionnaire that satisfied the State, Munzanreder, and the trial court. The trial court granted several dozen individual interviews in open court outside the presence of other venire jurors. The trial court was fully involved with the process, and asked questions designed to expose bias and to ensure that jurors would reach a verdict based on the evidence presented at trial and on the court’s instructions on the law. Jury selection took over four days. Munzanreder did not request additional peremptory challenges, despite knowing he had that option. Munzanreder simply asserts now that the process was insufficient, although he was heavily involved at trial in developing the process used. Ultimately, the Court of Appeals decided that because Munzanreder does not show an abuse of discretion, his appeal on this issue fails.

Third, the Court of Appeals raised and dismissed Munzanreder’s arguments that the jury selection process used by the trial court was constitutionally deficient. He attempts to punctuate his point by showing that four biased jurors were empaneled. The Court reasoned that A party may challenge a juror for cause under CrR 6.4(c); and RCW 4.44.170. The trial court is in the best position to determine whether a juror can be fair and impartial because the trial court is able to observe the juror’s demeanor and evaluate the juror’s answers to determine whether the juror would be fair and impartial. For this reason, this court reviews a trial court’s denial of a challenge for cause for a manifest abuse of discretion.

Here, the Court of Appeals found no manifest abuse of discretion. Munzanreder failed to use his peremptory challenges to remove juror #51, a potentially bad and unbiased juror. He also elected not to request additional peremptory challenges. If the trial court erred in denying Munzanreder’ s for cause challenge of venire juror 51, because Munzanreder elected not to remove venire juror #51 with his allotted peremptory challenges or by requesting additional challenges, Munzanreder waived that error.

Fourth, the Court of Appeals raised and dismissed Munzanreder’s arguments that the trial court abused its discretion when it denied his motion for a change of venue. He primarily argues the pretrial media publicity was overwhelmingly inflammatory, which prejudiced the jury pool against him. The Court reasoned that in order to prevail on a change of venue motion, the defendant need only show a probability of unfairness or prejudice. Sheppard v. MaxwellState v. Rupe. The following nonexclusive factors aid our review of whether a trial court abused its discretion in denying a change of venue motion:

(I) the inflammatory or noninflammatory nature of the publicity; (2) the degree to which the publicity was circulated throughout the community; (3) the length of time elapsed from the dissemination of the publicity to the date of trial; (4) the care exercised and the difficulty encountered in the selection of the jury; (5) the familiarity of prospective or trial jurors with the publicity and the resultant effect upon them; (6) the challenges exercised by the defendant in selecting the jury, both peremptory and for cause; (7) the connection of government officials with the release of publicity; (8) the severity of the charge; and (9) the size of the area from which the venire is drawn.”

Here, the Court of Appeals reasoned that although the initial venire pool provided substantial challenges because of the trial court’s careful process for selecting a jury, it was highly confident that 11 of the 12 empaneled jurors were impartial.

“If venire juror #51 was biased, Munzanreder had the opportunity to remove him,” said the Court. “Munzanreder elected not to use any of his peremptory challenges to remove venire juror 51, and he did not request additional peremptory challenges. These two facts strongly suggest that even Munzanreder believed the empaneled jury was fair and impartial.” With that, the Court of Appeals concluded the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it denied Munzanreder’s motion to change venue.

Consequently, the Court of Appeals confirmed Munzanreder’s conviction.

“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.

 

Opening the Door

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In State v. Wafford, the WA Court of Appeals that a defendant’s counsel “opened the door” to suppressed evidence during opening statement, and that the proper remedy was to admit evidence that the court had previously ruled inadmissible.

FACTS & BACKGROUND

The incidents began years before. In 2005, T.H.’s mother heard that eight-year-old T.H. had told a friend that something inappropriate happened with Mr. Wafford. After reporting to police, T.H.’s mother took T.H. to be interviewed at Dawson Place, the Snohomish County Center for Child Advocacy. There, a child forensic interview specialist talked with T.H., and their conversation was video-recorded. T.H. did not make a specific disclosure of sexual abuse by Wafford, though she did appear to nod affirmatively in response to one question about inappropriate sexual contact. The State did not investigate further or charge Wafford.

