Category Archives: Assault

Overcoming Implicit Bias

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In State v. Berhe, the WA Supreme Court held that a trial court failed to adequately oversee allegations of racism and implicit bias among jurors deliberating in a Shoreline man’s first degree murder and first degree assault trial in 2016.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

In 2016, a King County jury convicted Tomas Berhe, then 31, of murder and assault in a shooting in Seattle’s Eastlake neighborhood. Mr. Behre is African-American. He was convicted of killing 21-year-old Everett Williams, whom Berhe thought had shot his cousin. A second man who was in the Eastlake alley with Williams was also shot.

After the trial concluded with a guilty verdict in early 2016, the sixth juror contacted both defense attorneys and the court with concern, according to the opinion. Weeks later, Berhe asked the judge for a new trial and requested an evidentiary hearing to investigate the allegations of racial bias, among other concerns.

In a written declaration presented by the defense, the sixth juror said she was the only African American on the jury in the trial of an African American defendant and described being the last holdout among four jurors who had initially leaned against conviction.

By the trial’s end, the sixth juror said she only agreed to vote for a guilty verdict because she felt “emotionally and mentally exhausted from the personal and implicit race-based derision from other jurors,” the opinion quotes the declaration as saying.

The juror said others had mocked her as stupid and illogical when she suggested that Berhe could have taken the murder weapon from someone else. She described two jurors as taunting her, saying that she would “let him walk,” and said she felt mocked after several jurors interpreted something she’d said as commentary on police misconduct toward African Americans.

Responding to the defense’s declaration, prosecutors sent questions to several jurors asking if they themselves, or another juror, had done anything to the sixth juror that was motivated by racial bias during deliberations. Results were not conclusive, and the Superior Court judge found insufficient evidence of juror misconduct and denied a request for a new trial.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

First, the WA Supreme Court described how racial bias harms trial verdicts:

“Unlike isolated incidents of juror misbehavior, racial bias is a common and pervasive evil that causes systemic harm to the administration of justice. Also unlike other types of juror misconduct, racial bias is uniquely difficult to identify.”

Second, the Court reasoned that Courts must carefully oversee any inquiry into whether explicit or implicit racial bias influenced a jury verdict.

“Rather than permitting the parties alone to investigate allegations of racial bias, once a claim of racial bias is raised, inquiries into the influence of that racial bias on a jury’s verdict must be conducted under the court’s supervision and on the record,” said the Court. “Therefore, as soon as any party becomes aware that there are sufficient facts to support allegations that racial bias was a factor in the verdict, the court and opposing counsel must be notified.”

Third, the Court reasoned that the unique challenge of assessing implicit racial bias requires a searching inquiry before a court can decide whether an evidentiary hearing is needed. “Implicit racial bias is a unique problem that requires tailored solutions,” said the Court. “Therefore, when it is alleged that racial bias was a factor in the verdict, the trial court must oversee and conduct a thorough investigation that is tailored to the specific allegations presented before deciding whether to hold an evidentiary hearing and before ruling on a defendant’s motion for a new trial,” said the Court.

The Court concluded that the trial court abused its discretion by failing to exercise adequate oversight over the investigations into juror 6’s allegations of racial bias and by failing to conduct a sufficient inquiry before denying Berhe’s motion for a new trial without an evidentiaiy hearing. “We therefore vacate the trial court’s order denying Berhe’s motion for a new trial and remand for further proceedings.”

My opinion? Excellent decision. Groundbreaking, even. In what could be a first-of-its-kind rule nationwide, the judges’ opinion establishes procedures for trial court judges to investigate implicit racial bias reported during jury deliberations.

This isn’t the first time our Supreme Court has openly exercised judicial activism. In April, the state Supreme Court published General Rule 37, a rule for courts saying that challenges during jury selection based on implicit, institutional and unconscious race and ethnic biases should be rejected, she noted. Now, similar protection from bias extends into the jury room.

Excellent decision.

Self-Defense in Jail

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In State v. Tullar, the WA Court of Appeals held that a defendant was entitled to a self-defense instruction even though he did not testify that he feared his opponent would badly beat him. The defendant may establish his subjective fear by circumstantial evidence through the testimony of others.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

On December 31, 2017, a correctional officer  Millward was making his welfare checks on inmates at the Okanogan County jail.  He came across Johnathan Cook’s cell. Officer Millward saw Cook facing away from the door, and Officer Millward could tell something was wrong. Officer Millward asked Cook to turn around, and he noticed bruising and a laceration on Cook’s face, a bloodstained shirt, and bruising on his ear. Officer Millward took Cook to get medical attention. Cook was diagnosed with a fractured nose and a fractured left eye socket.

Mr. Cook said he was assaulted by fellow inmate Brandon Tullar.

Jail authorities confronted Tullar, who denied fighting Cook. Despite his denials, there were noticeable marks on Tullar’s hands and his elbow, as well as red marks on his neck.  The State charged Tullar with assault in the second degree. Tullar asserted the defenses of self-defense and mutual combat.

