All posts by Alexander Ransom

Cannabis Advocates: Biden is Missing an Opportunity Legalize Marijuana

Why Joe Biden's Marijuana Move Is a Midterm 'No Brainer'

The Hill reports that President Biden is missing an opportunity to sway young voters with his reluctance to take bigger steps to legalize marijuana at the federal level.

While campaigning for the White House in 2020, Biden said, “No one should be in jail because of marijuana. As President, I will decriminalize cannabis use and automatically expunge prior convictions.”

Cannabis advocates say the Biden administration has opened several avenues for marijuana reform. These include issuing federal pardons for simple possession and starting the process of potentially rescheduling marijuana’s status under the Controlled Substances Act from Schedule I to Schedule III.

But those measures have failed to excite advocates. They now say Biden is falling short of his 2020 campaign promises and failing to address the disparate overcriminalization of the drug that has unduly impacted minority communities. Progressive lawmakers in the Senate are urging the administration to go further and completely deschedule the drug. Legalization it would effectively decriminalize it at the federal level, as opposed to rescheduling it.

“Marijuana’s placement in the Controlled Substances Act] has had a devastating impact on our communities and is increasingly out of step with state law and public opinion,” 12 Democratic lawmakers wrote to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) last month.


Public opinion is strongly in favor of marijuana legalization. A Gallup poll from November found a record 70 percent of Americans believed marijuana should be legal.

More recent polling from Lake Research Partners backs up public support for federal marijuana reform, with 58 percent supporting a rescheduling to Schedule III, compared to 19 percent who opposed the move.

“It’s a really strong issue with some constituencies that Democrats really need to increase their support and enthusiasm, specifically young people, African Americans, Democratic base voters, people of color, young men of color,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster and strategist who serves as president of Lake Research Partners.

Hayley Matz Meadvin, Executive Vice President of Communications at Precision Strategies and a former Biden administration staffer, noted the “supermajority of support” behind marijuana legalization could help Biden lure in voters across the political spectrum.

“This is a popular issue that motivates voters, and it doesn’t just motivate — it clearly just doesn’t motivate exclusively Democrats. And that will be critical this fall.” ~Hayley Matz Meadvin, Executive Vice President of Communications at Precision Strategies


Biden and Trump, his likely 2024 rival, are polling neck and neck both nationally and in key swing states. The election could come down to a few thousand voters in those states, potentially giving niche issues such marijuana added importance.

Advocates say his actions so far fall short of that promise. And they said he may struggle to clearly communicate any progress on marijuana reform, especially as some actions are left unfinished; the DEA has yet to issue its decision on rescheduling marijuana, and the federal pardons issued last year could not apply to state-level convictions, though Biden has encouraged governors to follow his lead.

While marijuana reform may not be among the issues expected to dominate the 2024 elections, strategists note that smaller issues frequently break through the noise during election cycles.  Perhaps substantial marijuana reform action from Biden would signal to voters he is a “modern president” and could make a difference in states including Arizona, Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a Drug Offense or any other crime. As of now, possessing marijuana is still a federal crime. Hiring an effective and competent defense attorney is the first and best step toward justice.

Citing “Aloha Spirit,” Hawaii Bans Open Carry of Firearms Without a Permit Hawaiian Shirt - For Sale ::

According to The Guardian, the Hawaii’i Supreme Court, citing the state’s “Spirit of Aloha”, has ruled that a person can be prosecuted for carrying a gun in public without a permit. This decision comes in an apparent rebuke to the US Supreme Court’s efforts to expand gun rights.

In State of Hawaii v Christopher Wilson, state supreme court of Hawaii reviewed a 2017 case against Christopher Wilson, who had an unregistered, loaded pistol in his front waistband when police were called after a Maui landowner reported seeing a group of men on his property at night. The court denied the man’s request to dismiss weapons possession charges on grounds that they violated a right to bear arms enshrined in the US constitution in 1791.

“The spirit of aloha clashes with a federally-mandated lifestyle that lets citizens walk around with deadly weapons during day-to-day activities . . . The history of the Hawaiian Islands does not include a society where armed people move about the community to possibly combat the deadly aims of others.” ~Justice Todd Eddins, Hawaii Supreme Court


Under 1986’s Hawaiian Spirit Law, the state mandates that state officials and judges treat the public with “aloha spirit.” In short, this ethos is described as the coordination of the heart and mind to foster connectivity and peace that calls for contemplation and presence of five life-force traits: “akahai” (kindness, expressed with tenderness); “lōkahi” (unity, expressed with harmony); “oluʻolu” (agreeableness, expressed with pleasantness); “haʻahaʻa” (humility, expressed with modesty); and “ahonui’” (patience, expressed with perseverance).