However, Mr. Wafford continued to sexually abuse H.F. as well as her sister T.H. Eventually, the State charged Wafford with crimes against both T.H. and H.F.  As to T.H., Wafford was charged with first degree rape of a child, first degree child molestation, and first degree incest. As to H.F., Wafford was charged with first degree rape of a child, first degree child molestation, and third degree child molestation.

PRE-TRIAL SUPPRESSION OF VIDEO INTERVIEW

Before trial, the court conducted a child hearsay hearing at which it concluded that the 2005 recorded interview of T.H. was inadmissible. The court reasoned that because T.H. never actually described an act of sexual contact, her statements were not admissible under the child hearsay statute.

TRIAL

During defense counsel’s opening statement, she referred explicitly to the video of T.H.’s interview: “Mariyah brought both H.F. and T.H. to Dawson Place in 2005. Nova Robinson interviewed on video T.H., but T.H. denied that anything was happening to her.” The State did not object.

After opening remarks, the State requested that the court admit the interview video that had been previously excluded. The State argued that when defense counsel mentioned the video, she opened the door to its admission. The court found that defense counsel opened the door and admitted a portion of the video. Ultimately, the jury found Wafford guilty of first degree child molestation of T.H., but was unable to reach a verdict on the remaining counts. The court sentenced Wafford to 68 months in prison.

Wafford appealed on the argument that, as a matter of law, comments made by counsel during opening statements cannot open the door to otherwise inadmissible evidence.

ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSION

The Court reasoned that (1) a party who introduces evidence of questionable admissibility may open the door to rebuttal with evidence that would otherwise be inadmissible, and (2) a party who is the first to raise a particular subject at trial may open the door to evidence offered to explain, clarify, or contradict the party’s evidence. State v. Jones, citing 5 KARL B. TEGLAND, WASHINGTON PRACTICE: EVIDENCE LAW AND PRACTICE § 103.14, at 66-67 (5th ed.2007).

With that background, the Court addressed Wafford’s argument that because a comment made during an opening statement  is not evidence, it cannot open the door pursuant to State v. Whelchel and  Corson v. Corson.

However, the Court distinguished these cases. First, it reasoned that Whelchel does not support the broad proposition that opening statements cannot open the door because the evidence in question in Whelchel was admissible when the parties made opening statements. Second, the Corson case was distinguishable because in that case the trial court wrongfully admitted irrelevant and prejudicial evidence in response to an improper opening statement when other more effective means of ensuring a fair proceeding are available. Consequently, the Corson case did not hold that opening statements can never open the door to otherwise inadmissible evidence.

Next, the Court rejected Wafford’s argument that comments made during opening statements cannot open the door. First, such a rule would be contrary to the general rule permitting trial courts the discretion to determine the admissibility of evidence. Second, whether the issue arises from the statement of counsel or the testimony of a witness is immaterial to the question faced by the trial judge: to what extent, if any, has the statement compromised the fairness of the trial and what, if any, response is appropriate:

“In answering this question, the trial judge should have a range of options at his or her disposal. A judge may admonish the jury to disregard certain statements or reiterate its instruction that opening statements are not evidence. The judge may allow testimony about otherwise inadmissible evidence, while continuing to exclude the exhibit or document which contains the evidence. Or the judge may find that a party has opened the door to otherwise inadmissible evidence. The appropriate response is that, which in the discretion of the trial judge, best restores fairness to the proceeding.”

Finally, the Court rejected Wafford’s argument that the trial court mistakenly admitted the recording because it was inadmissible hearsay and therefore incompetent evidence.  Under ER 801(d)(1)(ii), a statement is not hearsay if “the declarant testifies at the trial or hearing and is subject to cross examination concerning the statement, and the statement is… consistent with the declarant’s testimony and is offered to rebut an express or implied charge against the declarant of recent fabrication or improper influence or motive. . . .” Here, however, the victim testified. The court concluded her affirmation of Wafford’s unlawful sexual conduct was consistent with her testimony and is thus not hearsay under ER 801(d)(1).

