Category Archives: Firearm

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.

Reasonable Suspicion & 911 Calls

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In United States v. Vandergroen, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the police’s search of a suspicious person was reasonable under the circumstances when the patrons of a bar called 911 minutes before to report the man had a pistol on him.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Late on a Saturday evening of February 17, 2018, a worker at a bar in California called 911 to report that three patrons had seen a man in the area with a pistol on him. In response to this call, the police stopped the man as he drove away, discovered a pistol in his car, and placed him under arrest. The man, Mr.  Vandergroen, argued a Rule 12 motion to suppress the evidence. The lower federal court denied the motion. Vandergroen was subsequently convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), which is a federal criminal conviction.

On appeal, Vandergroen now argues that the 911 call should never have led to his stop in the first place because it did not generate reasonable suspicion, and that the evidence of the pistol should therefore have been excluded.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with Mr. Vandergroen. It affirmed the lower court’s denial of Vandergroen’s motion to suppress and upheld his conviction.

The Court began by saying that under the Fourth Amendment, an officer may conduct a brief investigative stop only where s/he has a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal activity, commonly referred to as “reasonable suspicion.”

The Court further elaborated that while a 911 call may generate reasonable suspicion, it can only do so when, under the totality-of-the circumstances, it possesses two features. First, the tip must exhibit sufficient indicia of reliability, and second, it must provide information on potential illegal activity serious enough to justify a stop.

Finally, the Court identified a number of factors that demonstrate the reliability of a tip. These facts include (1) whether the tipper is known, rather than anonymous; (2) whether the tipper reveals the basis of his knowledge; (3) whether the tipper provides detailed predictive information indicating insider knowledge, id.; whether the caller uses a 911 number rather than a non-emergency tip line; and (4) whether the tipster relays fresh, eyewitness knowledge, rather than stale, second-hand knowledge.

With the above in mind, the Court of Appeals delved into its analysis.

“The totality of the circumstances in this case demonstrates that the 911 call was sufficiently reliable to support reasonable suspicion,” said the Court. It reasoned that first, the statements by an independent witness were undoubtedly reliable. “Witness #2 provided his name and employment position, making him a known, and therefore more reliable, witness,” said the Court.

Second, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the statements by the bar’s patrons were also reliable. “Although the patrons remained anonymous during the call, which generally cuts against reliability, their statements exhibited sufficient indicia of reliability to overcome this shortcoming,” said the Court. Finally, the Court reasoned that the reported activity — possessing a concealed weapon  was presumptively unlawful in California and was ongoing at the time of the stop.

In conclusion the Court of Appeals held that the 911 call generated reasonable suspicion justifying the stop and the lower court was correct to deny Vandergroen’s motion to suppress the evidence obtained during the stop. His criminal conviction was upheld.

My opinion? Mind you, this is a federal opinion. Under Washington law, however,  a bare report that someone is in possession of a firearm does not provide reasonable suspicion for an investigative stop. This is because Washington is both an open carry state and liberally grants concealed weapons permits. United States v. Brown.

In Washington, under RCW 9.41.300(1)(d), a stop may have been permissible in this case if the individual with the pistol had been in that portion of the lounge classified by the state liquor and cannabis board as off-limits to persons under twenty-one years of age. That’s because it is unlawful for any person to enter a bar with a firearm.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges involving a questionable search or seizure of evidence. Hiring a competent and experienced defense attorney is the first and best step towards justice.

Consecutive v. Concurrent Sentencing

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Clients often ask, “What’s the difference between consecutive and concurrent sentences?”

Quite a lot, actually!

The question applies to Clients facing criminal charges from numerous jurisdictions. For these clients, sometimes the best approach is to seek a global resolution. This can happen if the prosecutors of the different jurisdictions are willing to coordinate their efforts toward a plea bargain involving reductions and dismissals of some criminal charges in exchange for guilty pleas to other charges.

Naturally, a big question in these negotiations is whether the defendant shall serve their jail time under a consecutive sentence or a concurrent sentences. Here’s some definitions:

Concurrent sentences: When sentences run concurrently, defendants serve all the sentences at the same time. This outcome is favorable to the defendant.

Consecutive sentences: When sentences run consecutively, defendants have to finish serving the sentence for one offense before they start serving the sentence for any other offense. This sentence outcome is not favorable to the defendant.

To illustrate the point, in State v. Brown the WA Court of Appeals recently held that firearm enhancements must be served consecutively in cases in which the defendant was 18-years or older when s/he committed the crimes.

BACKGROUND FACTS

A jury convicted Mr. Brown of four counts of first degree robbery, one count of attempted first degree robbery, two counts of second degree assault, and one count of attempting to elude a pursuing police vehicle. Five of the convictions included firearm enhancements, which are increased sentencing penalties.