The Wilson case has been winding its way through the court system, with the plaintiff claiming that he had legally purchased the weapon in Florida in 2013. But Wilson had not registered the gun in Hawaii, which has some of the nation’s strictest gun laws, and had not obtained or applied for a permit. The case made its way to the state’s supreme court after the US supreme court further relaxed restrictions on gun ownership via the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v Bruen case in 2022.

The ruling does not throw out the concept of the right to bear firearms.  Rather it establishes that states may retain the authority to require people to obtain a permit for their firearm before they may carry it in public.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a Firearm Offense or any other crime. Hiring an effective and competent defense attorney is the first and best step toward justice.

Deadly Vehicular Crash Data in Whatcom County

Motorcyclist dies after collision with car in Bellingham - YouTube

Bellingham Herald Journalist Robert Mittendorf reports that deadly car crashes fell by half in Bellingham last year. These levels return to pre-pandemic levels after a two-year spike. Four people died in crashes within Bellingham city limits last year, down from eight traffic deaths in 2022 and nine in 2021, according to data from the Washington State Department of Transportation, which collects reports from police agencies statewide.

Overall there were more than 200 fewer crashes last year in Bellingham, as the total dropped from 1,136 in 2022 to 902 in 2023 — a 10-year low. WSDOT’s data system includes crashes on Interstate 5 and state highways such as Meridian Street (State Route 539) within the city limits. Factoring in only city streets, Bellingham had 527 total crashes. This is down from 709 in 2022 — also a 10-year low.

One pedestrian and no bicyclists were killed by cars in 2023. There were 23 such crashes last year as part of a steady annual decline after a high of 76 total bike and pedestrian crashes in 2017.

Bellingham’s lower fatality rate is in contrast to state and nationwide trends. Apparently,  more people in WA State died in traffic accidents as people drove faster and automakers built bigger and heavier trucks and SUVs. The death toll on roads statewide in 2023 topped a 30-year high set last year, according to WSDOT. Whatcom County crash statistics remained mostly flat, reflecting a three-year trend.

Former Mayor Seth Fleetwood made traffic safety a priority from 2020 to 2024, and Public Works has hired three new staff members in its Traffic Division, Johnston said. Bellingham will be examining the speed of cars and speed limits on city streets this year. This effort includes data collection, public education and law enforcement. On the enforcement side, one possible new measure could be speed cameras in school zones.

Even as deadly crashes in just the city of Bellingham declined last year, traffic fatalities rose slightly in Whatcom County as a whole, according to WSDOT. At total of 18 people died last year in crashes on roads of all types across Whatcom County, from city streets to Interstate 5. Two pedestrians were killed among 48 total crashes involving people walking and cycling in 2023. This represents a sharp decline from the eight pedestrian deaths in 65 total crashes in 2022 — also a 10-year low.

Traffic fatalities are tragic. Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with Vehicular Assault/Homicide, or Reckless Driving. Hiring an effective and competent defense attorney is the first and best step toward justice.

Animal Cruelty Bill Heads to the Senate

Craven County homeowners charged with animal cruelty after 42 dogs removed, two euthanized | WNCT

On Monday, the Washington House of Representatives passed a proposed bill that would increase penalties for animal cruelty cases. The bill would elevate the punishment for first-degree animal cruelty. The bill passed 95 to 1. It now heads to the Senate for further consideration. State Representative Sam Low, a Republican representing the 39th legislative district, is sponsoring the bill.

“Elevating to a ranked crime would add it to the sentencing guidelines grid, creating consistency for the judges and prosecuting attorneys,” Low said.

“Inconsistency in sentencing only benefits abusers. House Bill 1961 would establish a clear legal framework for these horrific cases, ensuring those who inflict suffering on defenseless animals face consequences that reflect the severity of their crimes . . . Washington state should always stand for justice and compassion for all living beings. Through this bill, we have an opportunity to give a voice to the voiceless and deter future acts of cruelty. I am grateful for today’s vote and look forward to seeing the same outcome in the Senate.” ~State Representative Sam Low

The proposed legislation would enhance first-degree animal cruelty to a ranked felony. Ranked felony offenses have a seriousness level assigned to them. In short, higher-ranked offenses bring more serious consequences. These levels range from Level 1 (lowest level) to Level 16 (highest level). For a Level 1 offense, for someone with an offender score of zero, their standard range is 0-2 months, if convicted of the offense. By comparison, a Level 7 felony offense for someone with an offender score of zero, is facing a standard sentencing range of 15-20 months.

