Monthly Archives: October 2010

Prosecutorial Misconduct Is Rarely Punished, Says New Study

Interesting.  According to a recent report, only a tiny percentage of prosecutors who engaged in misconduct were disciplined by the State Bar of California during a 12-year period.

The report, issued by the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University School of Law, found 707 cases between 1997 and 2009 in which courts explicitly determined that prosecutors had committed misconduct. It examined more than 4,000 cases.  Among the 707 cases, only six prosecutors — 0.8% — were disciplined by the State Bar of California. Only 10 of the 4,741 disciplinary actions by the state bar during the same period involved prosecutors.

“Preventable Error: A Report on Prosecutorial Misconduct 1997-2009,” issued by the Innocence Project’s Northern California chapter, was written by Ridolfi and Maurice Possley, a visiting research fellow at the project. Possley won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting at the Chicago Tribune. Ridolfi is a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law.

The report included recommendations for reform. It called for district attorneys to adopt internal policies that do not tolerate misconduct. It also called for the state bar to increase disciplinary transparency.

My opinion?  The study supports what most defense attorneys already know.  I’ve worked cases where prosecutorial miscoduct was clear and obvious.  However, after bringing the misconduct to the attention of judges on pretrial motions, I’ve found my concerns routinely overlooked, tolerated, condoned and/or minimized.  Sanctions are rerely given and the matter is swept under the rug.

One could argue that elected prosecutors have a level of political influence with the judges hearing criminal cases.  Very often, judges are former prosecutors.  Prosecutors also exhibit  a “halo effect” among voters which defense counsel does not have.

Although I don’t fully support those arguments (well, maybe just a little), I fully believe that judges simply want to evade mudslinging contests between prosecutors and defense attorneys altogether.  Judges tend to allow the governing Bar Association sort these matters out.

State v. S.J.W.: Child Witness Competency

A party challenging the competency of a child witness must show that the child is of unsound mind, intoxicated at the time of his production for examination, incapable of receiving just impressions of the facts, or incapable of relating facts truly.

S.J.W., a minor, was charged with raping 14-year-old W.M., a developmentally delayed boy.  The State wanted W.M. to testify against S.J.W., and S.J.W. challenged W.M.’s competency to testify.  At the competency hearing, the trial judge concluded S.J.W. failed to meet his burden to establish that W.M. was not competent to testify.  The trial judge permitted W.M. to testify at the bench trial, and S.J.W. was convicted.

S.J.W. appealed.  The Court of Appeals affirmed S.J.W.’s conviction but held  that the party offering a child witness bears the burden to show the witness is competent to testify.  The Court of Appeals concluded that, although the trial judge erroneously placed that burden on S.J.W., this error was harmless.  The State challenges this holding, arguing that the trial judge properly placed the burden on S.J.W.  The WA Supremes agreed.

The WA Supremes reasoned that until 1986, former RCW 5.60.050 provided that all persons of suitable age could be witnesses except those of unsound mind, those who were intoxicated at the time of examination, and children under 10 who appeared incapable of receiving just impressions of the facts or of relating them truly.  State v. Allen, however, changed the notion.

The court in Allen concluded that the true test of the competency of a “young child” of “tender years” consists of (1) an understanding of the obligation to tell the truth, (2) the mental capacity at the time of the occurrence concerning the testimony, (3) sufficient memory to retain an independent recollection of the occurrence, (4) the capacity to express in words her memory of the occurrence, and (5) the capacity to understand simple questions about the occurrence.

In other words, all persons, regardless of age, are now subject to this rule because there is no longer any requirement that a witness be of suitable age or any suggestion that children under 10 may not be suitable witnesses.  A child’s competency is now determined by the trial judge within the framework of RCW 5.60.050, while the Allen factors serve to inform the judge’s determination.

My opinion?  I prefer having the 10-year old “cutoff age” when it comes to child testimony.  All to often, children are coached by biased adults.  I’ve conducted enough jury trials to know that children usually repeat whatever the trusted adult wants them to say.  Unfortunately, this court decision places an extra burden on attorneys – defense attorneys, undoubtedly – to show the respective child witness is incompetent to testify.

City of Aberdeen v. Regan: When Unfound Accusations Violate Probation

Bad decision.

WA Supremes held that a defendant’s probation, that was conditioned on having “no criminal violations of law or alcohol related infractions,” was properly revoked after the defendant was accused, but found not guilty, of fourth degree assault and criminal trespass.

In this case, Regan was convicted of fourth degree assault in Aberdeen Municipal Court and sentenced to 365 days in jail.  The court suspended 360 days of Regan’s sentence, issued 5 days jail,  and placed him on probation for 24 months.  The court conditioned Regan’s probation on his having “no criminal violations of law or alcohol related infractions.”

However, while on probation, Regan was charged with fourth degree assault and criminal trespass.  Regan was acquitted at a trial.  However, the city moved to revoke the suspension of his sentence asserting that he violated the condition of his probation.  Regan argued that the municipal court was collaterally estopped from finding he violated his probation condition in light of the not guilty verdict at trial.  The municipal court disagreed and issued 5 days of jail based on the criminal trespass charge.  Although the Superior Court found in Regan’s favor, the Court of Appeals reversed.

