Category Archives: felony

Reconsider Long Prison Sentences?

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Excellent article in Inside Sources by director of Strategic Initiatives at The Sentencing Project argues our society must reconsider long prison sentences.

Gotsch writes that a measure of rationality has come to federal sentencing after President Trump signed the First Step Act. The legislation has led to almost 1,700 people receiving sentence reductions, most of whom have been freed. Ninety-one percent are African American. Douglas and dozens of others sentenced to die in prison are among the beneficiaries.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission reports that the resentencing provisions of the First Step Act reduced the average sentence of 20 years by an average of six years for those who qualified.

“The reductions, while modest, are profound for the people and families ensnared by long prison terms, and who have been generally left out of criminal justice reforms until now,” writes Gotsch.

“Congress should take its next step to address a broader cohort of incarcerated people with lengthy sentences.”

Gotsch’s arguments hinge on the fact that lengthy prison sentences seem inappropriate for prison populations that essentially “age out” of crime. Half of the people in federal prisons are serving sentences longer than 10 years. Almost 20 percent of the population is more than 50 years old.

“Criminal justice research has long confirmed that people generally age out of crime, so long sentences provide diminishing returns for public safety,” says Gotsch. “Tax dollars that could be used to invest in youth, improve schools, expand drug treatment and medical and mental health care, are instead invested in prisons to incarcerate a growing elder population despite their limited likelihood of recidivism. Policy should reflect the research.”

The Second Look Act, newly introduced sentencing reform legislation from Senator Cory Booker and Representative Karen Bass, follows the lead of experts on crime and punishment and offers a transformational approach. The bill seeks to curb long sentences by offering a sentencing review by a federal judge to people with sentences longer than 10 years. Individuals who have served at least 10 years must show they are rehabilitated and are not a threat to public safety to qualify for a sentence reduction. People who are 50 or older would have a presumption of release because of their substantially lower recidivism rates.

“For the bipartisan lawmakers in Washington, and the 2020 presidential candidates who have pledged to address the problems in the criminal justice system, a broader approach to challenge mass incarceration and promote public safety is long overdue,” says Gotsch.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges which could include a prison sentence. It’s very important to hire an experienced, competent competent attorney who can either prepare a strong case for jury trial or navigate a plea deal which avoids prison.

WA Supreme Court Invalidates “Community Caretaking” Search

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In State v. Boissellethe WA Supreme Court held a police officer’s warrantless entry into the defendant’s duplex in this case violated article I, section 7 of the WA Constitution because their emergency aid function search was a unlawful pretext for a criminal investigation as the officers were suspicious, if not convinced, that a crime had taken place before entering the unit.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Law enforcement officers were dispatched to Mr. Boisselle’s home after two anonymous 911 calls reported that a man shot and possibly killed someone at the residence. While responding to the calls, the officers learned that the residence was related to an ongoing missing person/homicide investigation. Unable to determine whether someone was alive inside the home, the officers entered the residence and conducted a warrantless search, discovering evidence of a murder therein. Boisselle  was arrested and jailed.

Boisselle moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the officers’ warrantless search was unlawfully pretextual  under article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution. The trial court denied Boisselle’s motion, concluding that the officers’ search fell within the emergency aid function of the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement. Following a jury trial, Boisselle was convicted of second degree murder and second degree unlawful possession of a firearm. The Court of Appeals affirmed his convictions.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

I. The Community Caretaking Exception

First, the WA Supreme Court agreed that the application of the community caretaking exception has become muddled, and took this opportunity to clarify the appropriate factors in determining whether an officer has exercised his or her emergency aid community caretaking function.

“The community caretaking exception is one such exception to the warrant requirement,” said the Court. “Under the community caretaking exception, law enforcement officers may make a limited invasion of constitutionally protected privacy rights when it is necessary for officers to perform their community caretaking functions.” The Court explained this exception recognizes that law enforcement officers are “jacks of all trades” and frequently engage in community caretaking functions that are unrelated to the detection and investigation of crime, including delivering emergency messages, giving directions, searching for lost children, assisting stranded motorists, and rendering first aid.