With that, the Court upheld Wafford’s conviction and sentencing.

My opinion?

It is well settled in Washington that a party that introduces evidence of questionable admissibility runs the risk of “opening the door” to the admission of otherwise inadmissible evidence by an opposing party.

For this reason, it is mandatory that attorneys exercise extreme discretion with their comments and questions during trial. Defense attorneys must avoid discussing evidence they work so hard to suppress. Not only can one “open the door” during direct and cross examination of witnesses, but also opening statements.

No-Contact Order Held Invalid

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In State v. Torres, the WA Court of Appeals decided a lower court improperly imposed a 5-year no contact order between the defendant and his son in a Witness Tampering prosecution.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Mario Torres is the father of M.T. (born 2003) and N.B. (born 2012). N.B. lived with his mother. However, on the morning of December 22, 2014, he was left in Mr. Torres’s care while N.B.’s mother went shopping. M.T. was also with Mr. Torres at the time. On December 23, N.B.’s mother and grandmother took him to receive medical care after he was found unresponsive. N.B. died a few days later. N.B.’s injuries suggested his death was a homicide.

Police Interview With M.T.

Part of law enforcement’s investigation into N.B. ‘s death involved a forensic interview of M.T. He originally told the interviewer that N.B. was responsive while in Mr. Torres’s care and ate some “Chicken McNuggets” during this time. But M.T. later told the interviewer this was not true. M.T. then said that he heard a loud bang while Mr. Torres was caring for N.B. and N.B. started loudly crying. Mr. Torres later told M.T. he had accidentally stepped on N.B. ‘s leg causing him to fall and strike the bedpost. M.T. never saw N.B. get up again after this. M.T. told the interviewer that both his parents approached him at his grandmother’s home earlier that day and told him to make up a story about N.B. eating Chicken McNuggets, and not mention that N.B. had bumped his head. Additionally, Mr. Torres allegedly told M.T. to “make up lies” about what happened.

Police interview with Mr. Torres.

The police talked to Mr. Torres the day after M.T’s interview. After being advised of his Miranda rights, Mr. Torres denied injuring N.B. but admitted N.B. fell and struck his head on a bedpost. Mr. Torres also admitted he did not want M.T. to talk to the police and had a private conversation with him to outline what M.T. would say. Mr. Torres claimed he told M.T. to tell the truth and say Mr. Torres did not cause the injuries to N.B. He did not offer any specific details on what M.T. was told.

Criminal Charges, Guilty Verdicts, Sentencing & the 5-Year No Contact Order.

The State charged Mr. Torres with one count of Witness Tampering under RCW 9A.72.120(l)(c). Although the case progressed toward trial, Mr. Torres ultimately pled guilty and entered an Alford plea on February 25. His case then proceeded directly to sentencing. During the sentencing colloquy, the court ultimately imposed a five-year no-contact order, prohibiting Mr. Torres from all contact with M.T. except by written mail. Mr. Torres also received a sentence of six months and $1,960 in court fines. Torres appealed.

For those who don’t know, a no contact order is also called a restraining order, and prohibits a person from being in physical or verbal contact with another person. The court must order the no contact agreement, and usually specifies how many feet, or yards, away the individuals must stay from one another. If broken the defendant may receive a fine, or jail time with a felony or misdemeanor charge.

COURT OF APPEALS’ DECISION AND REASONING.

The Court began with stating RCW 9.94A.505(9) authorizes a trial court to impose crime related prohibitions as sentencing conditions. A No-Contact Order is such a prohibition. The court further reasoned that conditions interfering with fundamental rights, such as the right to a parent-child relationship, must be “sensitively imposed” so they are “reasonably necessary to accomplish the essential needs of the State and public order.” A trial abuses its discretion if the trial court employs the wrong legal standard.

