Category Archives: Constitutional Rights

Unwitting Possession

I am sorry I didn't know you did that! – TheWealthySon : Success Toolbox

In State v. Blake , the WA Supreme Court held that Washington’s Drug Possession Statute exceeds the state’s police power by imposing harsh felony consequences on innocent non-conduct.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

In 2016, police executed a search warrant in Spokane, Washington, seeking evidence of stolen vehicles. They arrested three people on the property, including the Defendant Ms. Blake.  At the jail, a corrections officer discovered a small baggy containing methamphetamine in the coin pocket of Ms. Blake’s jeans.

The State charged Blake with Possession of a Controlled Substance.  At her bench trial, Blake relied on the judicially created affirmative defense of Unwitting Possession. She testified that a friend had bought the jeans secondhand and given them to Blake two days before Blake’s arrest.

Blake also said she had never used methamphetamine and did not know the jeans had
drugs in the pocket. She acknowledged that the drugs had been “on her” on the day of her arrest. Blake’s boyfriend also testified that Blake did not use drugs and that she had received the jeans from a friend. Despite her defense, the trial court found that Blake had possessed methamphetamine on the day in question and found Blake guilty.

On appeal, Blake argues that requiring her to prove unwitting possession to the charged offense violates due process.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Supreme Court held that Washington’s  felony drug possession statute – which is a essentially a strict liability statute – exceeds the state’s police power by imposing harsh felony consequences on innocent non-conduct with no mental state to commit the crime.

“The basic drug possession statute at issue in this case states, ‘It is unlawful for any person to possess a controlled substance'”, wrote Justice McCloud. “The State need not prove any mens rea (mental state) element to secure a conviction for this crime.”

The Court reasoned that the Due Process Clause protections limit the Legislature’s police power to criminalize wholly innocent and passive non-conduct. Stated differently, a defendant’s passive and innocent non-conduct falls outside the State’s power to criminalize:

“Does this strict liability drug possession statute with these substantial penalties for such innocent, passive conduct exceed the legislature’s police power? The due process clauses of the state and federal constitutions, along with controlling decisions of this court and the United States Supreme Court, compel us to conclude that the answer is yes—this exceeds the state’s police power.”  ~Justice Gordon McCloud, WA Supreme Court.

The Court further reasoned that the State’s police power is not infinite. “If it were, the result would be a police state, and the legislative branch of the government would be omnipotent,” said Justice McCloud. Finally, the Court reasoned that  the statute criminalizes innocent and passive possession, even by a defendant who does not know, and has no reason to know, that drugs lay hidden within something that they possess. “The legislature’s police power goes far, but not that far,” said the Court.

Accordingly, the Court held that RCW 69.50.4013(1)—the portion of the simple drug possession statute creating this crime—violates the due process clauses of the state and federal constitutions and is void.

With that, the WA Supreme Court vacated Ms. Blake’s conviction.

My opinion? Excellent decision, Finally, the courts are giving teeth to the Unwitting Possession Defense. In this defense, a person is not guilty of possession of a controlled substance if the possession is unwitting. Possession of a controlled substance is unwitting if (1) a person did not know that the substance was in their possession or (2) did not know the nature of the substance.

The burden is on the defendant to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the substance was possessed unwittingly. Preponderance of the evidence means that you must be persuaded, considering all of the evidence in the case, that it is more probably true than not true.

Up until now, Washington’s felony drug possession statute essentially circumvented the Unwitting Possession defense.  Thankfully, the WA Supreme Court put a stop to that.
Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a Drug Offense or any other crime. Hiring an effective and competent defense attorney is the first and best step toward justice.

Constructive Possession

Constructive Possession | Murphy's Law Office

“How can I be arrested for possessing drugs when I didn’t have the drugs anywhere on my body?”

A recent case handed down from the Washington Court of Appeals succinctly answers that question in the context of an unlawful possession case involving the search and seizure of drugs from a vehicle.

In State v. Listoe, the Court held that sufficient evidence existed to establish the defendant had constructive possession over the illegal drugs discovered on the back floorboards of the car he was driving.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

On May 11, 2018, Deputy Andrew Hren observed a black car parked at a 7-Eleven convenience store. On running the license plate, Hren discovered that the car’s registration had expired. The car pulled out of the 7-Eleven parking lot, Hren got behind it and pulled it over. Listoe, who was driving the car, did not pull over immediately but traveled for about 1,000 feet first, which Hren believed was uncommon.

