Tag Archives: Bellingham Criminal Defense Attorney

Proposed Legislation Makes It Easier to Remove Criminal Convictions.

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Excellent article by Lester Black of the Stranger reports that a proposed state law, HB 1041, would make it easier for people to remove misdemeanors and felonies from their criminal record.
Although certain convictions are already eligible to be vacated, or removed from someone’s record, but this proposed law would greatly expedite the vacation process and expand the types of crimes that are eligible for vacation. An explanation of the bill describes which types of convictions are covered.
Rep. Drew Hansen, a Democrat from Bainbridge who is sponsoring the legislation, said he is supporting the bill so old convictions don’t burden people long after they’ve paid their debts to society.

“This bill makes it easier for people to clear their record when people have truly turned their lives around.” ~Representative Drew Hansen

Also, Rep. Morgan Irwin, a Republican from Enumclaw co-sponsoring the legislation, said the proposed law would give an incentive for people to stay out of the criminal justice system.

“This is about giving people that have… made that mistake a reason to not make another one,” Irwin said at a recent legislative hearing.

According to the Stranger staff reporter Lester Black, the bill would not automatically clear anyone’s criminal record. People would still need to get a judge’s approval for each conviction to be vacated, but the bill would make it easier for people to go through the process and expand the types of criminal convictions that are eligible to be removed from people’s records. Some serious crimes such as second-degree burglary and assault would now be eligible under the proposed law. There is also no official estimate for how many people could take advantage of vacating convictions, according to a financial statement attached to the bill.

King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg also spoke in favor of the legislation, noting that the “collateral consequences” a person experiences from a conviction have nothing to do with public safety. Satterberg emphasized that people would still need to convince a judge to vacate their record.

“This is a reward for highly motivated people,” Satterberg said. “We shouldn’t stand in their way, we should encourage that.”

My opinion? This legislation is a step in the right direction. Convictions are crippling. This type of data limits career opportunities, prevents housing, prevents travel and may be used as impeachment evidence should the convicted offender testify in a court hearing.

Seattle Police Accountability Report: More Use of Force Against African Americans

Excellent article by of the Seattle Times reports that Seattle police are using force at low levels but still can’t fully explain why it is used against African Americans at disproportionately higher rates, according to the department’s annual report submitted to the federal judge overseeing court-ordered reforms.

The Seattle Police Department last week filed its 2019 Use of Force report, which shows that the use of force by officers remained “extraordinarily low” last year.

Officers reported using force at a rate of less than one quarter of 1 percent out of the nearly 400,000 incidents to which they responded, the report said. That’s in line with the rate reported a year earlier.

According to Miletich, the report is part of a series to show whether federally-mandated police reforms are being sustained, with an ultimate goal of terminating a court-ordered agreement by 2020. The updates are being provided to U.S. District Judge James Robart, who last year found the city in full compliance with the main terms of a 2012 consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department.

Judge Robart’s ruling triggered a two-year period in which the city must demonstrate that it is maintaining reforms to address allegations of excessive force and issues of biased policing. The city took the lead role in carrying out a self-analysis, although the Justice Department and the court’s monitor, Merrick Bobb, scrutinize the progress.

The police department’s use-of-force reports follow Bobb’s key finding in April 2017 that the department had made a dramatic turnaround. He concluded that overall use of force was down, and that when officers used it, it was largely handled in a reasonable way consistent with department policies.

Still, as in the 2018 report, the new figures show a disparity in the use of force against African Americans. Black males represented 32 percent of cases involving males, up from 25 percent a year earlier. Cases involving black females surged to represent 22 percent of incidents where force was used against females, compared with 5 percent in 2017. African Americans make up about 7 percent of Seattle’s population.

Racial disparity is a “significant ongoing concern” requiring further discussion and analysis within the limited role of law enforcement, the report said.

Yet current sociological and criminal-justice research has not found proven reliable methodology for accounting for all the “multitude of recognized factors” that may combine to result in the disparity, including education, socioeconomic status and family structure, the report said.

“In other words, while numbers can identify a disparity, they cannot explain the disparity,” the report said. At any rate, the police department said it would continue to consult academic experts to learn more, including the possible effects of implicit bias.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member had a negative experience which police which turned inappropriately violent. Although police officers have difficult jobs, police misconduct still exists.

Firearms & Terry Stops

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In State v. Tarango, the WA Court of Appeals held that the presence of a firearm in public and the presence of an individual openly carrying a handgun in a “high-risk setting,” are insufficient, standing alone, to support an investigatory stop.