Tullar’s case went to trial. He withdrew his claim of self-defense and proceeded with the defense of mutual combat. He then called two fellow inmates who witnessed the fight. According to both inmates, Cook and Tullar were arguing, and Cook challenged Tullar to a fight. Cook and Tullar then went upstairs to Cook’s cell, with Tullar going first. Once inside the cell, Cook hit Tullar from behind. Cook put Tullar in a chokehold, but Tullar escaped. They exchanged punches until Cook gave up.

Despite the testimony from witnesses, the trial court denied Tullar’s jury instruction for self-defense because Tullar did not testify. The trial court also noted that self-defense was inconsistent with mutual combat. The jury found Tullar guilty of assault in the second degree. Tullar timely appealed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals gave background on Washington’s self-defense laws. In Washington, the use of force is lawful when used by a person about to be injured, provided that the force used is not more than necessary. Because self-defense is a lawful act, it negates the mental state and the “unlawful force” elements of second degree assault. Importantly, the Court also reasoned that self-defense does not require testimony from the defendant.

“Evidence of self-defense may come from whatever source and the evidence does not need to be the defendant’s own testimony.”

Here, Tullar’s witnesses testified that Cook hit Tullar from behind and then put him in a chokehold. From this, a trier of fact could infer that Tullar reasonably feared that if he did not fight back, he would be rendered unconscious. Additionally, Tullar’s witnesses testified that Tullar stopped fighting when Cook gave up. From this, a trier of fact could find that Tullar used no more force than necessary. A self-defense instruction was warranted to let the finder of fact determine whether it believed Cook or whether it believed Tullar’s witnesses.

“The trial court’s decision to not instruct the jury on self-defense virtually guaranteed Tullar’s conviction,” said the Court of Appeals. “The trial court’s refusal to give a self-defense instruction thus prejudiced Tullar.”

Consequently, the Court of Appeals reversed Tullar’s conviction.

My opinion? Good decision. Self-defense is a substantive defense which can guarantee a full acquittal if the court allows the instruction at trial. It shouldn’t matter whether the defendant testifies if trustworthy witnesses can testify and lay the groundwork for the defense. Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges and self-defense is a viable defense.

Words Alone

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In State v. Kee, the WA Court of Appeals held that words alone are not sufficient to make a defendant the primary aggressor in an altercation.

BACKGROUND FACTS

The State charged Ms. Kee with the second degree assault of Mr. Ostrander based on an
incident on August 1, 2016. Kee punched Ostrander in the face and broke his nose.

Apparently, they exchanged words when Kee was walking down the street playing her radio loud. Eventually, they engaged in mutual combat by hitting each other back and forth several times.  Although Ostrander struck Kee in the face several times, Kee’s final blow to Ostrander broke Ostrander’s nose.

The case proceeded to a jury trial. Kee’s defense was self-defense.

At trial, the State proposed a first aggressor jury instruction. Kee objected to the instruction, arguing that it was not supported by the evidence presented at trial. The trial court disagreed and gave the following first aggressor jury instruction:

“No person may, by any intentional act reasonably likely to provoke a belligerent response, create a necessity for acting in self-defense and thereupon use, offer or attempt to use force upon or toward another person. Therefore, if you find beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was the aggressor, and that [the] defendant’s acts and conduct provoked or commenced the fight, then self-defense is not available as a defense.”

The jury found Kee guilty of second degree assault. She appealed on arguments that the trial court erred because its jury instruction denied her the ability to argue her theory of self-defense. Specifically, Kee argued there was insufficient evidence to justify a first aggressor jury instruction because words alone do not constitute sufficient provocation.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSION

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals agreed with Kee. It held that although sufficient evidence supported the first aggressor jury instruction, the trial court nevertheless erred in giving the jury instruction without also instructing the jury that words alone are not sufficient to make a defendant the first aggressor.

The Court reasoned that generally, a defendant cannot invoke a self-defense claim when she is the first aggressor and provokes an altercation. Also, a first aggressor jury instruction is appropriate when there is credible evidence from which a jury can reasonably determine that the defendant provoked the need to act in self-defense.

Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals also reasoned that although there was evidence of a physical altercation,  their interaction started with a verbal altercation. Therefore, the evidence supported a finding that Kee’s words, rather than her physical acts, first provoked the physical altercation.

“By failing to instruct the jury that words alone are insufficient provocation for purposes of
the first aggressor jury instruction, the trial court did not ensure that the relevant self-defense legal standards were manifestly apparent to the average juror,” said the Court of Appeals. “Moreover, the trial court’s instructions affected Kee’s ability to argue that she acted in self-defense.”

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed Kee’s conviction.

My opinion? Good decision. I’ve conducted many jury trials involving defendants who acted in self-defense to assault allegations. Under the law, self-defense is an affirmative defense to assault charges. In my experience, prosecutors combat a defendant’s self-defense theories by trying to prove the defendant was the primary aggressors. If successful, then the jury cannot consider whether the defendant acted in self-defense. The “aggressor “juror instruction exists to  nullify, circumvent and/or defeat a defendant’s self-defense claim.