Surprisingly, animal cruelty is a complex phenomenon. It involves a multitude of different situational factors, motives, and other potential cause. The most frequently reported forms of animal cruelty are related to neglect. Denial of food, water, and veterinary care occurs in many cases. The most common forms of animal cruelty are the restriction of movement, insufficient food or water, abandonment, neglect, lack of veterinary care, and assault. There is no single type of companion animal cruelty offense, nor is there one typical type of companion animal cruelty offender.

There are, however, defenses to lower-level  charges. For example, it is a defense to a charge of second degree animal cruelty that the defendant’s failure was due to economic distress beyond the defendant’s control. This can happen if the animal’s owner is  indigent, impoverished and/or simply cannot afford to care for the animal.

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

Recording An Inmate’s Conversations with Defense Counsel is Unconstitutional

Eavesdropping – (California Penal Code Section 632)

In State v. Couch, the WA Court of Appeals held a jailed defendant’s constitutional rights were violated when jail officials recorded multiple jail calls made between the defendant and counsel, video-recorded several meetings between the defendant and counsel, and opened at least one piece of legal mail.


The State charged Mr. Couch with second degree rape-domestic violence and second degree assault-domestic violence after he allegedly forced his former girlfriend to have sex with him after she broke off their relationship.

Before the trial began, Couch filed a motion to dismiss for governmental misconduct under CrR 8.3(b). Couch claimed that the Grays Harbor County Jail had illegally recorded conversations between him and defense counsel and had opened his legal mail. The trial court held a hearing on the motion and heard testimony.

The trial court denied Couch’s motion to dismiss. Later, the jury convicted Couch of second degree rape and second degree assault. Couch appealed on arguments that state actors unlawfully intruded on his communications with his attorneys and that the trial court erred because it did not require the State to establish the absence of prejudice beyond a reasonable doubt.


The Court of Appeals began by saying the Sixth Amendment guarantees a criminal defendant the right to the assistance of counsel, and that right includes the right to confer privately with their attorney. A state actor’s intrusion into private conversations between attorney and defendant violates this right. There is no distinction between an intrusion by jail security and an intrusion by law enforcement.

Furthermore, if a state actor has violated the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right, prejudice to the defendant is presumed. Because the constitutional right to privately communicate with an attorney is a foundational right, the State must be held to the highest burden of proof to ensure that it is protected.

Intruding on confidential attorney-client communications constitutes misconduct under CrR 8.3(b). This court rule states that the trial court may dismiss a criminal prosecution due to governmental misconduct when there has been prejudice to the rights of the accused which materially affect the accused’s right to a fair trial.

The Court of appeals reasoned that state actors intruded on Couch’s communications with his attorneys in violation of his Sixth Amendment right to confer privately with those attorneys. Here, the Grays Harbor County Jail (1) recorded multiple telephone calls between Couch and Rivas, (2) video recorded several meetings between Couch and his attorneys, and (3) opened at least one piece of legal mail.

“Therefore, the trial court was required to presume prejudice to Couch,” said the Court of Appeals. From there, the only question for the trial court – the truly correct legal issue – was whether the State proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Couch was not prejudiced when addressing Couch’s motion to dismiss. Therefore, the trial court erred in analyzing Couch’s CrR 8.3(b) motion to dismiss.

With that, the Court of Appeals reversed Couch’s conviction and remanded for the trial court to determine whether to dismiss the case or order a new trial with sufficient remedial safeguards.

Jail is a terrible place. Not only are the conditions deplorable, but privileged conversations with attorneys run the risk of being recorded. Please review Making Bail and contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime. Hiring an effective and competent defense attorney is the first and best step toward justice.

DNA + Facial Recognition Technology = Junk Science

Psychological Assessment in Legal Contexts: Are Courts Keeping “Junk Science”  Out of the Courtroom? – Association for Psychological Science – APS

Intriguing article in Wired featured a story where police used DNA to predict a suspect’s face and then tried running facial recognition technology on the photo.