BACKGROUND FACTS

At around 2:00 in the afternoon on a winter day in 2016, Mr. Matthews drove to a neighborhood grocery store in Spokane, parking his car next to a Chevrolet Suburban in which music was playing loudly. A man was sitting in the passenger seat of the Suburban, next to its female driver. When Mr. Matthews stepped out of his car and got a better look at the passenger, who later turned out to be the defendant Mr. Tarango, he noticed that Mr. Tarango was holding a gun in his right hand, resting it on his thigh. Mr. Matthews would later describe it as a semiautomatic, Glock-style gun.

As he headed into the store, Mr. Matthews called 911 to report what he had seen, providing the 911 operator with his name and telephone number. The first officer to respond saw a vehicle meeting Mr. Matthews’s description parked on the east side of the store. He called in the license plate number and waited for backup to arrive. Before other officers could arrive, however, the Suburban left the parking area, traveling west.

The Suburban was followed by an officer and once several other officers reached the vicinity, they conducted a felony stop. According to one of the officers, the driver, Lacey Hutchinson, claimed to be the vehicle’s owner. When told why she had been pulled over, she denied having firearms in the vehicle and gave consent to search it.

After officers obtained Mr. Tarango’s identification, however, they realized he was under Department of Corrections (DOC) supervision and decided to call DOC officers to perform the search.

In searching the area within reach of where Mr. Tarango had been seated, a DOC officer observed what appeared to be the grip of a firearm located behind the passenger seat, covered by a canvas bag. When the officer moved the bag to get a better view of the visible firearm—the visible firearm turned out to be a black semiautomatic—a second firearm, a revolver, fell out. Moving the bag also revealed a couple of boxes of ammunition. At that point, officers decided to terminate the search, seal the vehicle, and obtain a search warrant. A loaded Glock Model 22 and a Colt Frontier Scout revolver were recovered when the vehicle was later searched.

The State charged Mr. Tarango, who had prior felony convictions, with two counts of first degree unlawful possession of a firearm. Because Mr. Tarango had recently failed to report to his community custody officer as ordered, he was also charged with Escape from community custody.

Before trial, Mr. Tarango moved to suppress evidence obtained as a result of the traffic stop, arguing that police lacked reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. However, the trial court denied the suppression motion. Later, at trial, the jury found Mr. Tarango guilty as charged. He appealed.

ISSUE

The issue on appeal was whether a reliable informant’s tip that Mr. Tarango was seen openly holding a handgun while seated in a vehicle in a grocery store parking lot was a sufficient basis, without more, for conducting a Terry stop of the vehicle after it left the lot.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

First, the Court of Appeals held that Mr. Tarango’s motion to suppress should have been granted because officers lacked reasonable suspicion that Mr. Tarango had engaged in or was about to engage in criminal activity.

The Court reasoned that warrantless searches and seizures are per se unreasonable unless one of the few jealously and carefully drawn exceptions to the warrant requirement applies.

“A Terry investigative stop is a well-established exception,” said the Court. “The purpose of a Terry stop is to allow the police to make an intermediate response to a situation for which there is no probable cause to arrest but which calls for further investigation . . . To conduct a valid Terry stop, an officer must have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity based on specific and articulable facts known to the officer at the inception of the stop.”

Additionally, the Court of Appeals reasoned that in evaluating whether the circumstances supported a reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct, it reminded that Washington is an “open carry” state, meaning that it is legal in Washington to carry an unconcealed firearm unless the circumstances manifest an intent to intimidate another or warrant alarm for the safety of other persons.

“Since openly carrying a handgun is not only not unlawful, but is an individual right protected by the federal and state constitutions, it defies reason to contend that it can be the basis, without more, for an investigative stop.”

Here, because the officers conducting the Terry stop of the Suburban had no information that Mr. Tarango had engaged in or was about to engage in criminal activity, the officers lacked reasonable suspicion.

Consequently, the Court of Appeals ruled that Tarango’s motion to suppress should have been granted. The Court also reversed and dismissed his firearm possession convictions.

Please contact my office if, a friend or family member face criminal charges. Similar to the excellent defense attorney in this case, experienced attorneys routinely research, file and argue motions to suppress evidence when it is gained by unlawful search and seizure and in violation a defendant’s Constitutional rights.

Unlawful Vehicle Stops

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In United States v. Landeros, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that law enforcement officers may not extend a lawfully initiated vehicle stop because a passenger refuses to identify himself, absent reasonable suspicion that the individual has committed a criminal offense.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Early in the morning of February 9, 2016, police officer Baker pulled over a car driving 11 miles over the speed limit. The stop occurred on a road near the Pascua Yaqui Indian Reservation. Defendant Alfredo Landeros sat in the front passenger seat next to the driver. Two young women were in the back seat. The driver apologized to Officer Baker for speeding and provided identification.

