Monthly Archives: October 2020

Right to Present a Defense

1538.5 Motions To Suppress Evidence In California

In State v. Jennings, the WA Court of Appeals held the trial court’s exclusion of a shooting victim’s toxicology report indicating the victim had methamphetamine in his body at the time of his death did not violate the defendant’s constitutional right to present a defense.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On the date of the incident, the defendant Mr. Jennings accompanied his friend Mr. Redman to get Redman’s car from a mobile home in Puyallup, Washington. Redman had been living there, but had recently been kicked out. Drug activity occurred there. Jennings was there to defuse any hostilities between Redman and others at the house. Jennings armed himself with bear spray and a gun.

When they arrived, Jennings was on high alert. He knew violent events had recently occurred there. His friend Mr. Redman got into an argument with Mr. Burton, an individual at the house. Redman had his gun out. Jennings was familiar with the behavior of people who consumed methamphetamine. He realized that both Redman and Burton were high on methamphetamine and acting aggressively.

Burton and Redman argued about Redman’s car and then began to scuffle, wrestling in the foyer of the house. Jennings sprayed his bear spray at them to break up the fight. Burton then turned around and started walking toward Jennings, who backed up. Jennings believed Burton had Redman’s gun.

Jennings feared for his life. He was afraid Burton was reacting violently because he was high on methamphetamine. Jennings fired his gun and hit Burton twice. Burton died at the scene shortly after the shooting and before the ambulance arrived.

Jennings was arrested the next day. He was charged with second degree intentional murder (RCW 9A.32.050(1)(a)), second degree felony murder predicated on second degree assault (RCW 9A.32.050(1)(b)), and unlawful possession of a firearm.

At trial, Jennings claimed at trial that he shot Burton in self-defense. However, the judge excluded the toxicology report showing that Burton had methamphetamine in his body at the time of his death.  A jury found Jennings guilty of second degree felony murder.

Jennings appealed on numerous issues, including arguments that the trial court violated his constitutional right to present a defense by excluding a toxicology report showing that Burton had methamphetamine in his body at the time of his death.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals began by emphasizing that criminal defendants have a constitutional right to present a defense under the Sixth Amendment. Furthermore, evidence of self-defense must be assessed from the standpoint of the reasonably prudent person standing in the shoes of the defendant, knowing all the defendant knows and seeing all the defendant sees. Finally, the court reasoned that evidence that might impact a defendant’s assessment of the danger presented, like the victim’s prior specific violent acts, is admissible only if known to the defendant when the incident occurred.

“In analyzing the Sixth Amendment right to present a defense, we balance the State’s interest in excluding the toxicology report against Jennings’s need for evidence showing that his subjective fear was reasonable,” said the Court of Appeals.

The Court further reasoned that in this case, the toxicology report did not have extremely high probative value and it did not constitute Jennings’s entire defense. “At trial, Jennings testified that what he observed on the day of the shooting gave rise to his subjective fear . . . his belief that Burton was high on methamphetamine,” said the Court.

“Jennings has not shown that there was a reasonable probability that any additional corroboration from the toxicology report would have materially changed the result at trial,” said the Court. “We hold that even if the trial court abused its discretion by excluding the toxicology report under ER 401 and 402, this ruling was harmless error.”

With that, the Court of Appeals upheld Mr. Jennings’ conviction.

My opinion? Evidentiary and legal issues aside, these facts are terribly tragic. My heart goes out to the friends and families of all who were impacted by this. From a legal standpoint, however, It appears the WA Court of Appeals conducted a basic balancing test under Washington’s Rules of Evidence and determined that the toxicology report of the victim’s meth/blood levels was neither probative nor relevant at trial.

Under Washington’s Rules of Evidence, relevant evidence is defined in ER 401 as “evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence. ER 402 provides that evidence which is not relevant is not admissible. Finally, ER 403 provides that relevant evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by, among other things, the danger of unfair prejudice.