The Court further reasoned that here, at sentencing, the trial court imposed a five-year no-contact order, prohibiting almost all contact between Mr. Torres and his son. The Court reasoned that in so doing, the court failed to acknowledge Mr. Torres’s fundamental right to parent his child or explain why a five year prohibition on all personal contact was reasonably necessary to further the State’s interests. “This was error, even under the deferential abuse of discretion standard,” said the Court of Appeals. “While the trial court certainly can impose a no-contact order to advance the State’s fundamental interests in protecting children, it must do so in a nuanced manner that is sensitive to the changing needs and interests of the parent and child.”

“The State suggests we can infer the reasons for the court’s no-contact order from the record. We disagree. The record before us is scant. The trial judge did not explain why he decided to impose a no-contact order that was 10 times longer than what was requested by the State. We are unable to discern the court’s likely reasoning from the limited information presented. It is the trial court’s duty to balance the competing interests impacted by a no contact order.”

With that, the WA Court of Appeals remanded the case back to the trial court for further reconsideration – and instructions – on re-creating the no contact order.

“How to Create a No Contact Order.”

This portion of the Court opinion was very instructive to the lower court. For example, it was instructed that the trial court shall first address whether a no-contact order remains reasonably necessary in light of the State’s interests in protecting M.T. from harm. If it is, then the court shall endeavor to narrowly tailor the order, both in terms of scope and duration. When it comes to the order’s scope, the court shall consider less restrictive alternatives, such as supervised visitation, prior to restricting all personal contact between Mr. Torres and his child. In addition, the court’s order should recognize that “what is reasonably necessary to protect the State’s interests may change over time.” Accordingly, the court shall consider whether the scope of the no-contact order should change over time. The court shall also reconsider whether the ultimate length of the no-contact order remains appropriate. Finally, the trial court should keep in mind that a sentencing proceeding is not the ideal forum for addressing parenting issues.

My opinion?

This was a great decision. I’m impressed that the Court of Appeals gave specific instructions on creating no contact orders in the future. Good opinion.

Backpage.com Evidence Admitted at Trial as “Business Record.”

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In State v. Butler, the WA Court of Appeals decided a trial court rightfully admitted business records connecting showing the defendant used Backpage.com to facilitate the commercial sexual abuse of a minor because the State’s failure to provide the written notice of the evidence did not prejudice the defendant, who was given the business records months before trial.

BACKGROUND FACTS

N.C. was 14 years old when she first met 22-year-old defendant Ivory Butler. One day, N.C. skipped school and spent the day with Butler. N.C.’s mother found out she had skipped school and punished her. N.C. ran away from home, and Butler picked her up. He took her to a motel room and arranged for her to meet men at the motel for sex. She gave the money she received to Butler. N.C. continued selling sexual services and giving the money to Butler.

Detective Raymond Unsworth found Internet ads on Backpage.com for female escort services with Butler’s phone number listed as the contact number. The ads included photographs of the body, but not the face, of a young woman. The ads alluded to sexual services that would be provided, with the prices that would be charged.

An undercover detective responded to the Backpage ads by contacting Butler’s phone number. The detective, posing as a customer, arranged to obtain sexual services for $300 from a woman in room 201 of the New Horizon Motel. Police found N.C. in that room, together with a disposable cellphone under the mattress, condoms in a Crown Royal bag, and a knife in the bedside table drawer.

In Butler’s phone, the contact name assigned to the disposable phone found in the motel room was “Money Baby Money Baby.” Text messages between Butler’s phone and the disposable phone found in the motel room included details about providing sexual services for money. The messages also included instructions from Butler to N.C. to discard the phone in the toilet if the police came. Butler was arrested and charged under RCW 9.68A.101 with promoting commercial sexual abuse of a minor.