Officer Baker wrote in his incident report and testified that he smelled alcohol in the car. The two women in the backseat appeared to him to be minors, and therefore subject to the underage drinking laws.  The two women—who were 21 and 19 years old—complied.

Officer Baker did not believe that Landeros was underage, and he was not. Nonetheless, Officer Baker commanded Landeros to provide identification.

Landeros refused to identify himself, and informed Officer Baker that he was not required to do so. Officer Baker then repeated his demand to see Landeros’s ID.” Landeros again refused. As a result, Officer Baker called for back-up, prolonging the stop. Officer Romero then arrived, and he too asked for Landeros’s identification. The two officers also repeatedly commanded Landeros to exit the car because he was not being compliant.

Landeros eventually did leave the car. At least several minutes passed between Officer Baker’s initial request for Landeros’s identification and his exit from the car. As Landeros exited the car, he saw for the first time pocketknives, a machete, and two open beer bottles on the floorboards by the front passenger seat. Under Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 4-251, Arizona prohibits open containers of alcohol in cars on public highways. Officer Baker then placed Landeros under arrest.

Landeros was arrested both for possessing an open container and for “failure to provide his true full name and refusal to comply with directions of police officers under Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 13-2412(A). Under that statute, it is unlawful for a person, after being advised that the person’s refusal to answer is unlawful, to fail or refuse to state the person’s true full name on request of a peace officer who has lawfully detained the person based on reasonable suspicion that the person has committed, is committing or is about to commit a crime.”

The officers handcuffed Landeros as soon as he exited the car. Officer Romero asked Landeros if he had any weapons. Landeros confirmed that he had a knife in a pocket. Officer Romero requested consent to search Landeros’s pockets, and Landeros agreed. During that search, Officer Romero found a smoking pipe and six bullets in Landeros’s pockets.

Landeros was federally indicted for possession of ammunition by a convicted felon, 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1), 924(a)(2). He moved to suppress the evidence based on the circumstances of the stop, however, the lower federal district court denied the motion. Landeros then entered into a plea agreement that preserved his right to appeal the denials of the two motions. The district court accepted the agreement and sentenced Landeros to 405 days in prison and three years of supervised release. He appealed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Ninth Circuit held that law enforcement officers may not extend a lawfully initiated vehicle stop because a passenger refuses to identify himself, absent reasonable suspicion that the individual has committed a criminal offense.

The Court reasoned held that because the lower court mistakenly approved the duration of the stop in this case based on United States v. Turvin and wrongfully disregarded Rodriguez v. United States.

“Applying Rodriguez, we shall assume that Officer Baker was permitted to prolong the initially lawful stop to ask the two women for identification, because he had reasonable suspicion they were underage. But the several minutes of additional questioning to ascertain Landeros’s identity was permissible only if it was (1) part of the stop’s “mission” or (2) supported by independent reasonable suspicion.”

The Ninth Circuit also held that any extension of the traffic stop to investigate those matters was an unlawful seizure because there was no evidence that the officer had a reasonable suspicion that the defendant was out past his curfew or drinking underage. As a result, the record does not demonstrate that Officer Baker had a reasonable suspicion that Landeros was out past his curfew or drinking underage. Any extension of the traffic stop to investigate those matters was an unlawful seizure under the Fourth Amendment.

Furthermore, the Ninth Circuit rejected the government’s arguments that the defendant’s refusal to identify himself provided reasonable suspicion of the additional offenses of failure to provide identification and failure to comply with law enforcement orders.

The Court reasoned that here, the officers insisted several times that Landeros identify himself after he initially refused, and detained him while making those demands. “At the time they did so, the officers had no reasonable suspicion that Landeros had committed an offense,” said the Ninth Circuit. “Accordingly, the police could not lawfully order him to identify himself. His repeated refusal to do so thus did not, as the government claims, constitute a failure to comply with an officer’s lawful order . . .” Consequently, reasoned the Ninth Circuit, there was therefore no justification for the extension of the detention to allow the officers to press Landeros further for his identity.

The Ninth Circuit concluded that there was therefore no justification for the extension of the detention to allow the officers to press the defendant further for his identity. It reasoned that the bullets the defendant was convicted of possessing cannot be introduced at trial because he was ordered from the car as part of the unlawfully extended seizure and subsequently consented to a search of his pockets. Furthermore, because the stop was no longer lawful by the time the officers ordered the defendant to leave the car, the validity (or not) of the police officer’s order to exit the vehicle did not matter.

