Monthly Archives: July 2020

Shackling Defendants In Court – Without Reason – Is Unconstitutional.

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In State v. Jackson, the WA Supreme Court held that shackling in court without analyzing whether the shackles are necessary violates the defendant’s constitutional rights.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In 2017, Mr. Jackson,  was charged with assault in the second degree, domestic violence, for strangling his fiancée. At every court appearance, Jackson was forced to wear some form of restraints pursuant to jail policy. The trial court did not engage in any individualized determination of whether restraints were necessary for courtroom safety but, instead, filed a consolidated opinion adopting the jail policy for all superior court appearances for all incarcerated defendants. After a jury found Jackson guilty, he appealed, arguing that his constitutional right to due process was violated when he was forced to wear restraints without an individualized inquiry into their necessity.

The Court of Appeals held that the shackling of Jackson without an individualized inquiry into whether shackles were necessary violated his constitutional rights. However, it also held that this violation was harmless; thus leaving Jackson with a constitutional violation without a remedy.

Both the Prosecutor and Mr. Jackson appealed to the WA Supreme Court. Jackson argued that the Court of Appeals did not apply the constitutional “harmless error test” correctly. The State, on the other hand, cross-petitioned for review of the constitutionality of the use of pretrial restraints.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Supreme Court reviewed the history of defendants wearing pretrial restraints in court:

“The problems in the history of shackling in early America are not limited to the courts and incarcerated individuals . . . The use of shackling as a means of control and oppression, primarily against people of color, has run rampant in the history of this country . . . Shackles and restraints remain an image of the transatlantic slave trade and the systematic abuse and ownership of African persons that has endured long beyond the end of slavery. Shackles and restraints also represent the forced removal of Native people from their homelands through the Trail of Tears and the slave labor of Native people. We recognize that although these atrocities occurred over a century ago, the systemic control of persons of color remains in society, particularly within the criminal justice system.” ~WA Supreme Court

Next, the Court reasoned that under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and article I, section 22 of the Washington State Constitution, it is well settled that a defendant in a criminal case is entitled to appear at trial free from all bonds or shackles except in extraordinary circumstances.

That said, the WA Supreme Court also mentioned that the right to be free from restraint is not absolute, and trial court judges are vested with the discretion to give measures that implicate courtroom security, including whether to restrain a defendant in some capacity in order to prevent injury.

Next, the court  identified several factors under State v. Hartzog which help a trial court determine if a defendant needs to be shackled:

“The seriousness of the present charge against the defendant; defendant’s temperament and character; his age and physical attributes; his past record; past escapes or attempted escapes, and evidence of a present plan to escape; threats to harm others or cause a disturbance; self-destructive tendencies; the risk of mob violence or of attempted revenge by others; the possibility of rescue by other offenders still at large; the size and mood of the audience; the nature and physical security of the courtroom; and the adequacy and availability of alternative remedies.” ~WA Supreme Court quoting State v. Hartzog

The Court reasoned that a trial court must engage in an individualized inquiry into the use of restraints prior to every court appearance. Furthermore, the State does not meet this burden by simply establishing that no jurors observed the restraints during trial.

“When the State does not meet its burden to prove that the use of restraints at trial was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant is entitled to a new trial and the defendant may only be restrained or shackled during any stage of the proceedings after the court makes an individualized inquiry into whether shackles or restraints are necessary,” said the Court.

With that, the WA Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals on harmlessness and remanded for a new trial with instructions that at all stages of court proceedings, the court shall make an individualized inquiry into whether shackles or restraints are necessary.

My opinion? Good decision. The manner in which the justice system treats people in these public settings matters for the public’s perception, including that of the defendant. Practices like routine shackling are inconsistent with our constitutional presumption that people who have not been convicted of a crime are innocent until proven otherwise.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges. Hiring an experienced and effective criminal defense attorney is the first and best step towards justice.

True Threats

P Emojis and Emoticons in Court – The Air Force JAG Corps Reporter

In State v. D.R.C., the WA Court of Appeals held that a 17-year-old girl’s text messages to friends which aired her grievances about her mother after they verbally argued did not constitute “true threats” for purposes of proving Harassment.

BACKGROUND FACTS

The case against 17-year-old juvenile defendant D.R.C. began with a mother-daughter dispute over whether D.R.C. violated house rules by possessing gang-colored clothing. The argument took place in D.R.C.’s bedroom, and at some point D.R.C. slammed her door shut. D.R.C.’s mother responded by removing the door from its hinges.

During the argument with her mother, D.R.C. was on her phone and texting with several friends, indicating she wanted to kill her mother. The texts were vaguely worded and peppered with smiling emojis and the initialism “LOL.”