Next, the Court created the following multi-part test for evaluating whether an officer exercised his or her community caretaking function when conducting a warrantless search:

(1) Was the community caretaking exception used as a pretext for criminal investigation? If the court finds pretext, the analysis ends. If the court determines that the exception was not a pretext, the analysis continues is question is answered negatively, the analysis continues.

(2)(a) If the search fell within an officer’s general community caretaking function, such as the performance of a routine check on health or safety, the court must determine whether the search was “reasonable.” “Reasonableness” depends upon a balancing of a citizen’s privacy interest in freedom from police intrusion against the public’s interest in having police perform a community caretaking function.

(2)(b) If the search fell within an officer’s emergency aid function which arises from a police officer’s community caretaking responsibility to come to the aid of persons believed to be in danger of death or physical harm, the court, before determining whether the search is “reasonable,” must first determine whether: “(1) the officer subjectively believed that an emergency existed requiring that he or she provide immediate assistance to protect or preserve life or property, or to prevent serious injury, (2) a reasonable person in the same situation would similarly believe that there was a need for assistance, and (3) there was a reasonable basis to associate the need for assistance with the place searched.”

II. The Warrantless Search of Boisselle’s Home Was Pretextual.

The Court reasoned that an unlawful pretextual search occurs when occurs when officers rely on some legal authorization as a mere pretense to dispense with a warrant when the true reason for the seizure is not exempt from the warrant requirement. When determining whether a given search is pretextual, the court should consider the totality of the circumstances, including both the subjective intent of the officer as well as the objective reasonableness of the officer’s behavior.

“Viewing the totality of the circumstances, we are unconvinced that the officers’ search of Boisselle’s home was not a pretext for a criminal investigation.”

The Court reasoned that here, law enforcement’s involvement began because of two anonymous 911 calls reporting a crime. When the officers arrived at Boisselle’s duplex unit, they noticed a smell that could be attributed to a decomposing body, and they sought to confirm whether a crime had been committed or if a crime victim was inside. The officers were eventually able to see into the unit and saw signs of a struggle and missing carpet, which could be a sign that someone sought to cover up a crime scene.

“Taken together, these facts demonstrate that the officers were suspicious, if not convinced, that a crime had taken place,” said the Court. “Because of the officers significant suspicions, the search of Boisselle’s home was necessarily associated with the detection and investigation of criminal activity.”

Accordingly, the Court held the officers’ warrantless search did not fall under the emergency aid function of the community caretaking exception, and it violated article I, section 7 of the WA Constitution. Thus, the trial court erred in denying Boisselle’s motion to suppress. “We reverse the Court of Appeals and remand to the trial court for further proceedings,” said the Court.

My opinion? Grisly as the facts appear to be, the Court reached the right decision. Freedom from government intrusion lies at the very foundation of Western law and culture, and is one of our nation’s most cherished freedoms. That’s why we insist on police obtaining warrants, unless exigent circumstances dictates otherwise.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member were charges with a crime involving an unlawful pretextual search. Hiring competent defense counsel is the first and best step toward achieving justice.

Appearance of Fairness

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In State v. Gorman-Lykken, the WA Court of Appeals held that before allowing a security officer to be stationed next to the witness stand when the defendant testifies, the trial court must (1) state case-specific reasons for the need for such a security measure, and (2) determine that the need for the security measure outweighs the potential prejudice to the testifying defendant.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Mr. Gorman-Lykken was charged with Rape in the Second Degree (DV). The State was required to prove that Gorman-Lykken engaged in sexual intercourse with his girlfriend when she was incapable of consent.

At trial, Gorman-Lykken wanted to testify. Before he did so, his defense attorney objected to the proximity of the corrections officer assigned to Gorman-Lykken while he was on the witness stand. The trial court responded, “Let me just touch base with the corrections officer.” The corrections officer stated, “If he’s up here, we’re up here.”