State v. Kee is pertinent to the issue of whether words alone exchanged between two participants who willingly fight each other – whether words alone – allow the jury to decide if the defendant was the primary aggressor. Of course not! By themselves, words are not enough, and the Court of Appeals agreed. Indeed, words can be quite motivational for people to engage in mutual combat similar to the parties in State v. Kee. And by the way, mutual combat is lawful because Washington imposes no duty for either party to retreat from a fight.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges of assault. It’s important to hire an experienced defense attorney who knows the law, is aware of possible defenses and is willing to take the case to trial.

Right to Impartial Jury

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In State v. Phillips, the WA Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not violate an African-American defendant’s right to an impartial jury by dismissing a prospective juror despite the juror’s feelings that African American men are more prone to violence.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On July 1, 2016, Mr. Phillips came home late after his wife Ms. Philips was in bed asleep with their infant daughter. Ms. Philips told Mr. Phillips to leave her alone. Their daughter called 911 and reported that Mr. Phillips was hitting Ms. Philips. When Mr. Phillips saw his daughter was calling the police, he knocked the phone from her hands.

King County Sheriff’s deputies responded to the 911 call and found the house in chaos. Mr. Phillips was arrested and booked into jail. From jail, Mr. Phillips repeatedly called Mrs. Philips demanding that she get him out and expressing his anger at the police having been called. Mr. Phillips was charged with Assault in the Second Degree Domestic Violence (DV) and Tampering With a Witness.

Jury Selection

During jury selection, the trial judge asked if any of the jurors had personal experience
with domestic violence. Juror 10 was among the members who raised their hand. When asked to elaborate, he explained that his sister and his wife’s sister-in-law were both involved in abusive relationships with intimate partners.

Juror #10 also revealed an experience in college after an intramural basketball game when an African American player on the opposing team assaulted him. Juror 10 explained, “nothing came of it, but it left an emotional imprint.” He further elaborated,

“And this is an emotional truth. I don’t live this way; I don’t believe this; but I’m also aware that feelings happen in reality that black men are more prone to violence . . . It was also notable that afterwards when, you know, the gym supervisor was called and there was just a huddle on the spot, and then, of course there was denial and, you know, dismissiveness of it. And that’s another narrative; that those who are violent try to get out of it; so those are two personal emotions imprints that are there, as well.”

From these comments, both the State Prosecutor and Mr. Philips’ defense attorney asked numerous questions to Juror #10. Ultimately, neither the State nor defense counsel exercised a peremptory challenge or moved to strike Juror #10 for cause. Later, Juror #10 served on the jury.

Ultimately, the jury found Phillips guilty of second degree assault and found the State prove aggravating circumstances. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on the witness tampering charge, and it was dismissed. Mr. Philips was sentenced to 120 months.

He appealed. One of the issues was whether Juror #10 should have been struck from serving on the jury panel.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals upheld Mr. Philips’ conviction.

The Court started by giving a substantial amount of background on the issue of jury selection. It said the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution, and article 1, section 22, of the Washington Constitution, guarantee a criminal defendant the right to trial by an impartial jury.

Furthermore, in order to ensure this constitutional right, the trial court will excuse a juror for cause if the juror’s views would prevent or substantially impair the performance of his duties as a juror in accordance with his instructions and his oath. The presence of a biased juror cannot be harmless; the error requires a new trial without a showing of prejudice.

Also, at trial, either party has a statutory right to challenge a prospective juror for cause. “Actual bias is a ground for challenging a juror for cause,” said the Court of Appeals. “Actual bias occurs when there is the existence of a state of mind on the part of the juror in reference to the action, or to either party, which satisfies the court that the challenged person cannot try the issue impartially and without prejudice to the substantial rights of the party challenging.”

Furthermore, Under State v. Irby, RCW 2.36.110 and CrR 6.4 it is the judge’s duty to excuse potential jurors from  jury service if they have manifested unfitness as a juror by reason of bias, prejudice, indifference, inattention or any physical or mental defect. These court precedents, statutes and court rules give a trial judge an independent obligation to excuse a juror, regardless of inaction by counsel or the defendant.

However, the Court of Appeals ultimately reasoned that the present case was distinguishable from Irby.

Also, the Court of Appeals reasoned that defense counsel was alert to the possibility of biased jurors.

“Defense counsel actively questioned Juror #10, including questioning whether, despite juror 10’s concerns, the juror would follow the court’s instructions and base his decision on the evidence presented,” reasoned the court of Appeals. “As a result, defense counsel did not challenge Juror #10. This suggests that defense counsel observed something during voir dire that led counsel to believe Juror #10 could be fair.”

Furthermore, the Court of Appeals said it was also significant that Phillips used his peremptory challenges to strike several jurors, but had one peremptory challenge remaining when he accepted the jury, including Juror #10. “Again, this suggests that defense counsel either wanted juror 10 on the jury, or did not want one or both the next potential jurors on the panel,” said the Court of Appeals.

Consequently, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in failing to excuse Juror #10 for cause and upheld Mr. Philips’ conviction.

My opinion? Bad decision.

I’ve conducted nearly 40 jury trials, which is more experience than most criminal defense attorneys have. In my experience, potential jurors have a tendency to mitigate, justify, deny, back-pedal and just plain cover up any biases they have. It’s human nature. Therefore, if any juror states they have a biases which prejudice a criminal defendant, then that juror should be excused. Period.