Some background is necessary.  Under WA law, in order to revoke probation, the judge need only be “reasonably satisfied” that the defendant committed the assault and/or the criminal trespass.  The defendant is not entitled to make the City/State prove allegations beyond a reasonable doubt.

Here, the WA Supremes reasoned that acquittal on criminal charges stops does not stop (or, more specifically, collaterally estop) a court from revoking parole for the same conduct.  The Court looked at the plain language of Regan’s probation conditions and flatly decided the conditions prohibited him from engaging in conduct that is proscribed by the criminal law.  “In no way do the definitions of “violate” or “violation” imply a proof or procedural requirement.”    Therefore, when a court conditions the suspension of a sentence on a probationer not violating the law, the context does not imply that a conviction is required.

My opinion? It’s really disturbing when judges revoke a defendant’s probation when s/he obtains criminal charges that haven’t been proven guilty in a court of law.  I’ve never understood that.  It’s a major flaw of the criminal justice system.  It seems more fair that someone who has invested the time and expense of fulfilling their probation requirements – meeting with probation officers, obtaining evaluations, making court payments, obtaining treatment, etc. – falls in danger of getting kicked off probation if police and/or prosecutors file B.S. charges that have not been proven in a court of law under the reasonable doubt standard.

Despite WA law, I believe that criminal charges must be proven in order to revoke a defendant’s probation.  The status quo simply gives the police and prosecutors too much power.  Period.

State v. Doughty: WA Supremes Limit Scope of Terry Stops

Good decision.  A person’s two-minute visit to a suspected drug house at 3:20 in the morning is insufficient grounds for an investigative seizure.

Late one night, defendant Walter Moses Doughty approached a suspected drug house, stayed for two minutes, then drove away.  A police officer who observed Doughty’s approach and departure stopped Doughty on suspicion of drug activity.  This is typically called a Terry stop under Terry v. Ohio.  During this investigative seizure the officer ran a records check and, based on the results, arrested Doughty for driving with a suspended license.  Police found methamphetamine during a vehicle search incident to arrest.  The trial judge decided the search was not unlawful.  The Court of Appeals confirmeed the conviction.  The case ended up with the WA Supremes.

Some explanation of a Terry stop is necessary.  In justifying the particular intrusion/investigation, the police officer must be able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion.  When reviewing the merits of an investigatory stop, a court must evaluate the totality of circumstances presented to the investigating officer.  The State must show by clear and convincing evidence that the stop was justified.

Under this analysis, the WA Supremes reasoned that a person’s presence in a high-crime area at a “late hour” does not, by itself, give rise to a reasonable suspicion to detain that person.  Similarly, a person’s “mere proximity to others independently suspected of criminal activity does not justify the stop.”

Although the State argued the circumstances warranted the search, the court reasoned that Police may not seize a person who visits a location — even a suspected drug house — merely because the person was there at 3:20 a.m. for only two minutes.  “The Terry-stop threshold was created to stop police from this very brand of interference with people’s everyday lives.”  Additionally, the United States Supreme Court embraced the Terry rule to stop police from acting on mere hunches.  “Anything less would invite intrusions upon constitutionally guaranteed rights based on nothing more substantial than inarticulate hunches, a result this Court has consistently refused to sanction.”  Terry, 392 U.S. at 22.

Finally, the Court reasoned that Officer Bishop relied only on his own incomplete observations.  There was no informant’s tip and no furtive movement.  Bishop merely saw Doughty approach and leave a suspected drug house at 3:20 a.m.  Bishop had no idea what, if anything, Doughty did at the house.  Accordingly, these circumstances does not warrant intrusion into Doughty’s private affairs.

The WA Supremes reversed the Court of Appeals, suppress the evidence against Doughty, and vacated his conviction.

My opinion?  GREAT decision.  It’s always nice when our esteemed judges follow the law in undramatic fashion.  Clearly, the stop was unlawful and the evidence should have been suppressed by the trial court and court of Appeals. 🙂

Make New Crack Law Retroactive

Good stuff.  Very informative article regarding Obama’s move to lighten up on federal crack cocaine laws, and perhaps make the new laws apply retroactively.

Last month, President Obama signed landmark legislation revising broadly condemned laws passed in the late 1980s that punished crack cocaine offenses much more harshly than crimes ­involving powder cocaine. The new law raises the minimum amount of crack required to trigger a five-year mandatory minimum sentence from 5 to 28 grams, and the amount of crack required to generate a 10-year mandatory minimum from 50 to 280 grams.

Although far from perfect — the new law still maintains an excessive distinction between crack and powder cocaine — the changes could, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, affect as many as 3,000 defendants each year, reducing the average prison term for crack offenses by more than two years.

The article’s authors also argue Congress should finish the job by making the new scheme retroactive — a move that would permit thousands of men and women who were sentenced long ago for crimes involving crack to benefit from lawmakers’ new and enlightened perspectives about punishment for those types of offenses.

My opinion?  I totally agree with the article’s authors.  The so-called harmful effects of crack cocaine was largely demonized as the exact reason why the “War on Drugs” became so popular.  And here we are, 2-3 decades later, with overcrowded jails and the “harmful effects of crack cocaine” proven largely untrue.  Yet the war rages on, stupidly.  Congress needs to abandon the archaic drug laws relating to crack cocaine.