Here, the Court of Appeals was convinced that Mr. Jennings’ self-defense theory was properly supported by his testimony that he responded in self-defense to the victim’s meth-induced attack. Therefore, no other evidence was necessary to admit more evidence that the victim was high on meth. Jennings’ testimony, by itself, was enough. Any additional evidence on that issue was therefore cumulative, repetitive, unnecessary and potentially prejudicial to the State’s case under ER 403.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges and self-defense is a possible defense. It’s important to hire an experienced criminal defense trial attorney who understands the law, the rules of evidence and how both contribute to trial defenses.

Assault of a Child or Swimming Lesson?

Backlash over 'self-rescue' swimming classes for toddlers | News | The Times

In State v. Loos, the WA Court of Appeals held that although the defendant repeatedly submerged a toddler in a river during an impromptu swimming lesson, there was insufficient to establish that the defendant’s actions caused the toddler in her care to experience substantial pain that endured for a period of time long enough to cause considerable suffering.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Defendant Ms. Loos was babysitting J.T.S., a nonverbal, speech-delayed two-and-a-half-year-old toddler whom she had cared for throughout his infancy. Loos and a friend, Ms. Tetzlaff, decided to take a group of seven children to swim in the Jordan River that day.

While swimming in the river, Tetzlaff became concerned about Loos’s conduct. Tetzlaff testified that Loos picked up J.T.S. and said “it’s time to swim.” For the next minute – which was caught on camera – Loos engaged an impromptu swim lesson and tried teaching J.T.S. a swim technique called “infant self-rescue” by teaching him to float on his back.

In the 51-second video, Loos can be seen holding J.T.S. on his back in the water, and is heard telling him “when we scream, we go under.” After a moment, J.T.S. was submerged in the water for a few seconds and Loos pulled him back up out of the water. Loos repositioned J.T.S. on his back, at which point he began to struggle and tried to pull away. Loos told J.T.S. again not to scream and he was again submerged. This time, Loos had one hand under J.T.S. and one hand on his chest. At trial, Tetzlaff testified that Loos was “holding him under the water.” T.L. similarly testified he saw Loos push J.T.S. under water, and T.L. could see J.T.S. flailing his arms while submerged. When Loos lifted him out of the water, he came up coughing and screaming. Eventually, Loos ended the swim lesson.

On December 1, 2017, approximately two and a half years later, the State charged Loos with one count of assault of a child in the third degree. During trial, Loos moved to dismiss the charge for insufficient evidence. The trial court denied this motion, although it acknowledged its decision was a “close call.”

The jury found Loos guilty. She appealed on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

COURT’S RATIONALE & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals began by saying due process of law requires that the State prove every element of a charged crime beyond a reasonable doubt in order to obtain a criminal conviction.

Furthermore, the court cited State v. Green in saying that in order to evaluate whether sufficient evidence supports a conviction, the court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the State to determine if any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the charged crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

“Dismissal with prejudice is required when there is insufficient evidence at the close of the prosecution’s case in-chief to sustain a charged offense,” said the Court of Appeals.

Next, the court gave the statutory definition of “bodily harm” as “physical pain or injury, illness, or an impairment of physical condition,” And that this pain or impairment must be accompanied by “substantial pain.”

Finally, the Court of Appeals reasoned whether there was sufficient evidence that T.J. suffered substantial pain from the swimming incident. “J.T.S.’s coughing when pulled out of the water caused him some physical pain,” said the Court. “But neither the testimony nor the 51-second video of the incident supports any contention that J.T.S. was unable to quickly and easily eliminate the water from his throat or that he remained in any pain once he did so.”

“The evidence was undisputed that J.T.S. did not require CPR, did not vomit, did not lose consciousness, did not appear to have any swelling of his belly, did not sustain any lung injury, and needed no medical treatment. There is no evidence J.T.S. was inconsolable as a result of any ongoing pain or that any momentary pain he may have experienced lasted for any period of time after he coughed and Loos removed him from the water.” ~WA Court of Appeals

The Court of Appeals concluded by saying that no reasonable jury would find that J.T.S. suffered substantial pain that extended for a period sufficient to cause considerable suffering. With that, the Court of Appeals reversed Loos’s conviction.