The trial court then observed on the record that sometimes one to three corrections officers were assigned to a defendant in court and that “sometimes those individuals are large, larger than average.” By contrast, the court noted that the corrections officer assigned to Gorman-Lykken was “not one of our largest corrections officers, and there’s only one of her.” The court also stated that “the policy of the corrections staff is that . . . they are to be in close proximity to somebody who is testifying that’s been accused of a crime.” The court concluded, “I think on the whole I’m comfortable having the officer
stay where she’s at.”

The jury found Gorman-Lykken guilty as charged. He appealed his conviction on the issue of whether the trial court erred in allowing the corrections officer to be stationed next to him during his testimony as a security measure.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

Preliminarily, the Court of Appeals said that trial courts have broad discretion to make trial management decisions, including provisions for the order and security of the courtroom.

However, the Court also acknowledged that trial courts commit reversible error when they base their decisions solely on the judgment of correctional officers who believed that using restraints during trial was necessary to maintain security, while no other justifiable basis existed on the record.

Furthermore, Courts have recognized that certain courtroom security measures are inherently prejudicial. This includes shackling, handcuffing, or other physical restraints; gagging the defendant and holding a trial in a jail. Courts must closely scrutinize such measures to ensure that they further essential state interests.

“Before allowing a security officer to be stationed next to the witness stand when the defendant testifies, the trial court must (1) state case-specific reasons for the need for such a security measure, (2) determine that the need for the security measure outweighs the potential prejudice to the testifying defendant,” said the Court of Appeals.

Here, however, the Court of Appeals was concerned that the trial court never stated case-specific reasons why this case or this defendant created the need for this security measure.

“The court simply stated, ‘I’m comfortable having the officer stay where she’s at,'” said the Court of Appeals. “Accordingly, we hold that the trial court abused its discretion in allowing the corrections officer to be stationed next to the witness stand when Gorman-Lykken testified.”

“Here, the State does not argue that any error was harmless. And there is no indication that the State could show harmlessness beyond a reasonable doubt. Even though stationing an officer next to the witness stand may not be inherently prejudicial, allowing that measure created a risk that the jury might infer that Gorman-Lykken was dangerous or guilty. The State cannot show beyond a reasonable doubt that stationing the officer next to the witness stand did not influence the jury.”

The Court also noted that the evidence of Gorman-Lykken’s guilt was not so overwhelming that a guilty verdict was the only rational result. At trial, Gorman-Lykken’s girlfriend testified that she had taken medication that essentially put her to sleep and that she had told Gorman-Lykken not to have sex with her while she was asleep.

“But Gorman-Lykken testified that he asked his girlfriend if she was up for sex, that she verbally agreed, and that she was coherent during the sexual activity,” said the Court of Appeals. “Therefore, the jury was presented with conflicting evidence, not evidence that overwhelmingly established Gorman-Lykken’s guilt.”

With that, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court’s error in allowing an officer to be stationed next to the witness stand when Gorman-Lykken testified was not harmless. It reversed Gorman-Lykken’s conviction and remanded the case back to the trial court for further consideration.

My opinion? Good decision. It’s highly prejudicial to have police and correctional officers standing by defendants as they testify before a jury. It silently says that the defendant is extremely dangerous and volatile. Juries are more likely to convict defendants who appear dangerous. Congrats to the Court of Appeals for deciding this one correctly!

Court Denies “Community Caretaking” Argument

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In State v. Beach, the WA Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of a defendant’s Possession of Stolen Vehicle charges because the police failed to obtain a search warrant and the Community Custody Exception to the warrant requirement did not apply.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On November 27, 2017, a person called 911 to report a young child walking by himself. Officer Nixon responded to the 911 report, and took custody of the child. Officer Nixon decided to drive around the neighborhood to look for the child’s home.

Eventually, the officer saw a house with its front door open. He ran the license plate of the car in the driveway and learned that the car had been reported stolen. He called for backup. At that point, the officer’s interest in determining whether the child lived at the house was secondary to figuring out if this was a home invasion robbery.