Good opinion.

Signalling Turns

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In State v. Brown, the WA Court of Appeals held that a driver, who moved left from a middle lane to a dedicated left turn lane while signaling his intention to change lanes, is not required to reactive his turn signal before turning left from the reserve lane unless public safety is implicated. Therefore, evidence discovered when a driver is stopped for failing to signal a turn when public safety is not implicated must be suppressed.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On the evening of March 22, 2015, Trooper Acheson of the WA State Patrol patrolled the streets of Kennewick. At 10:15 p.m., while traveling eastbound on Clearwater Avenue, Trooper Acheson saw Mr. Brown driving a Toyota Tundra, turn right from Huntington Street onto Clearwater Avenue. During the turn, the left side tires of the Tundra, a large pickup, crossed the white dashed divider line between the two eastbound lanes by one tire width for a brief moment, after which the vehicle fully returned to its lane of travel. Brown’s diversion across the dividing line did not endanger any travel. Acheson observed Brown’s tires cross the white dashed divider line, and he continued to view Brown’s driving thereafter.

Shortly after entering Clearwater Avenue, Mr. Brown signaled his intent to change lanes, and to move to the left or inner eastbound lane, by activating his left turn signal that blinked numerous times. Brown entered the inner lane of the two lanes.

Soon, Mr. Brown approached the intersection of Clearwater Avenue and Highway 395, where the eastbound lanes widen to three lanes. The innermost of the three lanes becomes a designated left turn only lane. Brown again wished to change lanes so he could turn left. Brown signaled his intent to move left into the dedicated turn lane. Brown maneuvered his vehicle into the dedicated turn lane, at which point the left turn signal cycled-off.

Mr. Brown stopped his vehicle in the dedicated left turn lane while awaiting the light to turn green. He did not reactivate his turn signal. Trooper Acheson pulled behind Brown. No other traffic was present on eastbound Clearwater Avenue. When the light turned green, Brown turned left onto northbound Highway 395. Trooper Mason Acheson then activated his patrol vehicle’s emergency light and stopped Brown.

Trooper Acheson stopped David Brown based on Brown’s crossing the eastbound lanes’ divider line during his turn from Huntington Street onto Clearwater Avenue. He did not stop Brown based on Brown’s failure to signal his left turn onto Highway 395. After stopping Brown, Trooper Acheson investigated Brown for suspicion of driving under the influence of intoxicants (DUI). Acheson arrested Brown for DUI.

Brown filed a motion to suppress evidence garnered from the stop of his car by Trooper Acheson. The court concluded that, because Brown violated no traffic law, Trooper Acheson lacked probable cause to initiate the traffic stop. Therefore, the court suppressed all evidence gained from the stop and thereafter dismissed the prosecution.

The Prosecutor appealed the dismissal to the superior court. According to the superior court, David Brown violated RCW 46.61.305(2), which requires a continuous signal of one’s intent to turn during the last one hundred feet before turning left. Because Trooper Mason Acheson observed Brown’s failure to continuously signal before turning left onto the highway, Acheson gained reasonable suspicion of a traffic infraction. The superior court remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings.

Mr. Brown appealed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that RCW 46.61.305(2) declares that a driver must, “when required,” continuously signal an intention to turn or cross lanes during at least the last one hundred feet traveled before turning or moving lanes. This appeal asks if this statute compels a driver, who moved left from a middle lane to a dedicated left turn lane while signally his intention to change lanes, to reactivate his turn signal before turning left from the reserved turn lane.

“We hold that the statute only requires use of a signal in circumstances that implicate public safety. Because the circumstances surrounding David Brown’s left-hand turn from a left-turn-only lane did not jeopardize public safety, we hold that Trooper Acheson lacked grounds to stop David Brown’s vehicle.”

With that, the Court of Appeals reversed the superior court, reinstated the district court’s grant of David Brown’s motion to suppress and dismissed the charge of driving while under the influence.

My opinion? Good decision. It makes sense that unless public safety is an issue, police officers shouldn’t have probable cause or reasonable suspicion to pull over a vehicle that’s clearly in the left-turn lane even though their vehicle turn signal is not activated. Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges of DUI, Reckless Driving, Driving While License Suspended or other criminal traffic violations.

Bounty Hunters

of the Seattle Times reports that obtaining a Bounty Hunter’s license in Washington is relatively easy, and hardly anyone is turned away — even if they have a history of violence.

VIOLENCE BY BOUNTY HUNTERS IS INCREASING

According to Zhang, local bounty hunters have become increasingly violent. For example, in 2016, a bounty hunter shot and killed a fugitive’s mother in Graham, Pierce County, in a botched apprehension attempt. The bail-recovery agent in that case obtained a license despite three previous arrests for domestic violence and harassment.

