Monthly Archives: August 2019

Lawmakers Consider Giving Judges More Discretion

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Great article by James Drew of the News Tribune says that over the next 20 months, state legislators shall study, debate, and vote on what could be the first major reform of Washington’s criminal sentencing law since 1981.

The starting point of the deliberations is a stack of recommendations from a state commission that would give judges more discretion in how they sentence adults convicted of felonies. The change could help the state reduce its reliance on incarceration and move more toward rehabilitation of offenders.

The goal of overhauling the criminal sentencing law is to improve the system by simplifying it, but there are key questions looming for lawmakers, said Rep. Roger Goodman, the Kirkland Democrat who is chairman of the House Public Safety Committee. Disparities — a lack of equality or similarity in a way that is unfair — can occur by race, gender, geography, income and other factors, but the discussion last month touched heavily on race.

At a July 16 legislative work session, Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, questioned whether the Criminal Sentencing Guidelines Commission had studied systems in other countries that would help Washington address concerns throughout the United States about “mass incarceration.”

The Legislature adopted the Sentencing Reform Act in 1981 and it took effect three years later. Since then, lawmakers have amended it dozens of times. The state’s three appellate courts and the Supreme Court have issued several rulings interpreting its provisions.

Goodman said there are several recommendations in a July 1 report by the Criminal Sentencing Guidelines Commission that the Legislature can tackle during its 60-day session next year.

Drew reported that a person’s greatest risk of committing another crime after release from confinement is within the first three to six months, according to an analysis by the Council of State Governments.

Under the current system, a judge would have a sentencing range of 12-14 months for a defendant who is convicted of a Class B assault with a deadly weapon — and 36 months tacked on for use of a firearm. The 12-14 month sentence carries a 33 percent off for good behavior in prison, but the 36-month enhancement does not.

“The sentence is opaque and difficult for the public to understand and allows almost no discretion for the trial court,” the commission report said.

One of the reform proposals from the commission would provide a sentence range from 12-24 months, but any sentence between six months and 30 months would be deemed reasonable. The entire sentence would carry the same good behavior in prison provision to reduce the sentence.

My opinion? This is good news. If allowed, a sentencing judge may give more weight to certain intangible factors.  For example, a judge may take account of a defendant’s good deeds in other areas of his life, considering whether the crime is an isolated incident or aberration on the record of an otherwise well-intentioned individual or whether the crime is just one chapter in a life filled with deceit.

Part of my practice includes drafting sentencing memorandums and assembling merit packages for clients convicted or felonies. These merit packages consist of character reference letters, proof of treatment, college transcripts (if applicable) favorable job reviews, security clearances, etc. The goal is to paint a favorable picture of the defendant that describes them beyond the criminal charges.

Appearance of Fairness

Image result for police officer stands beside testifying witness

In State v. Gorman-Lykken, the WA Court of Appeals held that before allowing a security officer to be stationed next to the witness stand when the defendant testifies, the trial court must (1) state case-specific reasons for the need for such a security measure, and (2) determine that the need for the security measure outweighs the potential prejudice to the testifying defendant.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Mr. Gorman-Lykken was charged with Rape in the Second Degree (DV). The State was required to prove that Gorman-Lykken engaged in sexual intercourse with his girlfriend when she was incapable of consent.

At trial, Gorman-Lykken wanted to testify. Before he did so, his defense attorney objected to the proximity of the corrections officer assigned to Gorman-Lykken while he was on the witness stand. The trial court responded, “Let me just touch base with the corrections officer.” The corrections officer stated, “If he’s up here, we’re up here.”

The trial court then observed on the record that sometimes one to three corrections officers were assigned to a defendant in court and that “sometimes those individuals are large, larger than average.” By contrast, the court noted that the corrections officer assigned to Gorman-Lykken was “not one of our largest corrections officers, and there’s only one of her.” The court also stated that “the policy of the corrections staff is that . . . they are to be in close proximity to somebody who is testifying that’s been accused of a crime.” The court concluded, “I think on the whole I’m comfortable having the officer
stay where she’s at.”

The jury found Gorman-Lykken guilty as charged. He appealed his conviction on the issue of whether the trial court erred in allowing the corrections officer to be stationed next to him during his testimony as a security measure.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

Preliminarily, the Court of Appeals said that trial courts have broad discretion to make trial management decisions, including provisions for the order and security of the courtroom.

However, the Court also acknowledged that trial courts commit reversible error when they base their decisions solely on the judgment of correctional officers who believed that using restraints during trial was necessary to maintain security, while no other justifiable basis existed on the record.