Officers arrived. They surrounded the house, with one or two officers going to the back of the house in case someone tried to exit from the back door. Officers knocked loudly on the outside of the house and announced themselves for approximately 30 seconds. When there was no answer, they drew their guns and entered the house, yelling, “This is the Kent Police Department. Come out with your hands up!”

Mr. Beach and his girlfriend Ms. Hall emerged from a rear bedroom. They said that they were sleeping. The officers discovered the couple had outstanding warrants. The officers arrested Beach and Hall. While searching Beach upon arrest, the police found a key to the stolen car in the driveway.

The State charged Beach with one count of possession of a stolen vehicle. Beach moved to suppress any evidence resulting from the warrantless search.

The State argued that the warrantless search was valid under the community caretaking exception because there was real and immediate danger of an ongoing home invasion. The trial court conducted a hearing pursuant to CrR 3.6. After hearing testimony by officers, the court found that the State had not established that the officers were acting within the scope of their community caretaking function, and suppressed the evidence.

Beach moved to dismiss and the court granted the motion. The State appealed.

COURT’S RATIONALE & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Court of Appeals explained that the United States Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. Also, the WA constitution is often more protective than the Fourth Amendment, particularly where warrantless searches are concerned.

“Under our state constitution, warrantless searches are per se unreasonable unless one of the narrow exceptions to the warrant requirement applies,” said the Court. “The burden of proof is on the State to show that a warrantless search or seizure falls within one of the exceptions to the warrant requirement.”

A. Community Caretaking Exception to the Warrant Requirement.

The Court said the community caretaking function exception encompasses situations involving emergency aid, and also routine checks on health and safety. Compared with routine checks on health and safety, the emergency aid function involves circumstances of greater urgency and searches resulting in greater intrusion.

Under the health and safety check test, the State must show that (1) the officer subjectively believed someone needed health or safety assistance, (2) a reasonable person in the same situation would believe that there was a need for assistance, and (3) there was a reasonable basis to associate the need for assistance with the place searched.

Also, the State must also show that the encounter under this exception was reasonable, which depends on a balancing of the individual’s interest in freedom from police interference against the public’s interest in having the police perform a community caretaking function. Finally, the State must show that a reasonable person in the same situation would believe that there was a need for assistance.

The Court reasoned that here, there was a 911 report about a child wandering blocks away. When Nixon stopped his police car outside of the residence, the child did not indicate that he had any connection to the house. No connection between the child and the house was established until after the officers entered. “Any concern for the child was not an ongoing emergency that would merit the officers going into the home,” said the Court.

And here, the officers did not know of any requests for help from the house before they entered. They did not know anyone was unaccounted for and saw no evidence anyone had been injured. The officers did not see any broken windows, signs of forced entry, or other evidence of a break-in. Once in the doorway, Officer Nixon did not see anything in disarray inside the home that would indicate a struggle or ongoing emergency. When the officers went into the home, the house was in “fine condition.”

Consequently, the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision that the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement did not apply and suppressed the evidence.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime and police conducted their search under the “Community Caretaking” exception to the warrant requirement. Possibly, evidence obtained through the search could be suppressed and the charges dismissed.

“New Hope Act” Goes In Effect

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Reporter of the Kitsap Sun wrote an informative article stating that bipartisan legislation called the “New Hope Act” streamlines and modifies the process for people with criminal records to vacate convictions after a period of time.

Binion reports that Tarra Simmons, a Bremerton attorney who after serving a prison sentence for drug-related convictions attended law school, said the new law will not only help those who have turned their lives around but also society at large. Despite her criminal history which denied her the opportunity to take the lawyer licensing exam, the state Supreme Court intervened in 2017, allowing her to take, and pass, the test.

Simmons, who is now the executive director of Civil Survival, an organization that helps people negotiate the hurdles as they reintegrate into society after leaving jail and prison, noted the measure received strong bipartisan support.