The Trial Exhibits

At trial, the State sought to admit three exhibits. Exhibits #3 and #4 relate to Backpage ads for escort services. Exhibit #5 was the certification from the Backpage records custodian. Detective Unsworth testified that he found the ads on Backpage’s public website. Each ad included photographs of a young woman, information about the sexual services that could be provided, the price, and Butler’s telephone number as the contact.

Exhibits #3 and #4 compiled the ads that were online, more photographs that Detective Unsworth had not seen online, the date each ad was posted, and the poster’s fictitious name, mailing address, and e-mail address. Backpage provided the certification from its records custodian in response to a search warrant for business records.

The State provided these exhibits to Butler months before trial as part of discovery. The trial court admitted the exhibits over Butler’s objection.

The jury found Butler guilty as charged. On Appeal, Butler argues the Exhibits #3, #4 and #5 were wrongfully admitted.

COURT’S ANALYSIS AND DECISION

Butler argues Exhibits #3, #4 and #5 were inadmissible because the State did not give proper notice under RCW 10.96.030(3). This statute contains an exception to the general rule requiring witness testimony to admit business records. To ensure the opposing party has a fair opportunity to challenge the business records and certification, the statute provides in part:

“A party intending to offer a record into evidence under this section must provide written notice of that intention to all adverse parties, and must make the record and affidavit, declaration, or certification available for inspection sufficiently in advance of their offer into evidence to provide an adverse party with a fair opportunity to challenge them.”

The court reasoned that approaching these issues is similar to approaching the child hearsay rule: basically, cases addressing the child hearsay statute have upheld the admission of statements without prior notice “so long as the adverse party had or was offered an opportunity to prepare to challenge the statements.”

Here, Butler argued the State was required to provide a separate written notice to inform him that it intended to rely on RCW 10.96.030 for admission of the business records. But months before trial, the State provided the certification of the Backpage records custodian, together with the Backpage business records. Mid-trial, the State also offered to produce the custodian for live testimony and a defense interview. This allowed Butler ample opportunity to prepare to challenge the records. With that, the Court denied Butler’s arguments:

“Consistent with the cases addressing the child hearsay statute, we conclude the lack of written notice required by RCW 10.96.030 did not cause any prejudice to Butler. He had ample opportunity to prepare to challenge the business records when the State provided all of the proposed business records and the certification from the records custodian months prior to trial.”

Moreover, the Court reasoned that the State offered to call the records custodian as a witness and to allow Butler to interview the custodian. However, Butler declined to request a continuance to interview the witness.

Finally, the Court of appeals rejected arguments that the Backpage ads bolstered N.C.’s testimony tying Butler to the Backpage evidence. The Court reasoned that even without the admission of the Backpage ads, overwhelming evidence links Butler to his exploitation of N.C.:

“The physical evidence, text messages, jail phone calls, testimony from N.C., and successful undercover sting operation provide overwhelming evidence that Butler promoted the prostitution of N.C.”

Consequently, the Court concluded that the lack of written notice required by RCW 10.96.030 did not cause prejudice to Butler. Overwhelming evidence supported Butler’s guilt.

Prostitution Evidence Admitted During Defendant’s Assault Trial.

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In State v. Woods, the WA Court of Appeals held that evidence that the defendant prostituted the victim was properly admitted in his prosecution for second degree assault by strangulation. These prior acts were necessary to explain to the jury why the victim was fearful of seeking help from her family or from the police.

BACKGROUND FACTS.

The Defendant Euran Woods and victim BrittanyEnglund began their volatile relationship in 2009. At that time, Woods and Englund sold drugs together and Englund herself was addicted to drugs. As Englund’s drug addiction grew, so did her dependency on Woods— who exploited this dependency to isolate Englund from her friends and family. In addition to being emotionally abusive, Woods physically abused Englund throughout their relationship.

In 2011, Woods began forcing Englund to prostitute herself. He conditioned Englund to comply with his demands by convincing her that her life of prostitution was only temporary and that one day they would both have normal jobs and be happy together.