That same year, three bounty hunters armed with guns and tear gas stormed a motel room in Spokane, sending other guests fleeing and illegally detaining an occupant who was not their target. One of the bounty hunters had been charged with crimes ranging from aggravated battery to resisting arrest, and had a felony conviction for grand theft that was later vacated — all before he was granted his license. He and another bounty hunter pleaded guilty to criminal mischief in the hotel case; the third was acquitted by a jury.

LICENSING REQUIREMENTS TOO LOW?

Washington state law does not prohibit people with criminal histories from becoming bounty hunters. Instead, the Department of Licensing reviews the legal histories of applicants case by case to determine whether they should be disqualified.

 Apparently, the standards for becoming a bounty hunter are somewhat lax. As of June, the department had rejected only two out of nearly 400 new bounty-hunter applications submitted over the past decade. Of 187 licensed bounty hunters as of June, 75 had been charged with a felony or misdemeanor, most before they applied. Of those charges, nearly three-quarters led to criminal convictions that included felony assault, burglary, misdemeanor harassment, disorderly conduct and driving under the influence.
To get a license, an applicant must take 32 hours of training, which can include self-study, and must pass a 50-question, multiple-choice exam. The state has no formalized curriculum or certification process for instructors. Only the person teaching the firearms portion of the training is required to be certified through the state.

Unlike Washington, New York and New Jersey require applicants to have at least three and five years of law-enforcement experience, respectively. New York regulates who can train bounty hunters and approves the curriculum.

New York also considers arrests and a history of criminal charges on top of convictions in approving applications, said Robert McCrie, professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “If someone has a series of arrests that shows propensity for violence, officials at the Division of Licensing Services can reject them.”

HIGHLY UNREGULATED AND VERY UNTRAINED

Zhang reports that bounty hunters have sweeping powers to apprehend fugitives, in contrast to police officers, thanks in part to the 1872 U.S. Supreme Court case Taylor vs. Taintor. They can enter homes without warrants; they can break down doors without knocking or announcing themselves; and they can transport fugitives across state lines without extradition orders.

“The bail-bonds-recovery industry has been highly unregulated and very untrained,” said Brian Johnson, a professor studying the American bail-bonds recovery industry at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. In most states, commercial bail bondsmen and the bounty hunters they hire are an integral part of the justice system.

When suspects are arrested, a judge can release them on their own recognizance or on bail to ensure they show up for court. If the defendants can’t afford bail, they can turn to private bail-bond companies, which will post it for them, typically for a fee of about 10 to 15 percent of the bond. If a defendant doesn’t show up for court, the company is on the hook for the full amount, unless it can apprehend the defendant and return him or her to court.

That’s where bounty hunters come in.

INCREASE TRAINING?

Former state Sen. Adam Kline, who sponsored a bill that passed in 2008 increasing mandatory training hours from four to 32, called the department’s background-check system concerning.

“The DOL needs to be very clear that no felony and violence-related convictions, even if they have been vacated, should be permitted,” he said. Kline said he also considers the current lack of training oversight troubling, and said the Legislature should strengthen regulations.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime, are out on bail and failed to appear for court. Trust me, quashing a warrant is far easier than dealing with bounty hunters.

Pot Convictions Pardoned

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People seeking a pardon can apply by filling out a simple petition form on the governor’s office’s website.

The new pardon process will allow applicants to skip the usual step of making a request to the state’s Clemency and Pardons Board, which typically reviews requests and makes recommendations to the governor, said Tip Wonhoff, the governor’s deputy general counsel.

For people granted pardons, the governor’s office will ask the State Patrol to remove those convictions from the criminal-history reports that are available to the public, though the records will remain available to law enforcement, according to a summary of the pardon plan provided by the governor’s office. Records also will remain in court files unless petitioners successfully petition to have them vacated by the court that imposed the sentence.

The pardon announcement comes amid Inslee’s well-publicized explorations of a 2020 presidential run. While relatively unknown in the field of potential Democratic contenders, Inslee has formed a federal political-action committee and garnered attention for making climate change the centerpiece of his potential national campaign.

Inslee’s advisers said he supports more sweeping legislation that would allow anyone with a misdemeanor adult marijuana-possession conviction to have it removed from their records.

A bill proposed in 2017 by Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, would require sentencing courts to grant any person’s request to vacate such convictions. The proposal received a hearing but did not advance in the Legislature.