Unfortunately, it appears Defense Counsel also failed to strike Juror #10. That is unfortunate as well. As the judge said, however, this may have been strategic. Perhaps Defense Counsel wanted to avoid impaneling a potential juror who was actually more biased than Juror #10. We don’t know.

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

Online Research By Juror

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In State v. Arndt, the WA Court of Appeals upheld a defendant’s numerous high-level criminal convictions even though one of the jurors performed online research against the court’s instructions.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

On February 23, 2014, Ms. Arndt and her boyfriend, Mr. Veeder Jr., spent the night at their
friends’ home. Late that night, the house caught fire. Everyone in the home escaped except Mr. Veeder, who died.

After an investigation, the State charged Arndt with murder in the first degree with an
aggravating circumstance of arson in the first degree, felony murder in the first degree with
aggravating circumstances, arson in the first degree, and six counts of assault in the second degree.

The jury found Arndt guilty as charged. The trial court sentenced Arndt to life in prison without the possibility of release or parole.

Months after the verdict, Juror 2 approached a woman whom she did not know was the
sister of Arndt’s trial attorney. Juror 2 said that in Arndt’s trial, she struggled with the term
“premeditation.” She further related that to better understand the term, she looked it up on the internet. The attorney’s sister told her brother what she had learned.

Defense investigator James Harris then met with Juror 2, explained that he worked for Arndt’s trial attorney, and asked to speak with her about her experience as a juror. Juror 2 spoke with Harris and told him that during deliberations she did internet research on the word “premeditation.” Juror 2 provided Harris with additional information, including sites she may have viewed. The State’s investigator also interviewed Juror 2.

Arndt moved for a new trial on grounds of juror misconduct. At a hearing on the motion,
the court heard testimony from Juror 2 and Harris. Juror 2 testified that she had researched the term “premeditation” and had found different sites, but did not remember whether she had viewed any of the specific sites she had showed Harris when he earlier interviewed her. She said that she looked at a couple different definitions, but it was the word “short” that made her understand. Juror 2 also testified that she had not shared her
research with other jurors.

Ultimately, the trial court held Arndt should not get a new trial:

“In substance, the Court finds that the definitions viewed by Juror #2 were indistinguishable to the jury instruction and were consistent with the law. Because the known research results, as presented to the Court, were consistent with the jury instruction on premeditation and the law, the Court is satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that Juror #2’s research could not have affected the verdict. Therefore, the motion for a new trial is denied.”

Arndt appealed to the WA Court of Appeals.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Court of Appeals reasoned that Juror 2 committed misconduct. Also, the consideration of novel or extrinsic evidence by a jury is misconduct and can be grounds for a new trial. Furthermore, juror use of extraneous evidence is misconduct and entitles a defendant to a new trial, if the defendant has been prejudiced.

“Once juror misconduct is established, prejudice is presumed,” said the Court of Appeals. “The court must grant a new trial unless it is satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that the extrinsic evidence did not contribute to the verdict.”

The Court of Appeals also reviewed the trial court’s instructions to the jury on the definition of “Premeditation.” It stated the following:

“Premeditated means thought over beforehand. When a person, after any deliberation, forms an intent to take human life, the killing may follow immediately after the formation of the settled purpose and it will still be premeditated. Premeditation must involve more than a moment in point of time. The law requires some time, however long or short, in which a design to kill is deliberately formed.”

Finally, the Court of Appeals reasoned that although the exact websites Juror 2 visited and the precise definitions she viewed are unknown, the part of those definitions that had an impression on her and affected her verdict were the word “short” and phrase “however short.”

“As the trial court ruled, these definitions were indistinguishable to the jury instruction and were consistent with the law,” said the Court of Appeals. “This ruling is sufficient to satisfy beyond a reasonable doubt that the extrinsic evidence did not contribute to the verdict and to overcome the presumption of prejudice. The court did not abuse its discretion.”

With that the Court of Appeals concluded the trial court did not abuse its discretion by concluding that Juror 2’s research did not contribute to the verdict. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals affirmed Arndt’s conviction.

My opinion? The Court’s decision is frustrating. It placed too much weight on whether the juror’s misconduct prejudiced the defendant. Instead, the Court should have focused on the fact that juror misconduct happened in the first place.

If you stole a candy bar from a grocery store, would your shoplifting affect the store’s bottom line? Probably not. However, the simple fact that you stole a candy bar is, in fact, a crime which demands an effective and just remedy. Otherwise, a crime which goes unpunished is essentially not a crime, correct?

Here, Juror 2 blatantly disregarded the court’s instructions to not perform online research. Did Juror 2’s research affect her decision on the verdict? Did Juror 2 discuss her research with other jurors behind closed doors when they deliberated the case? Therein lies the threat to justice; not only to this defendant, but criminal defendants everywhere. Online research should not be tolerated, even if it can be willed away away as having no impact on the outcome. Bad decision.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges.

Unlawful Opinion Testimony of Police Officer

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In State v. Winborne, the WA Court of Appeals held that an officer’s use of the word “reckless” or “eluding” while testifying in a Felony Eluding trial was improper opinion testimony.