Englund argued with Woods regarding the prostitution several times. On one occasion in August of 2011, Woods strangled Englund until she passed out. Englund did not inform the police or her family of the abuse or prostitution both out of fear that Woods would retaliate and because she felt that Woods loved her and was sorry.

However, Woods strangled Englund again in September of 2011 after she discovered  he had been taking suggestive pictures with other women. Woods threw Englund across the room, kicked her, stomped on her, and strangled her until she passed out. Woods later apologized to Englund, who decided to not call the police.

In April of 2012, Woods again assaulted Englund. Her mother drove her to the hospital. Englund disclosed the 2011 assaults for the first time during a subsequent interview with a police detective.

THE CHARGES, JURY TRIAL & BASIS FOR APPEAL.

Woods was charged with one count of assault in the second degree for the September 2011 strangulation, with a special allegation of domestic violence pursuant to RCW 10.99.020.

During trial, the court admitted evidence of the August 2011 strangulation and the prostitution evidence. It determined that such evidence was admissible because it aided the jurors in understanding the nature of the relationship, motive, and intent, and helped to illuminate the victim’s state of mind.  The trial court also noted that—in matters dealing with domestic violence—testimony regarding prior assaults may assist the jury in understanding the dynamics of the domestic violence relationship and in assessing the victim’s credibility.

The jury found Woods guilty. He timely appealed. Although his attorney filed an Anders brief on arguments that the appeal was frivolous, the WA Court of Appeals nevertheless granted review to resolve the issues presented.

THE COURT’S REASONING AND CONCLUSION.

ER 404(b) Evidence

The Court of Appeals illustrated that under ER 404(b), evidence of a defendant’s prior bad act is not admissible to prove the defendant’s character and to show action in conformity therewith. However, such evidence may be admissible for other purposes, depending on its relevance and the balancing of its probative value and danger of unfair prejudice. For evidence of a prior bad act to be admissible, a trial judge 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.

Under this analysis, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the trial court’s rulings herein werecorrect. Englund’s testimony as to how Woods forced her into prostitution and why she was unable to escape was necessary for the jurors to understand the dynamics of this domestic violence relationship. Furthermore, Woods’ forced prostitution of Englund was a source of shame and fear for Englund and was an important factor in understanding why she refused to seek help from her friends, family, and the police.

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

The Court illustrated how Constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel is established only when the defendant shows that (1) counsel’s performance, when considered in light of all the circumstances, fell below an objectively reasonable standard of performance, and (2) there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s deficient performance, the result of the proceeding would have been different.

Under this analysis, the Court rejected Wood’s arguments that his counsel was ineffective for failing to object to the admission of the prostitution evidence.  It reasoned there was nothing objectionable about this evidence because it was properly admitted pursuant to ER 404(b). Moreover, Woods’ counsel expressly deferred an objection to the prostitution evidence after stating that he viewed that evidence as presenting a valuable area for cross examination: “Rather, the record demonstrates that a tactical decision was made.”

Woods also believed he received ineffective assistance of counsel because his attorney failed to request a limiting instruction regarding the prostitution evidence. However, the Court of Appeals held this was also a strategic decision on the part of Woods’ defense attorney: “Defense counsel argued to the jury that Woods did not cause Englund’s injuries. Rather, he posited, those injuries could have been a result of Englund’s prostitution.” Thus, deficient performance was not established.

With that, the COurt of Appeals held that Woods was not prejudiced and upheld his conviction.

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.

Unlawful Property Seizure

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In State v. Rivera, the WA Court of Appeals Div. II decided a trial court lacks authority to order defendants to forfeit their property as a condition of their felony sentencing.

BACKGROUND & FACTS

On September 20, 2014, Alicia Clements arrived at defendant Kevin Rivera’s home to serve him papers concerning a civil matter. Ms. Clements exited her vehicle to tape the documents to a post near Mr. Rivera’s driveway. While Clements was posting the paperwork, Rivera and his wife came out the front door and into the driveway. Rivera yelled at Clements that she was trespassing and needed to leave.