The city of Seattle has taken action to expunge old marijuana records. After a request by City Attorney Pete Holmes, Seattle Municipal Court judges last year moved to vacate convictions and dismiss charges for as many as 542 people prosecuted for marijuana possession between 1996 and 2010, when Holmes’ office ceased prosecuting marijuana possession.

My opinion? Kudos for Governor Inslee for making a bold step in the right direction. Washington has moved beyond prosecuting people for minor marijuana offenses. It seems right to vacate criminal convictions for these same offenses.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face drug charges. Being convicted can limit career, housing and travel opportunities. Hiring qualified counsel is the first step toward gaining justice.

Words Alone

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In State v. Kee, the WA Court of Appeals held that words alone are not sufficient to make a defendant the primary aggressor in an altercation.

BACKGROUND FACTS

The State charged Ms. Kee with the second degree assault of Mr. Ostrander based on an
incident on August 1, 2016. Kee punched Ostrander in the face and broke his nose.

Apparently, they exchanged words when Kee was walking down the street playing her radio loud. Eventually, they engaged in mutual combat by hitting each other back and forth several times.  Although Ostrander struck Kee in the face several times, Kee’s final blow to Ostrander broke Ostrander’s nose.

The case proceeded to a jury trial. Kee’s defense was self-defense.

At trial, the State proposed a first aggressor jury instruction. Kee objected to the instruction, arguing that it was not supported by the evidence presented at trial. The trial court disagreed and gave the following first aggressor jury instruction:

“No person may, by any intentional act reasonably likely to provoke a belligerent response, create a necessity for acting in self-defense and thereupon use, offer or attempt to use force upon or toward another person. Therefore, if you find beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was the aggressor, and that [the] defendant’s acts and conduct provoked or commenced the fight, then self-defense is not available as a defense.”

The jury found Kee guilty of second degree assault. She appealed on arguments that the trial court erred because its jury instruction denied her the ability to argue her theory of self-defense. Specifically, Kee argued there was insufficient evidence to justify a first aggressor jury instruction because words alone do not constitute sufficient provocation.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSION

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals agreed with Kee. It held that although sufficient evidence supported the first aggressor jury instruction, the trial court nevertheless erred in giving the jury instruction without also instructing the jury that words alone are not sufficient to make a defendant the first aggressor.

The Court reasoned that generally, a defendant cannot invoke a self-defense claim when she is the first aggressor and provokes an altercation. Also, a first aggressor jury instruction is appropriate when there is credible evidence from which a jury can reasonably determine that the defendant provoked the need to act in self-defense.

Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals also reasoned that although there was evidence of a physical altercation,  their interaction started with a verbal altercation. Therefore, the evidence supported a finding that Kee’s words, rather than her physical acts, first provoked the physical altercation.

“By failing to instruct the jury that words alone are insufficient provocation for purposes of
the first aggressor jury instruction, the trial court did not ensure that the relevant self-defense legal standards were manifestly apparent to the average juror,” said the Court of Appeals. “Moreover, the trial court’s instructions affected Kee’s ability to argue that she acted in self-defense.”

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed Kee’s conviction.

My opinion? Good decision. I’ve conducted many jury trials involving defendants who acted in self-defense to assault allegations. Under the law, self-defense is an affirmative defense to assault charges. In my experience, prosecutors combat a defendant’s self-defense theories by trying to prove the defendant was the primary aggressors. If successful, then the jury cannot consider whether the defendant acted in self-defense. The “aggressor “juror instruction exists to  nullify, circumvent and/or defeat a defendant’s self-defense claim.

State v. Kee is pertinent to the issue of whether words alone exchanged between two participants who willingly fight each other – whether words alone – allow the jury to decide if the defendant was the primary aggressor. Of course not! By themselves, words are not enough, and the Court of Appeals agreed. Indeed, words can be quite motivational for people to engage in mutual combat similar to the parties in State v. Kee. And by the way, mutual combat is lawful because Washington imposes no duty for either party to retreat from a fight.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges of assault. It’s important to hire an experienced defense attorney who knows the law, is aware of possible defenses and is willing to take the case to trial.

Right to Impartial Jury

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In State v. Phillips, the WA Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not violate an African-American defendant’s right to an impartial jury by dismissing a prospective juror despite the juror’s feelings that African American men are more prone to violence.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On July 1, 2016, Mr. Phillips came home late after his wife Ms. Philips was in bed asleep with their infant daughter. Ms. Philips told Mr. Phillips to leave her alone. Their daughter called 911 and reported that Mr. Phillips was hitting Ms. Philips. When Mr. Phillips saw his daughter was calling the police, he knocked the phone from her hands.