BACKGROUND FACTS

The State of Washington charged Tishawn Winborne with Theft of a Motor Vehicle, two counts of Attempting to Elude a Police Vehicle, one count of Second Degree Assault, and one count of Third Degree Assault. The assault charges arise from his resisting
of police officers.

At the start of trial, Tishawn Winborne made a motion in limine to prohibit the State’s witnesses from testifying regarding ultimate factual issues such as whether Winborne “eluded” or drove “recklessly.” However, the trial court denied the motion. For those who don’t know, a motion in limine is a pretrial motion asking that certain evidence be found inadmissible, and that it not be referred to or offered at trial.

During trial, State witnesses repeatedly testified to Tishawn Winborne’s driving “recklessly” or “eluding” law enforcement. At the close of the State’s case, the trial court dismissed the Theft of a Motor Vehicle charge because of insufficient evidence.

The jury found Tishawn Winborne guilty of both counts of Attempting to Elude a Police Vehicle, but acquitted Winborne of both assault charges.

Winborne appealed. Among other issues, he challenged the trial court’s denial of his motion in limine to prohibit any witness from testifying that Winborne drove “recklessly” or “eluded” police.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that no witness, lay or expert, may testify to his or her opinion as to the guilt of a defendant, whether by direct statement or inference. Whether testimony provides an improper opinion turns on the circumstances of the case, including (1) the type of witness involved, (2) the specific nature of the testimony, (3) the nature of the charges, (4) the type of defense, and (5) the other evidence before the trier of fact.

Next, the Court held this case was similar to the controlling precedent of State v. Farr-Lenzini:

“The state trooper in State v. Farr-Lenzini did not employ the word “reckless” in his testimony as did officers in Tishawn Winborne’s trial. Nevertheless, the same reasoning behind excluding the testimony applies. An officer can testify to his observations of the driving of the defendant without drawing conclusions assigned to the jury.”

Finally, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court abused its discretion by denying Tishawn Winborne’s motion in limine. It reasoned that the State’s police officer witnesses testified by direct statements to Tishawn Winborne’s guilt. “Whether Tishawn Winborne drove ‘recklessly’ or ‘eluded’ the officer is an element of attempting to elude a police vehicle,” said the Court. “A law enforcement officer’s improper opinion testimony may be particularly prejudicial because it carries a special aura of reliability.”

With that, the Court of Appeals reversed Tishawn Winbome’s convictions for Felony Eluding a Police Officer and remanded for a new trial.

My opinion? Good decision. The Court of Appeals is correct in saying that a police officer’s improper opinion testimony may be particularly prejudicial because it carries a special aura of reliability. This is true. Instinctively, most jurors give much weight to the testimony of police officers. And the police officers know that. For those reasons, it is imperative for defense attorneys to argue pretrial motions in limine asking the trial judge to prohibit the police officers from offering their opinions at trial and to take exception to the court’s adverse rulings; thus preserving the issue for appeal. Kudos to the defense attorney in this case.

DV & Cohabitating Parties

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In State v. Shelley, the WA Court of Appeals reversed the the defendant’s domestic violence convictions and held that a man, who is cohabitating with a woman and her child, does not necessarily have a “family or household” relationship to the child.

BACKGROUND FACTS

From late 2013 until April 2015, Defendant Aaron Shelley, his girlfriend Cheri Burgess, and her son from another relationship, A.S., lived with Shelley’s aunt and uncle.

On the evening of April 29, 2015, Shelley became angry and wanted Burgess to leave the house. After attempting to force Burgess out of the house, Shelley placed a knife against Burgess’s throat and stated he was going to kill her because she was not leaving. Shelley’s uncle, Mr. Sovey, intervened and convinced Shelley to give him the knife.

While Burgess and Sovey were talking in the kitchen, Shelley took A.S. out to the car. When Burgess confronted Shelley, Shelley grabbed A.S. by the throat. A.S. made a choking noise, “like he couldn’t breathe.” And when Burgess tried to grab A.S., Shelley said, “If you don’t leave or get away, I’m just gonna squeeze him, keep squeezing him. Get away from me. Leave, leave. Just effing leave. Leave my boy.” After Sovey came outside, Burgess walked away and called the police.

The State charged Shelley with, among other things, two counts of second degree assault as to Burgess, one count of second degree assault of a child as to A.S., and one count of felony harassment for threatening to kill A.S. The State alleged each crime was one of domestic violence.

The jury convicted Shelley of one count of assault as to Burgess. The jury found this was a crime of domestic violence because Shelley and Burgess were members of the same family or household. The jury also convicted Shelley of one count of assault as to A.S. and one count of felony harassment.

Shelley appealed on the issue of whether he was properly convicted of domestic violence acts against A.S.