As Clements was getting back into her car, Rivera took down the documents she posted and approached her car to return them. In the process of returning the documents, Rivera shattered the driver’s side window on Clements’s car, causing glass to cascade into the car and onto the street.

Ms. Clements claimed that her window was completely rolled up and that Rivera had deliberately punched through the window with the documents in hand, striking her twice with his fist in the process. However, Rivera stated that Clements’s window was still open when he returned the documents, but that because Clements was attempting to roll up her windows, his fingers caught the edge of the window causing it to shatter.

Both Rivera and Clements called 911. Pierce County Sheriff’s Deputies responded to the incident. Mr. Rivera for assault. The State charged Rivera with second degree assault by battery under RCW 9A.36.021(1)(a), felony harassment, and third degree malicious mischief.

At trial, Rivera conceded that he had broken Clements’s window, but argued he did so accidentally rather than intentionally. The jury convicted Rivera of second degree assault and third degree malicious mischief. As part of his sentence, Rivera was required to forfeit “all property.”

CONCLUSION & ANALYSIS.

The Court of Appeals held that the trial court lacked authority to order property forfeiture as a sentencing condition.

It reasoned that under State v. Roberts, 185 Wn. App. 94, 96, 339 P.3d 995 (2014), the authority to order forfeiture of property as part of a judgment and sentence is purely statutory.. In other words, a trial court has no inherent power to order forfeiture of property in connection with a criminal conviction.

With that, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred by ordering forfeiture of seized property as a sentencing condition.

My opinion? Good decision. I’ve never heard of courts seizing a defendant’s property as a condition of sentencing. Indeed, the Fifth Amendment states that a person may not be deprived of property by the government without “due process of law,” or fair procedures. Typically, if property is an issue, then courts can lawfully order a defendant to pay restitution to the victim for the loss or damage to victim’s property. This makes sense. But to actually take a defendant’s property as a sentencing condition? No.

State v. Froehrich: Unlawful Inventory Search

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In State v. Froehlich, the WA Court of Appeals Division II upheld the suppression of methampetamine found in a vehicle because the defendant’s car was unlawfully searched.

BACKGROUND

Ms. Froehlich was driving her car. She collided with a pickup truck waiting at a stop sign. After the collision, the car came to rest on the right shoulder of the highway. It was not obstructing traffic. A Washington State Patrol Trooper arrived at the scene. By this time, Froehlich was seated in the pickup truck that she had hit.

Ms. Froehlich eventually left the scene in an ambulance after talking with police at the scene. One trooper followed her to the hospital to do sobriety testing, and she was not arrested. However, the trooper at the scene of the accident decided to impound her car. At the scene, he performed an inventory search of the vehicle which also included the search of Froerich’s purse which she left inside the car. He found methamphetamine.

Ms. Froehrich was charged with Unlawful Possession of a Controlled Substance With Intent to Manufacture or Deliver. Froehlich filed a motion to suppress the methamphetamine, arguing in part that the Trooper had no reason to impound the car and failed to consider reasonable alternatives to impoundment. The trial court granted the motion, suppressed the evidence and ultimately dismissed the charges. The State appealed.

ANALYSIS

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court that the impoundment was not lawful and therefore the search was not lawful because (1) under the community caretaking exception, the State did not prove that the impounding officer considered whether Froehlich, her spouse, or her friends were available to remove the vehicle; and (2) even though there was statutory authority for impoundment, the State failed to prove that the impounding officer considered all reasonable alternatives.

The Court reasoned that both the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution prohibit warrantless searches unless an exceptions to the warrant requirement applies. One exception to the warrant requirement is a non-investigatory, good faith inventory search of an impounded vehicle. Law enforcement may lawfully impound a vehicle for three reasons: (1) as evidence of a crime, (2) under the community caretaking function, or (3) when the driver has committed a traffic offense for which the legislature has expressly authorized impoundment. Even if one of these reasons exists, however, an officer may impound a vehicle only if there are no reasonable alternatives.

