Tag Archives: Skagit County Criminal Defense

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.

Drive-By Shooting Conviction Reversed

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In State v. Vasquez, the WA Court of Appeals held that the drive-by sentence aggravator is not met where a perpetrator ran 63 feet from his vehicle and around the corner of a grocery store prior to shooting and killing the victim.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Mr. Vasquez shot and killed Mr. Garcia as Mr. Garcia was seated in the front passenger side of a GMC Envoy parked at the Airport Grocery in Moses Lake, Washington. Mr. Garcia’s girlfriend was in the front driver’s seat and her five-year-old child was in the back seat, behind Mr. Garcia. Neither Mr. Garcia’s girlfriend nor her child were physically injured during the shooting.

At the crux of this case is the route Mr. Vasquez took to shoot Mr. Garcia.

For several minutes prior to the shooting, the Envoy was parked near the Airport Grocery’s front entrance. Mr. Vasquez then arrived at the scene in a Toyota pickup. The Toyota was parked on the side of the grocery, next to a fenced utility area, approximately 63 feet away from the Envoy.

Once the Toyota was parked, Mr. Vasquez ran from the pickup and hid behind the utility fence for nearly a minute. Mr. Vasquez then rushed around the corner of the grocery, across the front-side of the Envoy, and over to the area of the front passenger window of the Envoy. The front window was partially rolled down, exposing Mr. Garcia to Mr. Vasquez.

Mr. Vasquez shot and killed Mr. Garcia from point-blank range. Mr. Vasquez then retreated to the Toyota and it sped away. The entire shooting was captured on video by the grocery’s surveillance system. Approximately one minute and 16 seconds elapsed between the Toyota’s initial arrival and ultimate departure.

A jury convicted Mr. Vasquez of first degree murder with a drive-by shooting aggravator, along with several counts of drive-by shooting. Mr. Vasquez was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for the aggravated first degree murder conviction. He also received a 60-month firearm enhancement. Mr. Vasquez appealed on arguments that the evidence was insufficient to prove a drive-by shooting.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

Washington’s drive-by shooting statute states, in pertinent part:

A person is guilty of drive-by shooting when he or she recklessly discharges a firearm as defined in RCW 9.41.010 in a manner which creates a substantial risk of death or serious physical injury to another person and the discharge is either from a motor vehicle or from the immediate area of a motor vehicle that was used to transport the shooter or the firearm, or both, to the scene of the discharge.

The legal question was whether the State’s evidence showed Mr. Vasquez was in the “immediate area” of the Toyota pickup truck at the time of the shooting. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, the Court of Appeals held the “immediate area” requirement was not met.

The Court of Appeals explained that a drive-by shooting is commonly understood to involve shots fired from inside a vehicle, or from “within a few feet or yards” of the vehicle. In other words, the crime contemplates a shooter who is either inside a vehicle or within easy reach of the vehicle.

“Mr. Vasquez’s offense did not fall within either circumstance,” reasoned the Court of Appeals. It further reasoned that Mr. Vasquez was far from reach of the Toyota at the time he shot Mr. Garcia. “In fact, Mr. Vasquez had to traverse several intervening obstacles in order to get a clear shot at his victim,” said the Court. “Although Mr. Vasquez was in the immediate area of Mr. Garcia’s Envoy at the time of the shooting, he was not in the immediate area of the Toyota that had transported him to the scene. Mr. Vasquez’s offense therefore does not qualify as a drive-by shooting.”

The Court concluded that because Mr. Vasquez was neither inside the Toyota nor within immediate reach of the Toyota at the time of the shooting, the State failed to present sufficient evidence justifying Mr. Vasquez’s convictions for drive-by shooting as well as the drive-by shooting aggravator to Mr. Vasquez’s first degree murder conviction.

Consequently, the Court reversed Vasquez’s drive-by shooting convictions and aggravator.

My opinion? The circumstances of this case are certainly tragic. However, it’s not uncommon for Prosecutors to charge people for crimes which don’t fit the facts and circumstances. That’s why it’s extremely important to hire a qualified and competent defense attorney who knows and understands the law. Defense counsel must question the evidence and, when necessary, argue pretrial motions to dismiss charges where evidence is lacking. Please contact my office if you, a family member or friend faces serious criminal charges similar to those in this case.

State v. Larson: Retail Theft With Extenuating Circumstances

Interesting opinion.

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

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

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

The court disagreed with Larson and stated the following:

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

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

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

With that, the Court upheld Larson’s conviction.


Alexander F. Ransom

Attorney at Law
Criminal Defense Lawyer

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