In 2017, detectives working a cold case at the East Bay Regional Park District Police Department got an idea, one that might help them finally get a lead on the murder of Maria Jane Weidhofer. Officers had found Weidhofer, dead and sexually assaulted, at Berkeley, California’s Tilden Regional Park in 1990. Nearly 30 years later, the department sent genetic information collected at the crime scene to Parabon NanoLabs—a company that says it can turn DNA into a face.

Soon, Parabon NanoLabs provided the police department with the face of a potential suspect, generated using only crime scene evidence.

The image Parabon NanoLabs produced, called a Snapshot Phenotype Report, wasn’t a photograph. It was a 3D representation of how the company’s algorithm predicted a person could look given genetic attributes found in the DNA sample.

The face of the murderer, the company predicted, was male. He had fair skin, brown eyes and hair, no freckles, and bushy eyebrows. A forensic artist employed by the company photoshopped a nondescript, close-cropped haircut onto the man and gave him a mustache—an artistic addition informed by a witness description and not the DNA sample.

In 2017, the department published the predicted face in an attempt to solicit tips from the public. Then, in 2020, one of the detectives  asked to have the rendering run through facial recognition software. It appears to be the first known instance of a police department attempting to use facial recognition on a face algorithmically generated from crime-scene DNA.

At this point it is unknown whether the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center honored the East Bay detective’s request.


Some argue this search emphasizes the ways that law enforcement is able to mix and match technologies in unintended ways. In short, this search uses untested algorithms to single out suspects based on unknowable criteria.

“It’s really just junk science to consider something like this,” Jennifer Lynch, general counsel at civil liberties nonprofit the Electronic Frontier Foundation, tells WIRED. Running facial recognition with unreliable inputs, like an algorithmically generated face, is more likely to misidentify a suspect than provide law enforcement with a useful lead, she argues.

“There’s no real evidence that Parabon can accurately produce a face in the first place . . . It’s very dangerous, because it puts people at risk of being a suspect for a crime they didn’t commit.” ~Jennifer Lynch, General Counsel at Electronic Frontier Foundation.

According to a report released in September by the US Government Accountability Office, only 5 percent of the 196 FBI agents who have access to facial recognition technology from outside vendors have completed any training on how to properly use the tools. The report notes that the agency also lacks any internal policies for facial recognition to safeguard against privacy and civil liberties abuses.

In the past few years, facial recognition has improved considerably. In 2018, when the National Institute of Standards and Technology tested face recognition algorithms on a mug shot database of 12 million people, it found that 99.9 percent of searches identified the correct person. However, the NIST also found disparities in how the algorithms it tested performed across demographic groups.

A 2019 report from Georgetown’s Center on Privacy and Technology was written by Clare Garvie, a facial recognition expert and privacy lawyer. She found that law enforcement agencies nationwide have used facial recognition tools indiscriminately. They’ve tried using images that include blurry surveillance camera shots, manipulated photos of suspects, and even composite sketches created by traditional artists.

“Because modern facial recognition algorithms are trained neural networks, we just don’t know exactly what criteria the systems use to identify a face . . . Daisy chaining unreliable or imprecise black-box tools together is simply going to produce unreliable results. We should know this by now.” ~ Clare Garvie, Esq.

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

Should We Ban Hog-Tying By Police?

Report: Most of America's largest police departments allow officers to choke, strangle, and hog-tie people | The Week

King5 News reports that Democratic Sen. Yasmin Trudeau has sponsored a bill banning hog-tying by police. The restraint technique has long drawn concern due to the risk of suffocation, and while many cities and counties have banned the restraint technique, it remains in use in others.

The legislation comes nearly four years after Manuel Ellis, a 33-year-old Black man, died facedown with his hands and feet cuffed together behind him. The case that became a touchstone for racial justice demonstrators in the Pacific Northwest.

Senator Trudeau said she doesn’t want anyone else to experience the “dehumanization” Ellis faced before his death.

“How do we move through the need for folks to enforce the laws, but do it in a way where they’re treating people the way we expect, which is as human beings?” ~Senator Yasmin Trudeau

In the last four years, states across the U.S. have rushed to pass sweeping policing reforms.  The legislation was prompted by racial injustice protests and the death of George Floyd and others at the hands of law enforcement. Few have banned prone restraint, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The attorney general’s office in Washington recommended against using hog-tying in its model use-of-force policy released in 2022. At least four local agencies continue to permit it, according to policies they submitted to the attorney general’s office that year.