After removing D.R.C.’s bedroom door, the mother confiscated D.R.C.’s phone and turned to leave the room. As she was leaving, D.R.C.’s mother heard a loud noise. D.R.C. had punched her bedroom wall, leaving a hole in it. D.R.C.’s mother called the police. The police arrived and talked to D.R.C. and her mother, but did not take further action. Later that night, D.R.C.’s mother reviewed D.R.C.’s phone and discovered the text messages.

D.R.C.’s mother shared the text messages with the police. The State charged D.R.C. with felony harassment in juvenile court. The case proceeded to trial. The juvenile court found D.R.C. guilty of harassment.

D.R.C. appealed under arguments that the State failed to meet the additional burden of proving a true threat.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that in order to penalize a defendant for harassment, the State must prove not only the elements of the offense but also that the defendant’s words were not the type of speech protected by the First Amendment.

“A true threat is a serious threat,” said the Court. “It is not an idle statement, a joke, or even a hyperbolic expression of frustration.” The court further reasoned that when analyzing whether a statement is a “true threat” it looks carefully at the context of the inflammatory statement in order to avoid infringement on the precious right to free speech.

“The focus of the true threat analysis is on the speaker. But we do not look at the speaker’s actual intent . . . Instead, the test is objective . . . We ask whether a reasonable person in the speaker’s position would foresee their statement would be interpreted as a serious expression of intent to cause physical harm.” ~WA Court of Appeals

Next, the Court of Appeals examined whether D.R.C.’s friends thought the threats were “true threats.” It reasoned that D.R.C.’s past conversation with one friend supports D.R.C.’s testimony that she tended to use hyperbolic language with her friends. “In the prior text between D.R.C. and Lexy, D.R.C. accompanied her statements about harming or killing a mutual acquaintance with ”Lmfao”; the face with tears of joy emoji, ; a shrug emoji, ; a smiling face with horns emoji, ; a zany face emoji, ; and a heart emoji,” said the Court of Appeals. “The combination of the initialism and emojis conveyed an unmistakable message of sarcasm, as opposed to a serious intent to cause harm or death.”

“The language used by D.R.C. was distastefully violent, but it was not as disturbing as some of the past statements held to fall within First Amendment protections.” ~WA Court of Appeals

The Court of Appeals reversed D.R.C.’s conviction – but not without warning:

“While we rule in D.R.C.’s favor, our disposition should not be interpreted as approval of D.R.C.’s choice of language . . . We, like the trial court, find nothing funny in the texts. Nevertheless, the First Amendment protects all sorts of speech, even when the sentiment is hurtful or vile.” ~WA Court of Appeals

My opinion? I’ve gained jury acquittals in similar cases. In proving harassment charges, the State must prove that a reasonable person would have felt the threats were true threats under the circumstances. That’s a high burden to prove. Many people – indeed, most people – are guilty of making threats during or after an emotional situation. However, simply uttering threats does not logically mean that the threat is intended to be carried out out.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with Harassment. Hiring an experienced criminal defense attorney like myself is the first and best step towards justice.

Reasonable Suspicion & 911 Calls

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In United States v. Vandergroen, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the police’s search of a suspicious person was reasonable under the circumstances when bar patrons called 911 minutes before to report the man had a pistol on him.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Late on a Saturday evening of February 17, 2018, a worker at a bar in California called 911 to report that three patrons had seen a man in the area with a pistol on him. In response to this call, the police stopped the man as he drove away, discovered a pistol in his car, and placed him under arrest. The man, Mr.  Vandergroen, argued a Rule 12 motion to suppress the evidence. The lower federal court denied the motion. Vandergroen was subsequently convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), which is a federal criminal conviction.

On appeal, Vandergroen now argues that the 911 call should never have led to his stop in the first place because it did not generate reasonable suspicion, and that the evidence of the pistol should therefore have been excluded.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with Mr. Vandergroen. It affirmed the lower court’s denial of Vandergroen’s motion to suppress and upheld his conviction.

The Court began by saying that under the Fourth Amendment, an officer may conduct a brief investigative stop only where s/he has a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal activity, commonly referred to as “reasonable suspicion.”

The Court further elaborated that while a 911 call may generate reasonable suspicion, it can only do so when, under the totality-of-the circumstances, it possesses two features. First, the tip must exhibit sufficient indicia of reliability, and second, it must provide information on potential illegal activity serious enough to justify a stop.

Finally, the Court identified a number of factors that demonstrate the reliability of a tip. These facts include (1) whether the tipper is known, rather than anonymous; (2) whether the tipper reveals the basis of his knowledge; (3) whether the tipper provides detailed predictive information indicating insider knowledge, id.; whether the caller uses a 911 number rather than a non-emergency tip line; and (4) whether the tipster relays fresh, eyewitness knowledge, rather than stale, second-hand knowledge.