As Hren approached the car, he could see Listoe making a series of movements with his hands. Listoe opened the door and began to step out, but Hren ordered him to get back in the car. Hren observed Listoe making additional “furtive movements” in his lap area. Hren then ordered Listoe to place his hands on the steering wheel, and Listoe complied.

Hren informed Listoe of the reason for pulling him over, and Listoe responded that the car was not his and that he did not know the registration was expired. A passenger named Ms. Lemon was sitting in the car’s passenger seat. After briefly speaking to Lemon, Hren told Lemon that she was free to leave, and she left. Lemon was not searched during the encounter.

Hren ordered Listoe out of the vehicle and placed Listoe under arrest. During the search incident to Listoe’s arrest, Hren found a plastic bag that contained a white crystalline substance on Listoe’s person. The substance appeared to be methamphetamine. Listoe also had $221 in his wallet.

A K-9 unit alerted to the presence of controlled substances in the car Listoe was driving. Due to the K-9 alert, Hren obtained a search warrant to search the interior of the vehicle for additional evidence of controlled substances. Police found numerous items associated with drug dealing activities: a notepad with a name and phone number, a digital scale, a plastic Tupperware container that had white residue, a factory packaged plastic bag with syringes, and a mint container that contained shards of a white crystalline substance that Hren believed was methamphetamine.

Listoe was charged with one count of possession of methamphetamine with intent to
manufacture or deliver and one count of possession of a controlled substance (Suboxone). The jury found him guilty as charged.

On appeal, Listoe claims that there was insufficient evidence that he had constructive possession over the methamphetamine and Suboxone discovered on the back floorboards of the car he was driving. Listoe asserts that evidence was insufficient because (1) the car was not his, (2) the officers did not find evidence proving that Listoe had dominion and control over the car and its contents, and (3) the drugs on the rear floor of the car could have reasonably belonged to Lemon.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

In short, the Court of Appeals held that We hold that the evidence was sufficient to establish that Listoe had constructive possession over the items the officers discovered in the back of the car.

“The facts that (1) Listoe was driving the vehicle, (2) Listoe had methamphetamine on his person, which is one of the same drugs found in the back of the vehicle, and (3) Deputy Hren observed Listoe making furtive movements while taking an uncommonly long time to pull over, provide sufficient evidence of constructive possession to support Listoe’s convictions.” ~WA Court of Appeals

The Court reasoned that under State v. Reichert, possession can either be actual or constructive. It also reasoned that under State v. George, whereas actual possession requires an individual to have physical custody of a given item, constructive possession may be shown where the individual has “dominion and control” over that item. Control need not be exclusive to establish possession, and more than one person can be in possession of the same item.

“We examine the totality of the circumstances and look to a variety of factors to determine whether an individual has dominion and control over an item,” said the court. The court further said for example, that it may consider whether the individual could readily convert the items to his or her actual possession and/or the defendant’s physical proximity to a given item.

Finally, the court said it may also consider whether the defendant had dominion and control over the broader premises in which the item was located. In cases where the defendant was driving a vehicle that the defendant owned, courts have found sufficient evidence that the defendant had dominion and control over the vehicle’s premises and its contents.

With that, the Court rendered its decision.

“The fact that Listoe was driving the car weighs in favor of finding that Listoe had dominion
and control over the vehicle and its contents,” said the court. The court also reasoned that the fact that fruits and vegetables, which are perishable items, were discovered in the same reusable black grocery bag as the white bag containing the contraband, shows that these items likely belonged to either Listoe or Lemon.

“It is unlikely that perishable items were left in the car by a prior driver or passenger,” said the Court. “Further, Listoe’s furtive hand movements on two occasions, as well the fact that Listoe drove an uncommonly long distance before pulling over, raise an inference that the was handling the contraband at that time, or possibly strategizing about where to hide it.”

The Court believed this same fact could also support a reasonable inference that Listoe could convert dominion and control over the items in the vehicle into his actual possession. In addition, because Hren found methamphetamine on Listoe’s person during the search incident to arrest, and methamphetamine was also discovered in the back of the vehicle, a rational trier of fact could infer that the methamphetamine in the back of the vehicle belonged to Listoe as well.