Furthermore, Courts have recognized that certain courtroom security measures are inherently prejudicial. This includes shackling, handcuffing, or other physical restraints; gagging the defendant and holding a trial in a jail. Courts must closely scrutinize such measures to ensure that they further essential state interests.

“Before allowing a security officer to be stationed next to the witness stand when the defendant testifies, the trial court must (1) state case-specific reasons for the need for such a security measure, (2) determine that the need for the security measure outweighs the potential prejudice to the testifying defendant,” said the Court of Appeals.

Here, however, the Court of Appeals was concerned that the trial court never stated case-specific reasons why this case or this defendant created the need for this security measure.

“The court simply stated, ‘I’m comfortable having the officer stay where she’s at,'” said the Court of Appeals. “Accordingly, we hold that the trial court abused its discretion in allowing the corrections officer to be stationed next to the witness stand when Gorman-Lykken testified.”

“Here, the State does not argue that any error was harmless. And there is no indication that the State could show harmlessness beyond a reasonable doubt. Even though stationing an officer next to the witness stand may not be inherently prejudicial, allowing that measure created a risk that the jury might infer that Gorman-Lykken was dangerous or guilty. The State cannot show beyond a reasonable doubt that stationing the officer next to the witness stand did not influence the jury.”

The Court also noted that the evidence of Gorman-Lykken’s guilt was not so overwhelming that a guilty verdict was the only rational result. At trial, Gorman-Lykken’s girlfriend testified that she had taken medication that essentially put her to sleep and that she had told Gorman-Lykken not to have sex with her while she was asleep.

“But Gorman-Lykken testified that he asked his girlfriend if she was up for sex, that she verbally agreed, and that she was coherent during the sexual activity,” said the Court of Appeals. “Therefore, the jury was presented with conflicting evidence, not evidence that overwhelmingly established Gorman-Lykken’s guilt.”

With that, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court’s error in allowing an officer to be stationed next to the witness stand when Gorman-Lykken testified was not harmless. It reversed Gorman-Lykken’s conviction and remanded the case back to the trial court for further consideration.

My opinion? Good decision. It’s highly prejudicial to have police and correctional officers standing by defendants as they testify before a jury. It silently says that the defendant is extremely dangerous and volatile. Juries are more likely to convict defendants who appear dangerous. Congrats to the Court of Appeals for deciding this one correctly!

Bellingham Police Department Conducts Distracted Driving Emphasis

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Put the cell phone away.

The Bellingham Police Department tweeted and facebooked notice that there will be a distracted driving emphasis on Friday, August 16th from 10:00am-2:00pm. Areas of emphasis are Lakeway/Ellis Streets and Holly Street to State Street.

Distracted driving — when drivers eat, put on makeup or text — causes more than 3,000 deaths a year. The National Highway Traffic Administration says it also costs $46 billion annually for everything from injuries to vehicle repairs, and of course, lost productivity due to death. With the exception of Montana and Arizona, texting while driving is illegal in every state, but unless police catch you in the act, it can be very hard to prove.

Additionally, depending on the circumstances, officers may develop probable cause to conduct a DUI investigation and/or search your vehicle for contraband or evidence of a crime.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges after being stopped for distracted driving. The charges could be dismissed if the search was pretextual and/or unlawful. Hiring a competent and credible defense attorney who is fluent in pretrial motions practice is the first and best step toward getting justice.

Summer DUI Enforcement Patrols Begin

Be ready.

As the deadliest time of the year for DUI crashes nears, police department across Washington will boost DUI patrols starting August 14th.

The Washington Traffic Commission just released data showing the deadliest time of year for DUI crashes tends to be before the Labor Day weekend. So starting today, police departments around the state will begin a nearly three-week long DUI emphasis.

About 150 departments across the state will participate in patrols between Aug. 14 and Labor Day. Between 2013 and 2017, the deadliest months for DUI crashes were August and September, when 238 and 259 people died in crashes total, according to WTSC data:

“We conduct the ‘plan before you party’ campaign during the busy summer travel time because we want everyone to get home safe,” said WTSC impaired driving program manager Mark Medalen in a press release. “Planning ahead for a safe ride is especially important for the small number of Washington drivers who mix alcohol and cannabis.”

Along with extra patrols, the WTSC is placing signs in cannabis shops around the state to remind users not to drive impaired — and not to mix cannabis with alcohol. Between 2013 and 2017, about 75 percent of drivers in fatal crashes were also using alcohol or another drug, according to WTSC.