With the above in mind, the Court of Appeals delved into its analysis.

“The totality of the circumstances in this case demonstrates that the 911 call was sufficiently reliable to support reasonable suspicion,” said the Court. It reasoned that first, the statements by an independent witness were undoubtedly reliable. “Witness #2 provided his name and employment position, making him a known, and therefore more reliable, witness,” said the Court.

Second, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the statements by the bar’s patrons were also reliable. “Although the patrons remained anonymous during the call, which generally cuts against reliability, their statements exhibited sufficient indicia of reliability to overcome this shortcoming,” said the Court. Finally, the Court reasoned that the reported activity — possessing a concealed weapon  was presumptively unlawful in California and was ongoing at the time of the stop.

In conclusion the Court of Appeals held that the 911 call generated reasonable suspicion justifying the stop and the lower court was correct to deny Vandergroen’s motion to suppress the evidence obtained during the stop. His criminal conviction was upheld.

My opinion? Mind you, this is a federal opinion. Under Washington law, however,  a bare report that someone is in possession of a firearm does not provide reasonable suspicion for an investigative stop. This is because Washington is both an open carry state and liberally grants concealed weapons permits. United States v. Brown.

In Washington, under RCW 9.41.300(1)(d), a stop may have been permissible in this case if the individual with the pistol had been in that portion of the lounge classified by the state liquor and cannabis board as off-limits to persons under twenty-one years of age. That’s because it is unlawful for any person to enter a bar with a firearm.

Please read my Legal Guide on Search and Seizure and contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges involving a questionable search or seizure of evidence. Hiring a competent and experienced defense attorney is the first and best step towards justice.

Exigent Circumstances for Warrantless Blood Draw

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In State v. Rawley, the WA Court of Appeals held that Exigent Circumstances justified an emergency DUI blood draw at the scene of a car collision. Here, the driver exhibited the effects of alcohol and a telephonic search warrant could not be obtained.

BACKGROUND FACTS

At 2:55 PM, Deputy Aman responded to a two-car, head-on collision. The defendant Ms. Rawley had crossed the center line, causing her vehicle to collide with another vehicle. Rawley was trapped in her vehicle.

As Deputy Aman spoke to Rawley, he noted a strong smell of alcohol and that her speech was slurred and repetitive. Rawley admitted to drinking alcohol.

The paramedics freed Rawley from the vehicle and placed her in the ambulance. Deputy Aman went to the ambulance and learned that IV fluids and medications were about to be administered to Rawley.

Deputy Aman felt exigent circumstances existed to draw Rawley’s blood to check her blood alcohol content (BAC) before administering IV fluids. The paramedic drew Rawley’s blood at 3:07 PM. IV fluids started at 3:23 PM. The ambulance left for the hospital at 3:23 PM. Rawley’s BAC was .35—over 4 times the legal limit under statute.

The State charged Rawley with felony driving under the influence. Before trial, Rawley made a CrR 3.6 motion to suppress the results of the blood draw. The trial court denied her motion. Following a bench trial, the trial court found Rawley guilty of felony driving under the influence.

Rawley appealed on the issues of whether exigent circumstances justified a warrantless blood draw.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court began by stating that warrantless searches and seizures are per se unreasonable and in violation of the Fourth Amendment and article I, section 7 of the Washington State Constitution. However, under Missouri v. McNeely, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized an exception to the warrant requirement allows a warrantless search or seizure when exigent circumstances exist.

“Exigent circumstances exist where the delay necessary to obtain a warrant is not practical because the delay would permit the destruction of evidence,” said the Court.  “But the natural dissipation of alcohol in the blood may support a finding of exigency in a specific case, for example, when delay results from the warrant application process.”

Next, the Court of Appeals addressed whether the warrantless blood draw was lawful under the exigent circumstances based on State v. Inman, a WA Court of Appeals case involving  a DUI motor vehicle injury collision occurring in a rural area with spotty phone service. In Inman, the Court held that a search warrant was not required before a blood sample collected under the exigent circumstances exception is tested for alcohol and drugs.

“The circumstances here are like those in Inman. Rawley was in a head-on collision and was trapped inside her vehicle. Her speech was slurred and Deputy Aman could smell intoxicants on her breath. Rawley admitted to drinking. One of the paramedics told Deputy Aman he would be administering IV fluids and then taking Rawley to the hospital. Deputy Aman was aware that IV fluids are generally administered if there is concern for internal injuries. In Deputy Aman’s experience, a warrant request could take on average up to 45 minutes during the day.” ~WA Court of Appeals

The Court of Appeals decided Inman was similar to the present case and was properly relied upon by the trial court. “Accordingly, the trial court’s findings of fact support the trial court’s conclusion of law that exigent circumstances justified the warrantless blood draw based on Inman.”