The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department said it still allows hog-tying but declined to comment on the bill. One of the department’s deputies was involved in restraining Ellis, whose face was covered by a spit-hood when he died.


Trudeau, who represents Tacoma, said she made sure Ellis’ sister, Monet Carter-Mixon, approved of her efforts before introducing the bill. Democratic Sen. John Lovick, who worked as a state trooper for more than 30 years, joined Trudeau in sponsoring the bill. Republican Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, a member of the House public safety committee, said she looked forward to learning more about the legislation.

“If it does turn out that this form of restraint for combative detainees is dangerous in any way, then I think the state should put together a grant and some money to buy and train on alternative methods to make sure that the officer and the person arrested is safe.” ~Republican Rep. Gina Mosbrucker

Please review my Search & Seizur Legal Guide and contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime. Hiring an effective and competent defense attorney is the first and best step toward justice.

Mass Incarceration Deepens Inequality and Harms Public Safety

Local Impacts of Mass Incarceration: A Community Round Table - Center for  the Humanities and the Public Sphere

A report from The Sentencing Project explores laws and policies that exacerbate inequality and disproportionately overburden communities of color. Specifically, the report gives the following examples:

  • Fines, fees, and predatory pricing exacerbate the economic precarity of justice-involved Americans and their families.
  • Employment during incarceration comes with low, and sometimes zero, wages. The average minimum wage for the most common forms of prison labor is $0.13/ hour. The average maximum is $0.52/ hour.
  • A criminal conviction creates lifelong barriers to securing steady employment and housing. Many states disqualify people with felony drug convictions from cash assistance and food stamps. Nearly all states also restrict voting rights for people with criminal convictions. Yet research has shown that post-incarceration employment, access to food stamps, and voting are associated with lower recidivism rates.
  • Finally, the high cost of mass incarceration comes at the expense of investing in effective crime prevention and drug treatment programs. These laws and policies exacerbate the marginalization of justice-involved people—who are disproportionately people of color—by eroding the economic and social buffers against crime and increasing the likelihood of police contact.


Fortunately, jurisdictions around the country have initiated promising reforms to reduce the direct and indirect harms of criminal convictions and redirect resources to more effective interventions:

  • To promote beneficial contact with support networks, some jurisdictions have made all phone calls from their prisons free.
  • To end the injustices associated with prison labor, many jurisdictions have removed language allowing “slavery and involuntary servitude” in the case of punishment for a crime. Advocates are still working to ensure that this change bans forced and unpaid labor among incarcerated workers.
  • To reduce labor market discrimination resulting from a criminal record, a majority of states and many cities “Ban the Box.” This action removes the question about conviction history from initial job applications and delays a background check until later in the hiring process.
  • A majority of states no longer impose bans on food stamps or cash assistance for people with a felony drug conviction.
  • Finally, Washington, DC, has joined Maine, Vermont, and Puerto Rico in fully untangling voting rights from criminal legal involvement by permitting its prison population to vote.
  • The federal government and states are also increasing investments in crime prevention.

My opinion? For the criminal legal system to uphold the principle of justice, policymakers and practitioners will need to protect and expand these reforms.

Also, prison is a terrible place. Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime. Hiring an effective and competent defense attorney is the first and best step toward justice.

9th Circuit: Harassment is a Crime of Violence

Immigration Courts Further Limit Legal Help Available to People Facing Deportation

In Rodriguez-Hernandez v. Garland, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a Washington conviction for Harassment is a crime of violence. This is because the statute requires the “threatened use of physical force against the person or property of another.” As such, being convicted of Harassment risks deportatation for non-citizens.


In 2015, Rodriguez-Hernandez was an immigrant living in the United States. He served with a notice to appear alleging removability on the basis that he was not admitted or paroled into the United States (U.S.). Apparently, he faced persecution in Mexico due to threats made against his family. Rodriguez-Hernandez applied for cancellation of removal and sought asylum in the U.S.

Among other things, the 9th Circuit addressed whether Rodriguez-Hernandez’s Harassment conviction was for a crime of violence under federal law.