King County Sheriff’s deputies responded to the 911 call and found the house in chaos. Mr. Phillips was arrested and booked into jail. From jail, Mr. Phillips repeatedly called Mrs. Philips demanding that she get him out and expressing his anger at the police having been called. Mr. Phillips was charged with Assault in the Second Degree Domestic Violence (DV) and Tampering With a Witness.

Jury Selection

During jury selection, the trial judge asked if any of the jurors had personal experience
with domestic violence. Juror 10 was among the members who raised their hand. When asked to elaborate, he explained that his sister and his wife’s sister-in-law were both involved in abusive relationships with intimate partners.

Juror #10 also revealed an experience in college after an intramural basketball game when an African American player on the opposing team assaulted him. Juror 10 explained, “nothing came of it, but it left an emotional imprint.” He further elaborated,

“And this is an emotional truth. I don’t live this way; I don’t believe this; but I’m also aware that feelings happen in reality that black men are more prone to violence . . . It was also notable that afterwards when, you know, the gym supervisor was called and there was just a huddle on the spot, and then, of course there was denial and, you know, dismissiveness of it. And that’s another narrative; that those who are violent try to get out of it; so those are two personal emotions imprints that are there, as well.”

From these comments, both the State Prosecutor and Mr. Philips’ defense attorney asked numerous questions to Juror #10. Ultimately, neither the State nor defense counsel exercised a peremptory challenge or moved to strike Juror #10 for cause. Later, Juror #10 served on the jury.

Ultimately, the jury found Phillips guilty of second degree assault and found the State prove aggravating circumstances. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on the witness tampering charge, and it was dismissed. Mr. Philips was sentenced to 120 months.

He appealed. One of the issues was whether Juror #10 should have been struck from serving on the jury panel.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals upheld Mr. Philips’ conviction.

The Court started by giving a substantial amount of background on the issue of jury selection. It said the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution, and article 1, section 22, of the Washington Constitution, guarantee a criminal defendant the right to trial by an impartial jury.

Furthermore, in order to ensure this constitutional right, the trial court will excuse a juror for cause if the juror’s views would prevent or substantially impair the performance of his duties as a juror in accordance with his instructions and his oath. The presence of a biased juror cannot be harmless; the error requires a new trial without a showing of prejudice.

Also, at trial, either party has a statutory right to challenge a prospective juror for cause. “Actual bias is a ground for challenging a juror for cause,” said the Court of Appeals. “Actual bias occurs when there is the existence of a state of mind on the part of the juror in reference to the action, or to either party, which satisfies the court that the challenged person cannot try the issue impartially and without prejudice to the substantial rights of the party challenging.”

Furthermore, Under State v. Irby, RCW 2.36.110 and CrR 6.4 it is the judge’s duty to excuse potential jurors from  jury service if they have manifested unfitness as a juror by reason of bias, prejudice, indifference, inattention or any physical or mental defect. These court precedents, statutes and court rules give a trial judge an independent obligation to excuse a juror, regardless of inaction by counsel or the defendant.

However, the Court of Appeals ultimately reasoned that the present case was distinguishable from Irby.

Also, the Court of Appeals reasoned that defense counsel was alert to the possibility of biased jurors.

“Defense counsel actively questioned Juror #10, including questioning whether, despite juror 10’s concerns, the juror would follow the court’s instructions and base his decision on the evidence presented,” reasoned the court of Appeals. “As a result, defense counsel did not challenge Juror #10. This suggests that defense counsel observed something during voir dire that led counsel to believe Juror #10 could be fair.”

Furthermore, the Court of Appeals said it was also significant that Phillips used his peremptory challenges to strike several jurors, but had one peremptory challenge remaining when he accepted the jury, including Juror #10. “Again, this suggests that defense counsel either wanted juror 10 on the jury, or did not want one or both the next potential jurors on the panel,” said the Court of Appeals.

Consequently, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in failing to excuse Juror #10 for cause and upheld Mr. Philips’ conviction.

My opinion? Bad decision.

I’ve conducted nearly 40 jury trials, which is more experience than most criminal defense attorneys have. In my experience, potential jurors have a tendency to mitigate, justify, deny, back-pedal and just plain cover up any biases they have. It’s human nature. Therefore, if any juror states they have a biases which prejudice a criminal defendant, then that juror should be excused. Period.

Unfortunately, it appears Defense Counsel also failed to strike Juror #10. That is unfortunate as well. As the judge said, however, this may have been strategic. Perhaps Defense Counsel wanted to avoid impaneling a potential juror who was actually more biased than Juror #10. We don’t know.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime. Hiring an experienced and proactive defense attorney is the first step toward gaining justice.