“People who have spent some time in prison need a chance to get their lives back on track,” Rep. Drew Hanson, D-Bainbridge Island, sponsor of the measure, said in a statement. “This bill removes some of the barriers that are preventing people from rebuilding their lives and gives them hope for a second chance.” Rep. Michelle Cauldier, R-Port Orchard, also sponsored the measure.

Previously, multiple felony convictions for some offenses could be vacated, but only one misdemeanor. The new law allows multiple misdemeanors to be vacated. The new law also adds some felony offenses to the list of convictions that can be vacated. Depending on the crime, there is a waiting period of three, five and 10 years of good behavior and repayment of legal fees a person must complete before petitioning to have their convictions vacated.

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.

Flowers v. Mississippi: Supreme Court Finds Race-Based Peremptory Strikes Unlawful

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In Flowers v. Mississippi, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the State’s peremptory strikes in the defendant’s first four trials strongly supported the conclusion that the State’s use of peremptory strikes in the defendant’s sixth trial was motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Curtis Flowers was tried six separate times for the murder of four employees of a Mississippi furniture store. Flowers is black. Three of the four victims were white. At the first two trials, the State used its peremptory strikes on all of the qualified black prospective jurors.

In each case, the jury convicted Flowers and sentenced him to death, but the convictions were later reversed by the Mississippi Supreme Court based on prosecutorial misconduct. At the third trial, the State used all of its 15 peremptory strikes against black prospective jurors, and the jury convicted Flowers and sentenced him to death.

The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed again, this time concluding that the State exercised its peremptory strikes on the basis of race in violation of Batson v. Kentucky. Flowers’ fourth and fifth trials ended in mistrials. At the fourth, the State exercised 11 peremptory strikes—all against black prospective jurors. No available racial information exists about the prospective jurors in the fifth trial.

At the sixth trial, the State exercised six peremptory strikes—five against black prospective jurors, allowing one black juror to be seated. Flowers again raised a Batson challenge, but the trial court concluded that the State had offered race-neutral reasons for each of the five peremptory strikes. The jury convicted Flowers and sentenced him to death. The Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed. Flowers appealed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

Justice Kavanaugh delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Roberts, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor and Kagan joined. Justices Thomas and Gorsuch dissented.

Kavanaugh began by discussing the history behind the landmark Batson v. Kentucky. In his majority opinion he explained that under Batson, once a prima facie case of discrimination has been shown by a defendant, the State must provide race-neutral reasons for its peremptory strikes. The trial judge then must determine whether the prosecutor’s stated reasons were the actual reasons or instead were a pretext for discrimination.

“Four categories of evidence loom large in assessing the Batson issue here, where the State had a persistent pattern of striking black prospective jurors from Flowers’ first through his sixth trial,” said Justice Kavanaugh.

The Court reasoned that here, a review of the history of the State’s peremptory strikes in Flowers’ first four trials strongly supports the conclusion that the State’s use of peremptory strikes in Flowers’ sixth trial was motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent:

“The State tried to strike all 36 black prospective jurors over the course of the first four trials. And the state courts themselves concluded that the State had violated Batson on two separate occasions. The State’s relentless, determined effort to rid the jury of black individuals strongly suggests that the State wanted to try Flowers before a jury with as few black jurors as possible, and ideally before an all-white jury.”

The Court also reasoned that the State’s use of peremptory strikes in Flowers’ sixth trial followed the same discriminatory pattern as the first four trials.

“Disparate questioning can be probative of discriminatory intent,” said the Court.  “Here, the State spent far more time questioning the black prospective jurors than the accepted white jurors—145 questions asked of 5 black prospective jurors and 12 questions asked of 11 white seated jurors.”

Consequently, along with the historical evidence from the earlier trials, as well as the State’s striking of five of six black prospective jurors at the sixth trial, the dramatically disparate questioning and investigation of black prospective jurors and white prospective jurors at the sixth trial strongly suggest that the State was motivated in substantial part by a discriminatory intent.