COURT’S ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSIONS

The WA Court of Appeals reasoned that under RCW 10.99.020(3) and RCW 26.50.010(6), “family or household members” includes the following:

“Spouses, former spouses, persons who have a child in common regardless of whether they have been married or have lived together at any time, adult persons related by blood or marriage, adult persons who are presently residing together or who have resided together in the past, persons sixteen years of age or older who are presently residing together or who have resided together in the past and who have or have had a dating relationship, persons sixteen years of age or older with whom a person sixteen years of age or older has or has had a dating relationship, and persons who have a biological or legal parent-child relationship, including stepparents and stepchildren and grandparents and grandchildren.”

“The State had the burden of establishing Shelley and A.S. had a biological or
legal parent-child relationship,” said the Court. “It is undisputed that Shelley is not A.S.’s biological father because Shelley and Burgess did not meet until she was six months
pregnant.”

The Court also raised and dismissed the State’s arguments that Shelley’s presumption of parentage was proven under RCW 26.26.116 of the Uniform Parentage Act. “The State did not present the trial court with any evidence of such a judicial determination,” said the Court of Appeals. “On this record, the State’s presumptive parent and de facto parent
theories fail.”

The Court concluded that because A.S. and Shelley are not family or household members, the domestic violence special verdicts on count 3, second-degree assault of a child, and count 4, felony harassment, were invalid as a matter of law.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with DV crimes involving the children of unmarried boyfriends/girlfriends or domestic partners.  Like this case shows, the Prosecution may be unlawfully charging defendants with DV crimes when it lacks the authority to do so.

Unlawful Imprisonment Evidence

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In  State v. Scanlan, the WA Court of Appeals upheld the defendant’s conviction for Unlawful Imprisonment because there was evidence that  the victim told his doctor that he had been imprisoned in his home for two days against his will by the Defendant.

BACKGROUND

In 2013, Bagnell, an 82-year-old widower, was living independently in the Federal Way home that he had shared with his wife of more than 50 years. Sometime in 2013, Bagnell met Scanlan, a woman 30 years his junior. They quickly became friends and about two months later, Scanlan moved in with Bagnell.

On October 16, 2014, the Federal Way Police Department responded to Bagnell’s home after receiving a 911 hang-up call. The officers found Bagnell and Scanlan inside the home. Scanlan was uninjured, but Bagnell, who was dressed in a t-shirt and underwear, had wounds on his head, arms, and legs. After questioning Scanlan, the officers arrested her. As a result of the incident, a court order was issued prohibiting Scanlan from contacting Bagnell.

A few weeks later, on November 6, 2014, Bagnell’s adult children grew concerned after Bagnell missed a scheduled meeting with them. After trying and failing to reach him on his cell phone and home phone, Bagnell’s children went to Bagnell’s house to check on him.

When Bagnell’s children arrived at his house, they found it dark. Its blinds were
drawn and all of the interior and exterior lights were out. The children thought this was
odd and moved up to the front porch to try to see inside. From the porch they could see the glow of the television and shadowy movements. They rang the doorbell and
knocked but received no answer. Bagnell’s children were alarmed and opened the door
with an emergency key.

Inside, they found Bagnell’s home in disarray. Trails of blood ran across the carpet and up the stairs, gouges marked the walls, and broken household items and debris lay on the floor. A golf club leaned against a wall, and a hammer lay on a coffee table. A crowbar was on the dining room table, and a broken broom handle stood in a garbage bucket in the middle of the family room’s floor. Bagnell sat alone in a chair in the family room, dazed, bleeding from several wounds, and severely bruised such that “His face was black.” Bagnell at first appeared to be unconscious, but he began to respond to their attempts to rouse him as they called 911.

Roughly 15 minutes later, Federal Way Police Officer Brian Bassage arrived at Bagnell’s home. Just as Officer Bassage arrived, Scanlan was found hiding under a blanket in the front seat of a car in the garage. As Officer Bassage removed her from the car, Bagnell’s daughter yelled out at her that she had “just beat her father half to death, that there was blood everywhere.” Scanlan shouted back, “It’s not that bad.” At the police station, Scanlan claimed to be injured. The police took pictures, but did not detect any significant injuries. Scanlan did not receive medical treatment.

Bagnell was transported to the hospital where he was treated in the emergency room for his injuries which included: extensive bruising all over his body, four large open wounds on his legs, wounds on his arms, and fractures on both hands. Bagnell was treated in the emergency room by emergency room Nurse Catherine Gay and Dr. Robert Britt. Bagnell also met with social worker Jemina Skjonsby.

After treatment, but prior to his release, Bagnell met with Federal Way Police Department Detective Adrienne Purcella from about midnight to 1:00 a.m. Bagnell signed a form medical records waiver at 12:55 a.m.

Bagnell did not testify at trial. However, the trial court admitted statements that Bagnell made to medical providers in the emergency room, as well as subsequent statements made to his primary care physician and wound care medical team.

In November 2015, the State charged Scanlan with assault in the second degree (count 1), felony violation of a court order (count 2), unlawful imprisonment (count 3), and assault in the fourth degree (count 4). All counts contained a domestic violence allegation. The jury found Scanlan guilty of assault in the second degree, felony violation of a court order, and unlawful imprisonment.

Scanlon appealed her convictions She contends that, among other issues, there was insufficient evidence to support the charge of unlawful imprisonment.

COURT’S ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals held there is sufficient evidence of unlawful imprisonment.