My opinion? Good decision. The trial court erred when it denied Ms. Loos’ Motion to Dismiss pursuant to State v. Green. Better known as a Green Motion, this tactical trial maneuver allows defendants to request the judge dismiss criminal charges after the Prosecution has presented its evidence and rested its case.

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

ACLU Sues DOL

Guide to Pinellas County Driving on Suspended License Charges

In a press release, the ACLU of Washington acknowledges filing a lawsuit on behalf of individuals who have had their driver’s licenses suspended by the Washington Department of Licensing (DOL) because they were unable to pay fines and fees for moving violations.

The complaint, filed in Thurston County Superior Court on behalf of people whose licenses have been suspended, claims that Washington’s law authorizing automatic and mandatory license suspensions for failure to pay moving violation fines violates the state constitution’s rights to due process and equal protection, due to the additional punishments it levies on individuals with low or no income. The lawsuit also alleges that license suspension for failure to pay a ticket is an unconstitutionally excessive punishment.

According to the ACLU’s press release, the plaintiffs in the case come from throughout Washington and have suffered a variety of negative consequences due to the loss of their license—consequences that individuals with an ability to pay traffic fines would not face. These include loss of employment and income; the inability to take children to school; and the inability to care for family members. These additional barriers compound the root problems that make it difficult for people with low or no income to pay fines and fees.

“Washington’s law authorizing automatic and mandatory license suspensions not only violates basic fairness for people with low or no income, it violates the state constitution,” said ACLU of Washington Staff Attorney Lisa Nowlin.

“Ability to pay must be considered when suspending a license, because no one should suffer additional penalties for a moving violation because of poverty.” ~Lisa Nowlin, ACLU Staff Attorney

“The American legal system is founded on the principle that everyone, regardless of means, is treated the same under the law. Washington’s license suspension laws violate that principle,” said Donald Scaramastra, cooperating attorney from Foster Garvey, PC.

My opinion? It’s about darn time . . .

Privacy & Text Messages

Cop Cams New To Most But Old School For Modesto PD - capradio.org

In State v. Bowman, the WA Court of Appeals held that a police officer violates a defendant’s constitutional rights by sending a text message to the defendant from an unfamiliar phone number while impersonating a known contact of the defendant.

BACKGROUND FACTS

A Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agent sent a series of text messages to Mr. Bowman. The DHS agent claimed to be someone named Mike Schabell, a person to whom Bowman had sold methamphetamine earlier that day, and indicated he wanted to buy more drugs. The ruse led to charges of possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver.

The trial court denied his motion to suppress the drugs and drug paraphernalia on his person and in his vehicle. At trial, Mr. Bowman was found guilty.

On appeal, Bowman argues the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress evidence that flowed from his text message conversation with the DHS Agent. Specifically, he argues that DHS Agent’s impersonating a known contact of his through text messages violated his right to privacy under the Washington Constitution.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that under article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution, no person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law.

“Interpretation of this article requires a two part analysis,” said the Court. “First, we must determine whether the action complained of constitutes a disturbance of private affairs,” said the Court. “If we determine that a valid private affair has been disturbed, we then must determine whether the intrusion is justified by authority of law.”

The DHS Agent’s Actions Disrupted Mr. Bowman’s Private Affairs.

The Court of Appeals began by defining “Private affairs” as those privacy interests which citizens of this state have held, and should be entitled to hold, safe from government trespass without a warrant.

Based on that, the Court reasoned Mr. Bowman did not talk with someone he thought was a stranger. Rather, he conversed with a person who represented himself as someone that Bowman knew. Therefore, reasoned the court, Bowman had a reasonable expectation of privacy for that conversation. The DHS agent invaded that right of privacy.

The DHS Agent Was Not Acting Under Authority of Law.

The Court of Appeals reasoned that although Mr. Schabell consented to the search of his phone, there was no proof that he consented to being impersonated.

“Therefore, Dkane was not acting under authority of law, and violated Bowman’s right of privacy,” said the Court. “The trial court erred by failing to suppress the evidence obtained by that violation of privacy.”

With that, the Court of Appeals reversed Mr. Bowman’s conviction and remanded for a new trial, with instructions to suppress evidence obtained in violation of Bowman’s right to privacy.

My opinion? Good decision.