The 9th Circuit began by saying that a noncitizen convicted of an aggravated felony is a deportable offense. It also discussed Washington’s Harassment statute in depth as follows:

RCW § 9A.46.020(1) provides that: (1) A person is guilty of harassment if: (a) Without lawful authority, the person knowingly threatens: (i) To cause bodily injury immediately or in the future to the person threatened or to any other person; or (ii) To cause physical damage to the property of a person other than the actor; or (iii) To subject the person threatened or any other person to physical confinement or restraint; or (iv) Maliciously to do any other act which is intended to substantially harm the person threatened or another with respect to his or her physical or mental health or safety; and (b) The person by words or conduct places the person threatened in reasonable fear that the threat will be carried out (emphasis supplied).

Next, the 9th Circuit addressed whether Harassment was a violent offense:

“A crime of violence requires physical force against the person or property of another . . . However, a crime of violence “does not require any particular degree of likelihood or probability that the force used will cause physical pain or injury; only potentiality. The standard is force capable of causing physical pain or injury. . . .”  ~9th Circuit Court of Appeals

With that reasoning, the 9th Circuit held that Rodriguez-Hernandez’ threats against his family were, in fact, crimes of violence. Therefore, because Rodriguez-Hernandez was convicted of a crime of violence, he was ineligible for cancellation of removal or asylum.

My opinion?

The 9th Circuit’s Rodriguez-Hernandez v. Garland, certainly makes Washington’s Harassment statute far more egrigious for citizens and non-citizens alike. It could possibly have the following impacts and consequences on current charges:

  • Misdemeanor harassment with a DV tag is now a deportable “crime of domestic violence,” regardless of sentence.
  • Felony harassment, under any subsection, with a sentence imposed of one year or more will be an aggravated felony “crime of violence.” [Previously only the “threaten to kill” subsection had been held to be a “crime of violence.”]
  • Felony harassment-DV will be a deportable “crime of domestic violence” regardless of sentence imposed.

Even worse, the decision could have terribly negative impacts on non-citizens with prior convictions:

  • Misdemeanor harassment-DV convictions:
    • If conviction occurred prior to July 22, 2011 and the sentence imposed (regardless of time suspended) was 365 days it will be an aggravated felony “crime of violence.” Aggravated felonies carry the most severe immigration consequences and bar eligibility for any discretionary relief from removal.
    • Regardless of date of conviction, it may now be deemed a deportable crime of domestic violence.
  • Felony harassment convictions:
    • Any felony harassment conviction with a sentence imposed (regardless of time suspended) of one year or more may be deemed an aggravated felony crime of violence. Previously, only felony harassment “threat to kill” was considered an aggravated felony crime of violence.
    • Any felony harassment-DV conviction may now be deemed a deportable crime of domestic violence, regardless of sentence.

How this decision impacts individual non-citizen defendants will depend on their current immigration status, their immigration and criminal history, and other individual circumstances. For case-specific information please consult with other immigration counsel knowledgeable in the interplay between criminal and immigration law.

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

High Court Withdraws Defendant’s Guilty Plea Due to Prosecutorial Misconduct

Most judges believe the criminal justice system suffers from racism - The National Judicial College

In State v. Horntved, the WA Court of Appeals held the prosecutor’s threatening statements to an African-American defendant during plea negotiations rendered the defendant’s plea involuntary.


Mr. Horntvedt is an African-American. He faced multiple charges of sex trafficking, attempted sex trafficking, and promoting prostitution. The charges resulted from a multi-jurisdiction human trafficking investigation. The State intended to seek a 66-year sentence if the case went to trial. However, it offered Mr. Horntvedt a plea agreement specifying a 25-year sentence recommendation.

On March 26, 2021, a meeting occurred at the Franklin County Corrections Center to discuss terms of a plea offer. Attendees included Mr. Horntvedt, the deputy prosecutor, Mr. Horntvedt’s attorney, and two corrections deputies. With the exception of Mr. Horntvedt, every person in attendance was white. The meeting was recorded and later transcribed.

During the meeting, the prosecuting attorney advised Mr. Horntvedt that if he took his case to trial, his jury would “not necessarily be a jury of his peers.” Gesturing to herself and Mr. Horntvedt’s attorney, both of whom are white, the prosecuting attorney stated, “It’ll be a jury of our peers, be a lot of white folks.” The trial court observed that the prosecuting attorney’s comments were improper. However, it nevertheless denied Mr. Horntvedt’s motion to withdraw his plea, finding the plea was knowing, voluntary, and intelligent.

As Mr. Horntvedt was leaving the meeting, he told one of the corrections officers, “That’s some racist shit right there.”