The Court reasoned that when reviewing a claim for the sufficiency of the evidence, it considers whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Furthermore, all reasonable inferences from the evidence must be drawn in favor of the State and interpreted most strongly against the defendant. A claim of insufficiency admits the truth of the State’s evidence and all inferences that reasonably can be drawn therefrom. Finally, circumstantial evidence is as reliable as direct evidence. However, inferences based on circumstantial evidence must be reasonable and cannot be based on speculation.

In this case, the State charged Scanlan with unlawful imprisonment under RCW 9A.40.040 which states: “A person is guilty of unlawful imprisonment if he or she knowingly restrains another person.” To prove restraint, the State had to prove that Scanlan restricted Bagnell’s movements (a) without consent and (b) without legal authority, in a manner which interfered substantially with his liberty. Restraint is without consent if it is accomplished by physical force, intimidation, or deception.

The Court reasoned that first, Bagnell told his physician Dr. Britt that he had been in his home for two days, that he had been imprisoned, or at least held in his home, against his will. Also the physician’s assistant testified that Bagnell told her that Scanlan locked him in a room: “He was living with a girlfriend at the time who had locked him in a room and had beat him with a candlestick, a broom and a hammer over multiple areas,” said the physician’s assistant, who also testified at trial.

Second, circumstantial evidence supports the inference that Scanlan used force or the threat of force to restrain Bagnell. Bagnell’s children found the front door locked, their father in a stupor, the house in disarray, and a broken broom, hammer, golf club, and crowbar. Bagnell’s children were also unable to contact their father by phone. Additionally, Bagnell’s cell phone was found broken, a battery was found to have been removed from a cordless phone in the home, and another phone was found to have no dial tone.

“Viewed in the light most favorable to the State, this is sufficient evidence of unlawful imprisonment.”

With that, the Court of Appeals affirmed Scanlan’s conviction for unlawful imprisonment.

Burglary of Inmate’s Cell?

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In State v. Dunleavy, the WA Court of Appeals held that a jail cell is a separate building for purposes of supporting a burglary charge/conviction, and the that the victim’s jail cell need not be secured or occupied at the time of the crime in order to support the charge.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Dunleavy was an inmate at the Walla Walla County jail in Unit E. In Unit E, there are eight cells capable of housing two inmates per cell. The cells open into a day room. In Unit E, the cell doors are open from about 6:00 a.m. until 9:00 p.m. An inmate is permitted to close his cell door, but if he does, the door will remain locked until opened the next morning.

Dunleavy was hungry one day, so he asked inmate Kemp LaMunyon for a tortilla. LaMunyon responded that he did not have enough to share, but would buy more later and share with Dunleavy at that time. Dunleavy later bullied LaMunyon and threatened to “smash out.” Soon after, inmate John Owen attacked LaMunyon. During the attack, Dunleavy snuck into LaMunyon’s jail cell and took some of LaMunyon’s food. LaMunyon was seriously injured by Owen. Jail security investigated the fight and the theft, and concluded that the two were related. Security believed that Dunleavy staged the fight between Owen and LaMunyon to give him an opportunity to take LaMunyon’s food.

Because of the seriousness of LaMunyon’s injuries, and because security concluded that the fight and the theft were related, the jail referred charges to the local prosecuting authority. The State charged Dunleavy with second degree burglary, third degree theft, and second degree assault. After the State presented its case, Dunleavy moved to dismiss the second degree burglary charge on the basis that an inmate’s cell is a separate building. The trial court considered the parties’ arguments, denied Dunleavy’s motion to dismiss, and the case continued forward.

Dunleavy called one witness who testified that Dunleavy did not conspire with Owen to assault LaMunyon. After closing arguments, the case was submitted to the jury. The jury began deliberating at 1:30 p.m. At 4:00 p.m., the jury sent a written note to the trial court through the bailiff. The note asked, “Are the Walla Walla county jail policies legally binding? Are they considered law? What if we are not unanimous on a certain count?” The trial court, counsel, and Dunleavy discussed how the trial court should respond. The trial court’s response read, “You are to review the evidence, the exhibits, and the instructions, and continue to deliberate in order to reach a verdict.” No party objected to this response.

Less than one hour later, the jury returned a verdict finding Mr. Dunleavy guilty of second degree burglary and third degree theft but not guilty of second degree assault.

ISSUES

Dunleavy appealed on the issues of whether (1) jail cells are separate buildings for purposes of proving burglary, and (2) whether there is an  implied license for unlawful entry.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

1. Jail cells are separate buildings for purposes of proving burglary.

The Court of Appeals reasoned that under statute, a person is guilty of burglary in the second degree if, with intent to commit a crime against a person or property therein, he or she enters or remains unlawfully in a building other than a vehicle or a dwelling. Furthermore, Washington law defines “building” in relevant part as any structure used for lodging of persons; each unit of a building consisting of two or more units separately secured or occupied is a separate building.

With these legal definitions in mind, the court noted that that a jail is a building used for lodging of persons, specifically inmates. Each cell is secured at night and an inmate can secure his cell from others. Furthermore, each cell is separately occupied by two inmates. “We discern no ambiguity,” said the Court of Appeals. “A jail cell is a separate building for purposes of proving burglary.”