Finally, the Court of Appeals reasoned that while the above facts may not have been sufficient to establish constructive possession in isolation, taken together, they would lead a rational trier of fact to find that Listoe had constructive possession over the items in the back of the vehicle he was driving. ”

Ultimately, although the court found that Listoe’s convictions were supported by sufficient evidence, it reversed his conviction on the technicality that the trial court improperly applied GR 37 when considering his objection to the State’s peremptory challenge of a non-white juror.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges involving the search and seizure of vehicles, homes and/or persons. Sometimes, police officers violate people’s Constitutional rights during the course of a search. Hiring an experienced criminal defense attorney who knows the law is the first and best step toward justice.

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.

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 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. 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 . . .

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.

Privacy & Text Messages

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Privacy & Text Messages. 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.

Cloud Storage & Privacy

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Cloud Storage & Privacy. In State v. Harrier, the WA Court of Appeals held that a person holds no privacy interest in  images obtained by an internet cloud storage service provider who then gives the images to law enforcement.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Synchronoss Technologies, Inc. is an internet cloud storage provider that provides cloud based storage for Verizon Wireless customers. The defendant Mr. Harrier had a Verizon account and subscribed to Synchronoss Cloud storage.

Synchronoss ran a cursory search of all stored digital files and found six digital images with hash values matching those of known instances of child pornography. Synchronoss reported this information via CyberTip to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) who forwarded the information to local police for investigation.

The police opened and viewed the six image files and confirmed that the images were child pornography. Police then obtained search warrants based on the descriptions of the images and served them on Verizon and Synchronoss. The search warrant directed Synchronoss to provide “all information” held by Synchronoss associated with the suspect telephone number associated with the images.

Police received information from Verizon that confirmed that Harrier was the subscriber/account holder for the suspect telephone number. Synchronoss also gave police a thumb drive containing account data associated with the suspect telephone number.

Law enforcement obtained a search warrant for Harrier’s residence. They seized Harrier’s cell phone. The cell phone was determined to be the same phone associated with the Verizon account and the Synchronoss files that were the basis of the initial search warrant.

Law enforcement interviewed Harrier after advising him of his constitutional rights prior to asking questions. He made incriminating statements. Harrier was later charged with two counts of first degree possession of depictions of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct and three counts of second degree possession of depictions of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct.

Prior to trial, Harrier filed a 3.6 motion to suppress the evidence against him, and the trial court denied the motion. The parties proceeded to a bench trial. Harrier was found guilty as charged. Harrier appealed on arguments that the police, by opening and viewing the images from NCMEC, exceeded the scope of Synchronoss’ lawful search of the images and thus, the opening and viewing of the images was unlawful, and the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

In short, the WA Court of Appeals held that Harrier had no privacy interest in the images obtained by Synchronoss and delivered to the police; therefore, the police’s viewing of the images was not a warrantless search.

The Court reasoned that the Fourth Amendment protects a person’s subjective and reasonable expectation of privacy. Also, the WA Constitution in article I, section 7 provides that no person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law.

However, the Court reasoned that if a private affair is not disturbed, then there is no Constitutional violation. Also, the Court rejected Harrier’s arguments the Private Search Doctrine prohibited the police from obtaining contraband:

“The Private Search Doctrine is based on the rationale that an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy is destroyed when the private actor conducts his search,” said the Court of Appeals. “Our Supreme Court held in Eisfeldt that the private search doctrine is inapplicable under our State Constitution.”

The court also recognized that when a private party hands evidence over to the police, there is no privacy interest in that evidence:

“We know from the hash values that the files Synchronoss found were child pornography and that this information, the images, and the CyberTip are reliable . . . Because a private party conducted the search and the images are contraband, Harrier did not have a privacy interest in them. Thus, the police’s opening and viewing the images from a private party was not unlawful. Accordingly, Harrier’s arguments fail.” ~WA Court of Appeals.

The Court concluded that the trial court did not err by denying Harrier’s motion to suppress and affirmed Harrier’s convictions.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member were arrested after police found incriminating evidence from a questionable search of cyber account information. And please review my Legal Guide on Search & Seizure. Hiring an experienced criminal defense attorney is the first and best step towards justice.