Furthermore, the Court reasoned that comparing prospective jurors who were struck and not struck is an important step in determining whether a Batson violation occurred. “Here, Carolyn Wright, a black prospective juror, was struck, the State says, in part because she knew several defense witnesses and had worked at Wal-Mart where Flowers’ father also worked,” said the Court. “But three white prospective jurors also knew many individuals involved in the case, and the State asked them no individual questions about their connections to witnesses. White prospective jurors also had relationships with members of Flowers’ family, but the State did not ask them follow-up questions in order to explore the depth of those relationships.”

Finally, the Court ruled that the State also incorrectly explained that it exercised a peremptory strike against Wright because she had worked with one of Flowers’ sisters and made apparently incorrect statements to justify the strikes of other black prospective jurors. “When considered with other evidence, a series of factually inaccurate explanations for striking black prospective jurors can be another clue showing discriminatory intent,” said the Court. Consequently, the trial court at Flowers’ sixth trial committed clear error in concluding that the State’s peremptory strike of black prospective juror Carolyn Wright was not motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent. Pp. 26–30.

With that, the Supreme Court reversed Flowers’ conviction and remanded the case back to the trial court.

My opinion? Good decision. Although the facts and allegations are terrible for Mr. Flowers, prosecutors simply cannot use exercise race-based peremptory challenges to get justice.

A Police Vest Is a Uniform

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In State v. Connors, the WA Court of Appeals held that a vest issued by the police department that the officer wore over “normal clothes” was, in fact, a uniform as it had a Spokane Police badge on front and clear block reflective letters across the back that said “police.”

BACKGROUND FACTS

Mr. Connors was driving a stolen car when he failed to respond to a signal to stop issued from a police vehicle. Instead of stopping, Mr. Connors sped away to an apartment complex. He then abandoned the stolen car and fled on foot until he was apprehended by the pursuing officer. The officer’s attire at the time of the incident consisted of a black external vest which fit over normal clothes, a Spokane Police patch on the front and reflective letters across the back that says “Police.”

Mr. Connors was charged with, and convicted of, attempting to elude a police vehicle and possession of a stolen motor vehicle. He appealed his eluding conviction.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

“A conviction for attempting to elude a police vehicle requires the State to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant was signaled to stop by a uniformed police officer,” said the Court of Appeals.

The Court further reasoned that when interpreting statutory text, the goal is to discern legislative intent. When a statute does not define a term, courts will give the term “ ‘its plain and ordinary meaning unless a contrary legislative intent is indicated. “Generally, courts derive the plain meaning from context as well as related statutes,” said the Court. “But a standard English dictionary may also be employed to determine the plain meaning of an undefined term.”

Here, the Court found that the clothing described during Mr. Connors’s trial readily meets the ordinary definition of a “uniform.” The vest worn by the officer was specific to the Spokane Police Department. It served to notify the public that the officer was an official member of the police department. The fact that the officer wore “normal clothes” under his police vest does not mean he was not wearing a uniform. “Some uniforms are comprehensive from head to toe,” said the Court. “Others are not. The eluding statute makes no preference.”

“So long as an officer deploying the signal to stop is attired in a distinctive garment that clearly identifies him as a member of law enforcement, the statutory requirement of a “uniform” is met.”

With that, the Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime and it’s questionable whether the law enforcement officer was appropriately and/or distinctly uniformed during the stop and arrest. Hiring competent defense counsel is the first and best step toward achieving justice.

38-Year Delay Violates Speedy Trial

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In State v. Ross, the WA Court of Appeals held that a criminal defendant’s constitutional speedy trial rights were violated by a 38-year gap between charging and the defendant’s first appearance in the trial court on the murder charges.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Here, the State charged Tommy Ross in Clallam County with aggravated first degree murder in 1978. But the State did not pursue prosecution of that charge for over 38 years. Instead, the State allowed Ross to be extradited to Canada for trial on another murder charge without ensuring that he would be returned for trial in Clallam County.

