Monthly Archives: September 2014

State v. Pinson: When Prosecutors Violate a Defendant’s 5th Amendment Right Against Self-Incrimination

Excellent decision from the WA Court of Appeals held that a Prosecutor violated a defendant’s 5th Amendment rights against self-incrimination by arguing that the defendant was guilty because he chose to not talk to police when arrested.

Mason County Sheriff Deputy Nault responded to a reported domestic violence call. He contacted Stacey Campbell, who was in a parking lot across the street from her home. She said the defendant Jarad Pinson, her boyfriend, violently assaulted her. Deputy Nault saw red marks on her neck. Deputy Nault went into the home and arrested Mr. Pinson. During the arrest, Mr. Pinson was cooperative. He said he was drinking with his friends. When asked by officers if the situation became violent with Ms. Campbell, however, Mr. Pinson did not respond. he was arrested for Assault Second Degree Domestic Violence.

At trial, the judge granted the defense attorney’s motion in limine to suppress the Prosecutor from asking whether the fight was physical. However, defense counsel asked that question during cross-examination. Because of this, the judge ruled that Pinson’s defense attorney “opened the door” and gave the Prosecutor opportunity to cross examine the defendant on whether the fight was physical.

In closing argument, the Prosecutor said Mr. Pinson’s silence during arrest was substantive evidence of guilt. Although Ms. Campbell recanted her earlier accusations of assault while testifying on the witness stand, the jury nevertheless returned a guilty verdict on the Assault Second Degree charges. The case went up on appeal.

The law on prosecutorial misconduct is straightforward. To prevail on a claim of prosecutorial misconduct, a defendant must show that “in the context of the records and the circumstances of trial, the prosecutor’s conduct was both improper and prejudicial. However, when the defendant fails to object to the challenged portions of the prosecutor’s argument, he is deemed to have waived any error unless the prosecutor’s conduct was so flagrant and ill intentioned that an instruction could not “cure” the resulting prejudice to the defendant.

The 5th Amendment in the U.S Constitution states, “no person . . . shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” Similarly, Article I, section 9 of the WA State Constitution follows this language. Both Constitutions guarantee a defendant the right to be free from self-incrimination, including the right silence. A defendant has the right to remain silent both prearrest and postarrest; i.e., both before and after a defendant is given Miranda warnings.

 Here, the Court of Appeals held that the Prosecutor’s statement was improper because in violated Mr. Pinson’s 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination. More specifically, it was improper for the State to make closing arguments that infer guilt from the defendant’s silence. Even though defense counsel did not object, his failure to object did not waive the claim of prosecutorial misconduct because the conduct was so flagrant and ill-intentioned that an instruction would not have cured the prejudice.

The case was reversed and remanded for a new trial.

My opinion? Great decision. It’s a long-standing, basic principle that Prosecutors cannot infer a defendant’s silence as evidence of guilt. I’m pleased the Court acknowledged this basic principle.

State v. Foster: When Detainments for “Officer Safety” Violate People’s Rights.

Can a law enforcement officer seize someone for “officer safety” reasons and keep them handcuffed indefinitely? “NO,” said the WA Court of Appeals. Here, the police officer’s decision to keep the defendant handcuffed indefinitely instead of checking for weapons turned an otherwise lawful seizure into an unlawful one.

The facts were such that defendant Samuel Foster was accused of Burglary; more specifically, stealing a tent from the home of the alleged victim. In an effort to gain more information about the stolen tent, Officer Anderson made contact with Mr. Foster. The officer became concerned for her safety because Mr. Foster refused to take his hand out of his pocket. Officer Anderson grabbed Mr. Foster’s hand and placed him in handcuffs as a safety precaution. Sergeant Renschler happened upon the scene. He questioned Mr. Foster – who was still in handcuffs – about drugs. Sergeant Renschler searched Mr. Foster and found a small bag of meth inside a cigaratte container in Mr. Foster’s pocket. Naturally, Mr. Foster was charged with Unlawful Possession of Meth.