Prosecutor’s “War On Drugs” Comments Deprived Defendant of a Fair Trial

Is It Time To End The War on Drugs? Senator Cory Booker Thinks So. - DailyClout

In State v. Loughbom, the WA Supreme Court held that the Prosecutor’s comments during trial advocating the “War on Drugs” amounted to Prosecutor Misconduct and deprived the defendant of a fair trial.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

In May 2017, Mr. Loughbom was charged with three counts of various drug crimes. In October of 2017, Loughbom’s case proceeded to jury trial.  During trial, the prosecutor referenced the “War on Drugs” three times:

1. During his opening statement, the prosecutor said, “The case before you today represents yet another battle in the ongoing war on drugs throughout our state and throughout our nation as a whole. I’ve been tasked with presenting the evidence against the defendant, Gregg Loughbom, of the crimes of Delivery and Conspiracy to Deliver a Controlled Substance.”

2. The prosecutor began his closing argument by stating, “The case before you represented another battle in the ongoing war on drugs throughout our state and the nation as a whole. I have been tasked with presenting the evidence against the defendant, Gregg Loughbom, of the crimes of delivery of controlled substances . . . and conspiracy to deliver a controlled substance.”

3. During the State’s rebuttal argument, the prosecutor stated that “law enforcement cannot simply pick and choose their Confidential Informants to be the golden children of our society to go through and try and complete these transactions as they go forward in the, like I said, the ongoing war on drugs in this community and across the nation.”

Although the jury found Mr. Loughbom not guilty of one drug charge, he was found guilty of delivery of methamphetamine and conspiracy to deliver a controlled substance other than marijuana. The trial court sentenced Loughbom to 40 months in prison and 12 months of community custody.

Loughbom appealed on arguments that the prosecutor’s repeated comments about the war on drugs constituted flagrant and ill intentioned misconduct.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Supreme Court began by saying We presume prosecutors act impartially “in the interest of justice.” At the same time, we expect prosecutors to “‘subdue courtroom zeal,’ not to add to it, in order to ensure the defendant receives a fair trial.” State v. Walker, 182 Wn.2d 463, 477, 341 P.3d 976 (2015) (quoting Thorgerson, 172 Wn.2d at 443). Justice can be secured only when a conviction is based on specific evidence in an individual case and not on rhetoric. We do not convict to make an example of the accused, we do not convict by appeal to a popular cause, and we do not convict by tying a prosecution to a global campaign against illegal drugs.

“We agree with Loughbom and hold that the prosecutor’s remarks about the war on drugs were improper and rise to the level of being flagrant and ill intentioned. The prosecutor’s repeated invocation of the war on drugs was a thematic narrative designed to appeal to a broader social cause that ultimately deprived Loughbom of a fair trial.” ~WA SUpreme Court

The Court also reasoned that the prosecutor’s repeated references to the war on drugs were erroneous, and that framing Loughbom’s prosecution as representative of the war on drugs violated his right to a fair trial.

With that, the WA Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and remand for a new trial.

My opinion? Excellent decision. Clearly, the prosecutor’s repeated appeals to the war on drugs caused incurable prejudice. It is deeply troubling that the State employed the war on drugs as the theme of Loughbom’s prosecution and reinforced this narrative throughout his trial.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face Drug Offenses or any other crime. Hiring an effective and competent defense attorney is the first and best step toward justice.

Excessive Parking Fines

How a Parking Ticket Impacts a Driver

In Pimentel v. City of Los Angeles, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause applies to excessive parking fines.

BACKGROUND FACTS

The City of Los Angeles imposes civil fines for parking meter violations. Under an ordinance, if a person parks her car past the allotted time limit, she must pay a $63 fine. And if she fails to pay the fine within 21 days, the City will impose a late-payment penalty $6300. In sum, a person who overstays a parking spot faces a fine of $63 – $181.

Appellant Mr. Pimentel and the other appellants sued the City of Los Angeles under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, asserting that the fines and late payment penalties violate the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause and the California constitutional counterpart.

The case made its way through the lower federal district court. The lower court ordered that the initial parking fine was not grossly disproportionate to the offense and thus survives constitutional scrutiny. The case was appealed to the Ninth Circuit, however, who issued its own opinion below.

COURT’S REASONING & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals held that although the initial parking fine was not disproportionate to the offense, the the City’s late fee runs afoul of the Excessive Fines Clause.

The Court said the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment limits the government’s power to extract payments, whether in cash or in kind, as punishment for some offense. Also, the Court reasoned that the Excessive Fines Clause traces its lineage back to at least the Magna Carta which guaranteed that a free man shall not be fined for a small fault.