And then while Ross was incarcerated in Canada the State made no meaningful effort for decades to obtain his return to the United States for trial. The trial court ruled that the State violated Ross’s constitutional right to a speedy trial by not prosecuting the murder charge against him for over 38 years, and the court dismissed that charge. The State appealed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that the analysis for the speedy trial right under article I, section 22 of the WA Constitution is substantially the same as the analysis under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The Court of Appeals used the balancing analysis stated in Barker v. Wingo to determine whether the defendant’s constitutional right to speedy trial was violated. Among the nonexclusive factors we consider are the length of delay, the reason for the delay, the defendant’s assertion of his right, and prejudice to the defendant.

Length of Delay.

Here, the Court ruled that the The 38-year delay here was extraordinary and significant to the speedy trial analysis. Consequently, the length of delay factor weighs heavily against the State.

Reason for Delay.

The court explained that the “reason for delay” factor focuses on whether the government or the criminal defendant is more to blame for the delay. A court looks to each party’s responsibility for the delay, and different weights are assigned to delay, primarily related to blameworthiness and the impact of the delay on defendant’s right to a fair trial.

“The State’s deliberate delays will be weighed heavily against it, but even negligence that causes delay will be weighed against the State,” said the Court. Consequently, the Court reasoned that the Prosecutor’s decision to release Ross to Canada without obtaining an enforceable agreement to return him to Clallam County was negligent and weighs against the State.

State Failing to Request Extradition.

The Court reiterated the general rule that when a defendant is incarcerated outside of the country, the State has a constitutional obligation for speedy trial purposes to make a good faith, diligent effort to secure his or her return to the United States for trial. Here, the State’s failure after 1980 to seek extradition or even inquire about obtaining Ross’s transfer to Clallam County weighs against the State.

Assertion of Speedy Trial Right.

The court explained that during the time he was incarcerated in Canada, Mr. Ross made no effort to facilitate a trial on the murder charge. He never demanded that the State bring him to trial or that the State figure out a way to remove him to the United States. He did not waive extradition or request that Canada transfer him to Clallam County for trial. And when given opportunities to return to the United States and face the murder charge, Ross declined and decided to remain in Canada. This conduct is inconsistent with an assertion of the right to a speedy trial.

“Based on Ross’s failure to assert his speedy trial right while incarcerated in Canada, we conclude that the assertion of the right factor weighs against Ross even though his failure is mitigated to some extent,” said the Court.

Prejudice from Delay.

The Court of Appeals reasoned that prejudice to the defendant as a result of delay may consist of (1) oppressive pretrial incarceration, (2) the defendant’s anxiety and concern, and (3) the possibility that dimming memories and loss of exculpatory evidence will impair the defense.

In general, a defendant must show actual prejudice to establish a speedy trial right violation. However, prejudice will be presumed when the delay results from the State’s negligence and there has been “extraordinary delay.”

“Courts generally have presumed prejudice in cases where the delay has lasted at least five years,” said the Court, citing  State v. Ollivier. The Court also cited Doggett v. U.S., a case where the U.S. Supreme Court presumed prejudice against the defendant when the State’s inexcusable oversights caused a delay of six years.

“Applying the four-part balancing analysis set out in Barker, we also conclude that the extraordinary delay in prosecuting Ross violated his speedy trial right. Accordingly, we are constrained to affirm the trial court’s dismissal of the murder charges against Ross.”

In addition, the Court of Appeals found the 38-year length of the delay significant, as was the very strong presumption of prejudice resulting from that lengthy delay. “Considering all the Barker factors, we are constrained to conclude that the balancing test weighs against the State,” said the Court. “Accordingly, we hold that the State violated Ross’s speedy trial right under the United States and Washington Constitutions. Dismissal of the charges against the accused is the only possible remedy for a violation of the constitutional right to a speedy trial.”

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges and there’s question whether the defendant’s right to a speedy trial were violated. Washington Court rule CrRLJ 3.3(b)(2) states that a defendant must be brought to trial within 60 days of arraignment if he is detained in jail and within 90 days if he is not. The purpose o f this rule is to provide a prompt trial for the defendant once they are prosecuted. Under the rule, a charge not brought to trial within the time limit will usually be dismissed with prejudice unless the defendant requests continuances.