In closing, the Court of Appeals rejected Rawley’s arguments that a police officer must inquire into the type of IV fluid being administered in order to show that exigent circumstance existed because the IV fluids would alter the blood test results.

“There is no binding legal authority requiring police officers to be knowledgeable of medicines and their effect on blood alcohol content.” ~WA Court of Appeals

With that, the Court of Appeals affirmed Rawley’s conviction for Felony DUI.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face Alcohol DUI charges and evidence was obtained through a warrantless blood draw. Hiring a competent and experienced trial attorney is the first and best step toward justice.

(Online!) Organized Retail Theft: No Such Thing

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In State v. Lake, the WA Court of Appeals held that Theft by ordering items online from catalogs will not support a conviction for second degree organized retail theft because the takings are not from a “mercantile establishment;” a phrase which only applies to a physical establishment.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In 2017, Ms. Lake was living in a senior living apartment complex. In February 2017, she placed three catalog orders with different companies using the names and accounts of other apartment complex residents. She had the items delivered to her as “gifts.”

One of the residents noticed that someone had placed an order using her credit account. She reported the suspicious order to the front office and made a fraud complaint with the police. After an investigation, the State charged Lake with one count of second degree organized retail theft, three counts of first degree identity theft, and two counts of second degree possession of stolen property.

At the close of the State’s case, Lake moved to dismiss the second degree organized retail theft charge because there was no evidence that she obtained goods form a “mercantile establishment” as required for that charge. The trial court denied the motion.

The jury found Lake not guilty of one count of first degree identity theft but guilty of the lesser degree offense of second degree identity theft. The jury found Lake guilty of the other five charged counts.

Lake appealed her convictions on arguments that her thefts involving online catalog purchases were not from a mercantile establishment.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Court of Appeals concluded that the term “mercantile establishment” was ambiguous, and applied the Rule of Lenity to hold that Lake’s thefts were not from a mercantile establishment.

The Court gave the framework for reaching its decision. It reasoned that if the plain language of the statute is susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation, the statute is ambiguous.

“We first attempt to resolve the ambiguity and determine the legislature’s intent by considering other indicia of legislative intent, including principles of statutory construction, legislative history, and relevant case law . . . If these indications of legislative intent are insufficient to resolve the ambiguity, under the rule of lenity we must interpret the ambiguous statute in favor of the defendant.”

With that, the Court of Appeals examined the definition of “mercantile establishment.” In order to prove the charge, the State had to prove that Lake committed theft of property with a cumulative value of at least $750 from one or more “mercantile establishments.”

“The question here is whether fraudulently purchasing items online from a catalog constitutes theft from a mercantile establishment, or whether that term is limited to physical retail stores,” said the Court.

The court reviewed former RCW 9A.56.360 which gave a working definition of “mercantile establishments” as it applied to the crime of retail theft with special circumstances:

(1) A person commits retail theft with special circumstances if he or she commits theft of property from a mercantile establishment with one of the following special circumstances: (a) To facilitate the theft, the person leaves the mercantile establishment through a designated emergency exit; (b) The person was, at the time of the theft, in possession of an item, article, implement, or device used, under circumstances evincing an intent to use or employ, or designed to overcome security systems including, but not limited to, lined bags or tag removers.

Here, reasoned the court, former RCW 9A.56.360 shows that the legislature intended to stop thefts from physical retail stores:

“Only a physical store has a ‘designated emergency exit’ and employs security systems that can be overcome by ‘lined bags’ or ‘tag removers.’” ~WA Court of Appeals

Consequently, the Court concluded that the statutory term “mercantile establishment” was ambiguous. And because the term “mercantile establishment” remains ambiguous, the Court applied the rule of lenity and interpreted the ambiguous statute in favor of Ms. Lake.

“Therefore, we hold that the trial court erred in denying Lake’s motion to dismiss because the evidence was insufficient to convict Lake of second degree organized retail theft,” said the Court. With that, the court dismissed the charges.

My opinion? Good decision. The Prosecutor should have sought different charges under these circumstances. Clearly, the organized retail theft statute clearly applies to brick-and-mortar businesses.

As a side-note, the Rule of Lenity is a rarely used criminal defense argument. In most cases, the definitions of terms are discussed in the legislative intent of statutes and/or found in the criminal statutes themselves. This case shows that when the Rule of Lenity is correctly applied, it’s quite powerful.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with Theft. Hiring an experienced and competent criminal defense attorney is the best step toward justice.