“For centuries, authorities abused their power to impose fines against their enemies or to illegitimately raise revenue,” said the Ninth Circuit. “That fear of abuse of power continued to the colonial times. During the founding era, fines were probably the most common form of punishment, and this made a constitutional prohibition on excessive fines all the more important.”

The Court extended the  four-factor analysis found in United States v. Bajakajian to decide whether a fine is “grossly disproportionate” to the offense: (1) the nature and extent of the crime, (2) whether the violations was related to other illegal activities, (3) the other penalties that may be imposed for the violation, and (4) the extent of the harm caused.

The Court reasoned that under the first Bajakajian factor—  the nature and extent of the crime — the plaintiffs were indeed culpable because there was no factual dispute that they violated the parking infraction code for failing to pay for over-time use of a metered space. However, the Ninth Circuit also found the the parking transgressions were small:

“But we also conclude that appellants’ culpability is low because the underlying parking violation is minor. We thus find that the nature and extent of appellants’ violations to be minimal but not de minimis.”

The Court further reasoned that the second Bajakajian factor — whether the violations was related to other illegal activities — was not as helpful to its analysis: “We only note that there is no information in the record showing whether overstaying a parking meter relates to other illegal activities, nor do the parties argue as much.”

Similarly, the Court said that the third Bajakajian factor — whether other penalties may be imposed for the violation — also did not advance its analysis. “Neither party suggests that alternative penalties may be imposed instead of the fine, and the record is devoid of any such suggestion.”

Finally, the Court turned to the fourth Bajakajian factor — the extent of the harm caused by the violation. “The most obvious and simple way to assess this factor is to observe the monetary harm resulting from the violation,” said the Court. Ultimately, it reasoned that while a parking violation was not a serious offense, the fine is not so large, either, and likely deters violations.

With that, the Ninth Circuit held that the City’s initial parking fine of $63 was not grossly disproportional to the underlying offense of overstaying the time at a parking space. Nevertheless, the Court also held that the 100% late fee on the initial fine must be remanded back to the lower district court for the City to justify:

“The government cannot overstep its authority and impose fines on its citizens without paying heed to the limits posed by the Eighth Amendment. Yet in its brief to this court, the City of Los Angeles did not even bother addressing the constitutionality of its late fee. Based on the record, we do not know the City’s justification for setting the late fee at one hundred percent of the initial fine.”

With that, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals gave the case back (remanded) to the lower court for a further analysis on this issue.

My opinion? Good decision. At the end of the day, paying a 100% late fee for a parking fine is truly excessive. The case is novel because we don’t see much litigation surrounding the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment. We do know, however, that the Eighth Amendment also encompasses the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, which is the most important and controversial part of the Amendment.

The issues relating to that constitutional amendment are, in some ways, shrouded in mystery. What does it mean for a punishment to be “cruel and unusual”? How do we measure a punishment’s cruelty? And if a punishment is cruel, why should we care whether it is “unusual”?

Again, good decision.

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.

Shackling Defendants In Court – Without Reason – Is Unconstitutional.

Court ruling about shackles puts stress on judicial system | Local ...

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

BACKGROUND FACTS

In 2017, Mr. Jackson,  was charged with assault in the second degree, domestic violence, for strangling his fiancée. At every court appearance, Jackson was forced to wear some form of restraints pursuant to jail policy. The trial court did not engage in any individualized determination of whether restraints were necessary for courtroom safety but, instead, filed a consolidated opinion adopting the jail policy for all superior court appearances for all incarcerated defendants.

After a jury found Jackson guilty, he appealed, arguing that his constitutional right to due process was violated when he was forced to wear restraints without an individualized inquiry into their necessity.

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

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

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

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

“The problems in the history of shackling in early America are not limited to the courts and incarcerated individuals . . . The use of shackling as a means of control and oppression, primarily against people of color, has run rampant in the history of this country . . . Shackles and restraints remain an image of the transatlantic slave trade and the systematic abuse and ownership of African persons that has endured long beyond the end of slavery.

Shackles and restraints also represent the forced removal of Native people from their homelands through the Trail of Tears and the slave labor of Native people. We recognize that although these atrocities occurred over a century ago, the systemic control of persons of color remains in society, particularly within the criminal justice system.” ~WA Supreme Court

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

True Threats

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

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

BACKGROUND FACTS

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

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

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

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

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

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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