Here, the Trooper’s impoundment of Froehlich’s car was not lawful under the community caretaking function because there were reasonable alternatives to impoundment. Here, the Trooper never asked Froehlich about arranging to have someone else remove the car as an alternative to impoundment, and the State presented no evidence that the Trooper considered Froehlich’s ability to arrange for the car’s removal.

CONCLUSION

Because Richardson unlawfully impounded the vehicle, his seizure of methamphetamine from Froehlich’s purse was unlawful.

My opinion? Good decision. Very simple, straightforward and correct analysis. As usual, I’m extremely impressed with Division II’s handling of search and seizure issues, especially when it comes to vehicle searches. Here, it’s clear that police officers cannot go about impounding people’s vehicles and searching through belongings when reasonable legal alternatives exist.

The “Drug House” Statute

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In State v. Menard, the WA Court of Appeals Division II reversed the lower court dismissal of charges of  Maintaining a Drug Dwelling under RCW 69.50.402.

BACKGROUND

The defendant Rodney Menard owned and lived at his home in Yakima. Menard lived at the home since he was 5 years old. He rented rooms to five individuals, occasionally received methamphetamine from tenants as rent payment, consumed twenty dollars’ worth of methamphetamine per day, and possessed drug pipes. Menard knew his tenants used methamphetamine, but denied knowledge of the use of his home for methamphetamine sales.

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) received complaints of drug traffic from Menard’s home. On July 15, 2015, a DEA confidential informant purchased approximately a gram of methamphetamine at Menard’s home. On July 23, 2015, the DEA Task Force conducted a narcotics search. The front door was unlocked. Rodney Menard and thirteen other individuals were present when law enforcement officers entered the residence. In a basement bedroom, a lady rested on a small couch with a bag of methamphetamine next to her pillow.

Law enforcement officers spoke with Rodney Menard and other residents of the home. When asked if people who visit take drugs, Menard answered: “most people do.” Two renters informed the officers that 10 to 15 different people came daily to the house to use drugs. Menard claimed he unsuccessfully tried to end the heavy traffic at the house. Officers confiscated drug paraphernalia and 25.5 grams of drugs inside the home.

MOTION TO DISMISS

Menard was charged with Maintaining a Drug Dwelling under RCW 69.50.402. He filed a Knapstad motion under arguments that (1) his conduct is unlawful only if the drug activity constituted the residence’s major purpose, and (2) selling drugs was not the primary purpose of the residence. The trial court granted Menard’s motion to dismiss. The State appealed.

LAW & ANALYSIS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that under Washington law, a defendant may present a pretrial motion to dismiss a charge when the State lacks ability to prove all of the elements of the crime. RCW 69.50.402(1), known colloquially as the “Drug House” Statute, declares:

It is unlawful for any person: ( f) Knowingly to keep or maintain any … dwelling, building … or other structure or place, which is resorted to by persons using controlled substances in violation of this chapter for the purpose of using these substances, or which is used for keeping or selling them in violation of this chapter.

Here, Menard argued that he may be found guilty of maintaining a drug dwelling only if he maintains the home for the principal purpose of facilitating the use of controlled substances. However, the Court of Appeals disagreed.

The court reasoned that to convict under the “Drug House” Statute, the evidence must demonstrate more than a single isolated incident of illegal drug activity in order to prove that the defendant “maintains” the premises for keeping or selling a controlled substance.

The Court further reasoned that sporadic or isolated incidents of drug use are not enough to prove criminal conduct. Here, however, there was substantial evidence that people other than Menard used drugs in the house. Apparently, 10 to 15 people each day entered the home to use drugs. When police searched the house, fourteen people, some of whom admitted to use of methamphetamine, occupied the premises. One resident rested methamphetamine near her pillow. Officers found drug devices scattered throughout the home. When asked if people who visit take drugs, Menard answered: “most people do.”

With that, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s dismissal of charges.