“School Search” Held Unconstitutional

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In State v. A.S., the WA Court of Appeals held that drugs found in a 14-year-old child’s backpack in a search conducted by the vice-principal were rightfully suppressed because the search was not reasonable when the child (1) was not a student of the school, (2) the vice principal knew nothing about the child’s history or school record, (3) there was no record of a drug problem at the school, and (4) there was no exigent circumstance to conduct the search as police officers were already on their way to the school.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On April 11, 2016, Meadowdale High School staff received information about an alleged threat involving then 14-year-old A.S., who was not a Meadowdale student. Meadowdale staff looked up A.S.’s picture using the district’s computer system so that they would be able to identify her should she appear on campus.

Later that day, the Vice-Principal of Meadowdale summonsed A.S. to his office, and later, the Principal’s office. A.S. was not very cooperative with being questioned.

At some point while A.S. was in Kniseley’s office, the Vice-Principal noticed an odor that he recognized as marijuana emanating from A.S. The Vice-Principal then searched A.S.’s backpack, which was sitting next to her, and found suspected marijuana and drug paraphernalia. A.S. did not say or do anything to resist the search of her backpack.

A.S. was later charged with possession of drug paraphernalia and possession of a controlled substance. Prior to trial, A.S. moved to suppress the evidence of the suspected marijuana and drug paraphernalia found in her backpack, arguing that the evidence was the fruit of an unlawful search and seizure. Specifically, A.S. argued that the “school search exception” to the warrant requirement did not apply to her because she was not a Meadowdale student when the Vice-Principal searched her backpack and even if the exception did apply, the search was not reasonable.

The trial court denied A.S.’s motion and, following a stipulated bench trial, convicted A.S. of both possession of drug paraphernalia and possession of a controlled substance. A.S. appealed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that under both the Washington Constitution and U.S. Constitution, a government actor must obtain a search warrant supported by probable cause to conduct a search unless an exception applies. Under pre-existing case-law, the exceptions to the warrant requirement are “‘jealously and carefully drawn.”

School Search Exception

One of these exceptions is the “school search exception,” which allows school authorities to conduct a search of a student without probable cause if the search is reasonable under all the circumstances. A search is reasonable if it is: (1) justified at its inception; and (2) reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the interference in the first place.

The Court further reasoned that under ordinary circumstances, a search of a student by a teacher or other school official will be ‘justified at its inception’ when there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated or is violating either the law or the rules of the school. And, a search will be permitted in scope “when the measures adopted are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction.

Finally, Washington courts have established the following factors from State v. Brooks and State v. McKinnon as relevant in determining whether school officials had reasonable grounds for conducting a warrantless search:

“The child’s age, history, and school record, the prevalence and seriousness of the problem in the school to which the search was directed, the exigency to make the search without delay, and the probative value and reliability of the information used as a justification for the search.”

Here,  the search was unconstitutional.

First, A.S. was not a student of the school and the Vice-Principal knew nothing about the child’s history or school record. Specifically, nothing in the record suggests that the Vice-Principal, who guessed that A.S. was middle school aged, knew anything about A.S.’s history or school record. Indeed, the Vice-Principal testified that when he looked up A.S. in the district database, he was only interested in her picture.

Furthermore, there was no evidence that drug use was a drug problem at Meadowdale. Rather, when asked whether Meadowdale had a drug problem, the Vice-Principal responded, “I don’t believe so.” He also testified that he did not deal with drugs on a regular basis as a school administrator and that Meadowdale had only “occasional incidents” on its campus involving students bringing drugs or drug paraphernalia on campus.

Additionally, there was no exigency to conduct the search without delay, given that the police had been called, and A.S.—who had been told that the police were called—gave no indication that she was trying to leave the principal’s office.

And finally, the odor of marijuana alone did not create an exigent circumstance, particularly where the Vice-Principal had no other reason to believe that A.S. used marijuana or that her backpack would contain marijuana. For these same reasons, the search of A.S.’s backpack was not justified at its inception.

My opinion? Good decision. In an educational context, school officials have a substantial interest in maintaining discipline and order on school grounds. However, the search conducted in this case did not promote that interest.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime involving a questionable search by the authorities. Hiring a competent, experienced and knowledgeable defense attorney is the first step toward gaining justice.


Alexander F. Ransom

Attorney at Law
Criminal Defense Lawyer

119 North Commercial St.
Suite #1420
Bellingham, WA 98225

117 North 1st Street
Suite #27
Mount Vernon, WA 98273

Phone: (360) 746-2642
Fax: (360) 746-2949

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