From 2013 to 2017 nearly 75 percent of cannabis-positive drivers in fatal crashes were also positive for other drugs and/or alcohol.  Poly-drug drivers are now the most common type of impaired driver involved in fatal crashes.

Responding to this trend, traffic safety officials are improving techniques used to test drivers for impairment from cannabis. For example, in King County, the Kent Police Department is participating in a Law Enforcement Phlebotomy training and certification program.  Police officers are trained to draw and test blood, avoiding a lengthy wait in the hospital where the blood is typically drawn from the suspect.

The WTSC is advising everyone in the state to make a transportation plan before consuming alcohol or drugs, whether it’s finding a designated driver or saving money for a ride-share. Otherwise, police in just about every city in Puget Sound — plus Washington State Patrol — will be out looking to arrest DUI drivers.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are involved in DUI or any other alcohol-related criminal charges.

Court Denies “Community Caretaking” Argument

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In State v. Beach, the WA Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of a defendant’s Possession of Stolen Vehicle charges because the police failed to obtain a search warrant and the Community Custody Exception to the warrant requirement did not apply.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On November 27, 2017, a person called 911 to report a young child walking by himself. Officer Nixon responded to the 911 report, and took custody of the child. Officer Nixon decided to drive around the neighborhood to look for the child’s home.

Eventually, the officer saw a house with its front door open. He ran the license plate of the car in the driveway and learned that the car had been reported stolen. He called for backup. At that point, the officer’s interest in determining whether the child lived at the house was secondary to figuring out if this was a home invasion robbery.

Officers arrived. They surrounded the house, with one or two officers going to the back of the house in case someone tried to exit from the back door. Officers knocked loudly on the outside of the house and announced themselves for approximately 30 seconds. When there was no answer, they drew their guns and entered the house, yelling, “This is the Kent Police Department. Come out with your hands up!”

Mr. Beach and his girlfriend Ms. Hall emerged from a rear bedroom. They said that they were sleeping. The officers discovered the couple had outstanding warrants. The officers arrested Beach and Hall. While searching Beach upon arrest, the police found a key to the stolen car in the driveway.

The State charged Beach with one count of possession of a stolen vehicle. Beach moved to suppress any evidence resulting from the warrantless search.

The State argued that the warrantless search was valid under the community caretaking exception because there was real and immediate danger of an ongoing home invasion. The trial court conducted a hearing pursuant to CrR 3.6. After hearing testimony by officers, the court found that the State had not established that the officers were acting within the scope of their community caretaking function, and suppressed the evidence.

Beach moved to dismiss and the court granted the motion. The State appealed.

COURT’S RATIONALE & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Court of Appeals explained that the United States Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. Also, the WA constitution is often more protective than the Fourth Amendment, particularly where warrantless searches are concerned.

“Under our state constitution, warrantless searches are per se unreasonable unless one of the narrow exceptions to the warrant requirement applies,” said the Court. “The burden of proof is on the State to show that a warrantless search or seizure falls within one of the exceptions to the warrant requirement.”

A. Community Caretaking Exception to the Warrant Requirement.

The Court said the community caretaking function exception encompasses situations involving emergency aid, and also routine checks on health and safety. Compared with routine checks on health and safety, the emergency aid function involves circumstances of greater urgency and searches resulting in greater intrusion.

Under the health and safety check test, the State must show that (1) the officer subjectively believed someone needed health or safety assistance, (2) a reasonable person in the same situation would believe that there was a need for assistance, and (3) there was a reasonable basis to associate the need for assistance with the place searched.

Also, the State must also show that the encounter under this exception was reasonable, which depends on a balancing of the individual’s interest in freedom from police interference against the public’s interest in having the police perform a community caretaking function. Finally, the State must show that a reasonable person in the same situation would believe that there was a need for assistance.

The Court reasoned that here, there was a 911 report about a child wandering blocks away. When Nixon stopped his police car outside of the residence, the child did not indicate that he had any connection to the house. No connection between the child and the house was established until after the officers entered. “Any concern for the child was not an ongoing emergency that would merit the officers going into the home,” said the Court.

And here, the officers did not know of any requests for help from the house before they entered. They did not know anyone was unaccounted for and saw no evidence anyone had been injured. The officers did not see any broken windows, signs of forced entry, or other evidence of a break-in. Once in the doorway, Officer Nixon did not see anything in disarray inside the home that would indicate a struggle or ongoing emergency. When the officers went into the home, the house was in “fine condition.”

Consequently, the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision that the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement did not apply and suppressed the evidence.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime and police conducted their search under the “Community Caretaking” exception to the warrant requirement. Possibly, evidence obtained through the search could be suppressed and the charges dismissed.