Soon after, Mr. Horntvedt agreed to plead guilty in accordance with the State’s offer. At the April 27, 2021, hearing, the trial court explained the significance of a guilty plea and then asked Mr. Horntvedt if anyone threatened him to get him to plead guilty. Mr. Horntvedt replied, “No.” Defense counsel then interjected, “I will just make a brief record that Mr. Horntvedt] was concerned about a statement that was made out of court, but we discussed that and that’s not really a threat. It was just a statement of fact, and we’ll leave it at that for now.”

The court did not inquire into the out-of-court statement. The court accepted Mr. Horntvedt’s guilty plea and found it was “knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily made; not the product of fear, coercion, or ignorance.” The court ordered the State to prepare a presentence investigation report and continued the case for sentencing.


At the start of the June 2, 2021, Sentencing Hearing, defense counsel informed the court that Mr. Horntvedt’s grandmother wished to play a 60-second excerpt from the recorded remarks made by the prosecutor during the plea negotiation meeting.

The court asked a few questions about the nature of the recording. It then told defense counsel his client had a choice: “Your client either wants to adhere to the plea, or he wants to attempt to withdraw it.” Defense counsel conferred with Mr. Horntvedt, then informed the court that his client wanted to withdraw the plea. Defense counsel later filed a written motion to withdraw the guilty plea on behalf of Mr. Horntvedt. In an accompanying declaration, defense counsel stated the following:

“When Mr. Horntvedt entered into the plea agreement, there was an indication that he entered into the plea agreement freely and voluntarily without coercion . . . . However, Mr. Horntvedt declared, a few days later, he no longer felt that he entered his plea agreement freely and voluntarily.” ~Defense Counsel for Mr. Horntvedt 

After considering the record, the trial court held a hearing with the parties and denied the motion to withdraw the plea. The court found the prosecutor’s statements “improper.” Nevertheless, the court determined Mr. Horntvedt’s guilty plea was knowing, voluntary, and intelligent. The court then sentenced Mr. Horntvedt to serve 25 years of confinement and 36 months of community custody.

Mr. Horntvedt appealed his convictions for felony sex trafficking. He argued his guilty plea was procured through an improper appeal to racial bias.


The WA Court of Appeals began its analysis by stating a trial court must permit a defendant to withdraw their plea in order to correct a “manifest injustice” under CrR 4.2(f)

“In this context, a manifest injustice refers to an injustice that is obvious, directly observable, overt, not obscure,” said the Court of Appeals. “One type of manifest injustice that warrants withdrawal of a plea occurs when a plea is involuntary.” The Court explained that a plea may be involuntary due to circumstances such as misinformation, threats, or mental coercion. Additionally, the Court emphasized a defendant’s constitutional right to due process protects against entry of an involuntary plea.

“Mr. Horntvedt argues his plea was involuntary in violation of due process because it was predicated on race-based prosecutorial misconduct. Our case law has yet to address whether this type of prosecutorial misconduct can render a plea involuntary. We conclude that it can. And here, based on an objective review, we conclude the prosecutor’s invocation of race to leverage a guilty plea rendered the plea involuntary as a matter of law.” ~WA Court of Appeals

The Court reasoned that fact that although the prosecutor’s comments were an apparently intentional appeal to racial bias, it does not mean that the prosecutor was actually motivated by animus. The Court stated that although misguided, the prosecutor’s comments may have been well intentioned. “Undoubtedly the prosecutor believed the plea offer was in Mr. Horntvedt’s best interests,” said the Court. “And she appeared motivated to go out of her way to make sure Mr. Horntvedt understood the risks involved in taking his case to trial.”

Nevertheless, stated the Court, the prosecutor’s apparently benign intentions were irrelevant to the objective observer standard. The objective observer analysis is concerned with the impact of racial bias—not a person’s intent.

With that the Court of Appeals remanded the trial court to allow Mr. Horntvedt to withdraw his plea and, if he withdraws it, to set this matter for trial.

My opinion? Good decision. All members of the legal community—law enforcement, attorneys, and judges— bear responsibility for addressing racial inequities in our justice system. This is hard work. None of us has all the answers and all of us will sometimes get things wrong. Yet we must move forward with humility, compassion, and dedication to constant improvement. Mr. Horntvedt has established a manifest injustice impaired the voluntariness of his guilty plea. He was rightfully given the option to withdraw.

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