2. No implied license for unlawful entry.

The Court of Appeals raised and dismissed Dunleavy’s arguments that he did not commit burglary when he entered LaMunyon’s cell because his entry was lawful from an implied license to enter the cell.

Contrary to Dunleavy’s argument, the Court explained that under Washington law, a person ‘enters or remains unlawfully’ in or upon premises when he or she is not then licensed, invited, or otherwise privileged to so enter or remain.”

The Court of Appeals explained that the victim, LaMunyon, did not give Dunleavy permission to enter his cell. Furthermore, the Jail Sergeant testified that inmates are told when they are first booked into jail that they may not enter another inmate’s jail cell.

“Inmates are subject to punishment for breaking these rules, including criminal charges,” said the Court of Appeals. “A rational jury could find beyond a reasonable doubt that Dunleavy entered LaMunyon’s cell unlawfully.”

Consequently, the Court of Appeals affirmed Dunleavy’s conviction, yet remanded for resentencing on the separate issue that his offender score was incorrectly calculated.

Domestic Violence & Cell Phone Privacy

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In State v. Smith, the WA Supreme Court held that the accidental recording of a domestic violence confrontation between the defendant and his wife was admissible at trial and did not violate the defendant’s rights under the Washington Privacy Act.

BACKGROUND FACTS

John Garrett Smith and Sheryl Smith were married in 2011. On the evening of June 2, 2013, the Smiths engaged in an argument at their home that turned violent. During the incident, Mr. Smith used the home’s landline cordless phone to dial his cell phone in an attempt to locate the cell phone. The cell phone’s voice mail system recorded the incident because Mr. Smith left the landline open during his attempt to find his cell phone. This voice mail contained sounds of a woman screaming, a male claiming the woman brought the assault on herself, more screams from the female and name calling by the male.

Mr. Smith punched and strangled Mrs. Smith to the point of unconsciousness and then left their home. When Mrs. Smith regained consciousness, her eyes were black and swollen shut, her face was swollen and bleeding, and she had difficulty breathing.’ Mrs. Smith was hospitalized for several days due to the severity of her injuries, which included a facial fracture and a concussion. For months after the assault, she suffered severe head pain, double vision, nausea, and vertigo.

The State charged Mr. Smith with attempted first degree murder, attempted second degree murder, first degree assault, and second degree assault for the incident.

The Motion to Suppress & Trial

Prior to trial, Mr. Smith filed a motion to suppress the audio recording found on his cell phone that captured part of the incident, including him threatening to kill his wife. Mr. Smith argued that Ms. Williams had unlawfully intercepted the recording pursuant to the Washington Privacy Act, when she listened to the voice message left on his phone. The trial court denied the motion to suppress, ruling that Ms. Williams’s conduct did not constitute an interception. The court also ruled that Washington’s Privacy Act, which prohibits the recording of private conversations without consent, did not apply because the information was accidentally recorded.

The case proceeded to a bench trial. The trial court found Mr. Smith guilty of attempted second degree murder, second degree assault, and the related special allegations of domestic violence, but acquitted him of the remaining counts and the aggravator. Mr. Smith was sentenced to a standard range sentence of 144 months.

The Appeal

He appealed, and his appellate argument focused on the trial court’s denial of the motion to suppress. Smith continued to assert that the recording was unlawfully admitted because Ms. Williams had unlawfully intercepted it.

The Court of Appeals reversed Mr. Smith’s conviction for attempted second degree murder, holding that the trial court erred in denying the motion to suppress the recording of the incident because (1) the recording was of a “private conversation” and (2) Mr. Smith had unlawfully recorded the “private conversation,” despite the fact that the recording was made inadvertently. The Court of Appeals rejected Mr. Smith’s assertion that Ms. Williams had unlawfully intercepted the conversation, and decided the case on a different issue, that is, whether Mr. Smith’s actions violated the privacy act. The State sought review on the issue of how the privacy act is to be properly applied in this case.

ISSUE

Whether the voice mail recording is admissible in Mr. Smith’s criminal prosecution.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Supreme Court  reverse the Court of Appeals and reinstated Mr. Smith’s attempted second degree murder conviction.

The Court reasoned that accidental, inadvertent recording on a cell phone voice mail of a domestic violence assault did not contain a “conversation” within the meaning of the privacy act, where the recorded verbal exchange consisted mostly of sounds of a woman screaming, a male claiming the woman brought the assault on herself, more screams from the female, name calling by the male, and the man stating he will kill the woman when she told him to get away. Furthermore, the owner of the cell phone was deemed to have consented to the voice mail recording due to his familiarity with that function.

The lead opinion was authored by Justice Madsen and signed by Justices Wiggins, Johnson and Owens. Justice González concurred in the result on the grounds that the defendant cannot invade his own privacy and cannot object about a recording he made being used against himself. Justice Gordon McCloud authored a separate concurring opinion, which was signed by Justices Stephens, Yu, and Fairhurst, in which she stated that the verbal exchange on the recording constitutes a “private” conversation which was solely admissible pursuant to statute.