At trial, the judge denied Mr. Foster’s Motion to Suppress based on an unlawful search and seizure. In short, Mr. Foster argued the seizure under Terry v. Ohio was unlawful because the officer exceeded what was supposed to be a brief seizure for officer safety. The judge found Mr. Foster guilty of Possession of Meth. The case went up on appeal to Division III of the WA Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals reasoned that police can conduct a Terry investigative stop if they don’t have a warrant. A Terry stop allows officers to briefly seize a person in specific and articulable facts, in light of the officer’s training and experience, if the facts give rise to a reasonable suspicion that the person was engaged in unlawful activity. In evaluating the lawfulness of a Terry stop, the court must inquire whether the temporary seizure was justified at its inception, and whether the stop was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the initial interference.

Here, the basis for the stop was insufficient. Simply because a person is in a high crime area does not establish a reasonable, articulable suspicion that the person is engaging in criminal activity. Also, the simple fact that Mr. Foster had his hand in his pocket when approached by Officer Anderson does not support a reasonable, articulable suspicion that Mr. Foster was engaged in criminal activity. Consequently, the Court of Appeals ruled the seizure of Mr. Foster under these circumstances was not a valid Terry stop.

The court reasoned that the true nature of the stop was for officer safety. Still, however, Officer Anderson did NOT frisk Mr. Foster for weapons. The court said, ” . . . because the only legal basis to seize Mr. Foster was for officer safety, we are constrained to hold that the officer’s decision to forego frisking Mr. Foster amounts to continued detainment without a legal basis.”

The court concluded that Mr. Foster’s consent to search was obtained by expolitation of his prior illegal seizure, and as a result, the evidence obtained as a result of his consent to search must be suppressed.

Good decision.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

State v. Brock: The “Time for Arrest” Doctrine

Can police officers search someone’s backpack and arrest them for possession of illegal substances 10 minutes after contacting a suspect on a Terry stop?

“NO,” said the Court of Appeals in a recent decision. In State v. Brock, the facts were such that during a Terry stop, an officer separated Mr. Brock from his backpack. The officer subsequently arrested Brock and searched his backpack, but not until nearly 10 minutes after separating Brock from the bag. Officer Olson told Brock that he was not under arrest. Officer Olson asked Brock to put down his backpack, and Brock complied. Officer Olson did not find any weapons or any other items during his pat down of Brock. He did not pat down or search the backpack at that time. At trial, the trial court denied Brock’s motion to suppress, finding that this was a valid search incident to arrest under article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution. However, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision.

Some explanation is necessary. A “Terry stop” is a brief detention of a person by police on reasonable suspicion of involvement in criminal activity but short of probable cause to arrest. The name derives from a famous United States Supreme Court decision titled, Terry v. Ohio.

Also, under the “time of arrest” rule, an officer may search personal articles in an arrestee’s actual and exclusive possession at or immediately preceding the time of arrest.

Here, the search of the defendant’s bag did not happen immeidately after he was arrested. Officer Olson searched the bag roughly 10 minutes after seizing it from Brock. The bag was secured in Officer Olson’s truck from the time of seizure through the time of the search. Brock was 12 to 15 feet away from the vehicle and the backpack at the time of arrest and during the search of the backpack. Brock had actual possession of the backpack when Officer Olson initiated the Terry stop and when he seized it. However, Brock did not have actual possession of the backpack at the time of his arrest.

Brock’s backpack was neither on his person nor within his area of control at the time of his arrest. While Officer Olson had probable cause to arrest Brock when he seized the backpack, it is the arrest itself—not probable cause—that constitutes the necessary authority of law to search under article I, section 7. Therefore, to find that this was a valid search incident to arrest, the Court said it must be convinced that, for the purposes of what is in an arrestee’s possession, “immediately prior to arrest” includes either the time between a valid Terry stop and the actual resulting arrest or the time between seizure of the backpack during the Terry stop and the resulting arrest. The Court concluded in saying that Washington Supreme Court’s opinions have not gone this far, and “We decline to do so here.”

My opinion? Good decision. It’s pleasing to know our courts are upholding the WA Constitution and following the stringent search and seizure caselaw. Kudos.