At sentencing, the State recommended a sentence of 381 months. The State recommended five firearm enhancements ran consecutively to each other and to Mr. Brown’s base sentence of 129 months. The trial court imposed the State’s recommended sentence. Brown appealed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals raised and dismissed Mr. Brown’s arguments on appeal. It reasoned that under the Sentencing Reform Act – and specifically, RCW 9.94A.533(3)(e) – all firearm enhancements require prison time and shall run consecutively to all other sentencing provisions, including other firearm or deadly weapon enhancements.

“Brown’s sole claim is that he is entitled to resentencing because the sentencing court erroneously believed it lacked the discretion to depart from the required term of confinement for a firearm enhancement. We disagree.” ~WA Court of Appeals

To support its reasoning, the WA Court of Appeals relied on State v. Brown (no relation) a WA Supreme Court case which held that Washington law deprives sentencing courts of the discretion to impose an exceptional sentence with regard to firearm enhancements.

“In any event, a decision by the Washington Supreme Court is binding on all lower courts of the state,” reasoned the WA court of Appeals. “This court does not have the
authority to overrule Brown.”

With that, the Court of Appeals upheld Mr. Brown’s lengthy prison sentence.

My opinion? Again, if a defendant is convicted of a number of crimes that carry lengthy prison terms, the difference between consecutive and concurrent sentences can be tremendous. The same factors that judges tend to consider when deciding on the severity of a sentence (for example, a defendant’s past record) also affect their decisions on whether to give concurrent or consecutive sentences.

As you can see, however, some criminal statutes require that the sentence for the crime in question be served consecutively to any other crime committed in the same incident.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges involving the possibility of concurrent or consecutive sentencing. It’s crucial to hire an experienced criminal defense attorney who understands the law.

Passive Obstructing

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In State v. Canfield, the WA Court of Appeals held that a defendant’s feigning sleep when first contacted by police and his repeated refusals to obey commands provided ample evidence to support an Obstructing a Public Servant conviction.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Law enforcement officers testified that Mr. Canfield feigned sleep when first contacted, disregarded several commands, and tried to start his vehicle as if to drive away from the scene. He also lied about his identity and tried to hide a gun while being arrested. Eventually, he was charged with numerous crimes to include Possession of Methamphetamine, Second Degree Unlawful Possession of a Firearm, Possession of a Stolen Firearm, and Obstructing a Public Servant.

At trial, the court convicted Mr. Canfield of Obstructing in addition to some of the aforementioned charges. He appealed on numerous issues, including whether there was sufficient evidence to arrest to support a conviction for Obstructing.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSION

The Court of Appeals reasoned upheld the lower court’s finding that Mr. Canfield hindered a public servant in the performance of his duties.

In reaching its decision, the Court of Appeals raised and dismissed Mr. Canfield’s argument that his case was similar to State v. D.E.D. That case, which was a favorable legal precedent, involved a defendant who passively resisted an investigatory detention. In that case, the Court of Appeals held the defendant’s passive resistance to being handcuffed did not constitute obstructing a public servant.

“The comparison fails,” said the Court. It further reasoned that the law imposes a duty to cooperate with an arrest and makes it a crime to resist arrest, and actions that hinder an arrest short of resisting can constitute obstructing a public servant.

“Passive resistance to a lawful arrest can constitute obstructing by itself. Here, there was additional evidence beyond the handcuffing incident, including the repeated refusals to obey commands and feigning sleep. Mr. Canfield did not merely refuse to cooperate with the police. He actively tried to hinder them.”

With that, the Court of Appeals concluded the trial court rightfully concluded that Mr. Canfield was guilty of obstructing a public servant.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges. Hiring an experienced and effective defense attorney is the best step towards justice.

Body Camera Evidence Admissible

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In State v. Clayton, the WA Court of Appeals held that police body camera evidence does not violate Washington’s Privacy Act because police interactions with a suspect and witnesses or victims of the crime are not private conversations.

BACKGROUND FACTS

The charges arose from a visit by law enforcement to a Spokane home. On the evening in question, multiple officers responded to the residence following a report of shots being fired. Mr. Clayton let officers in the residence and consented to a search. There were six people in the residence in addition to the officers who entered. Three officers had active body cameras recording the investigation, but none of the residents were advised of that fact.

An officer discovered two revolvers in a dresser and also observed bullet holes in a couch, wall, and the floor. Upon learning that Mr. Clayton was ineligible to possess the revolvers, officers arrested him for unlawful possession of the weapons. The prosecutor charged two counts of unlawful possession of a firearm based on the October arrest. Clayton’s girlfriend told officers that one month earlier, Clayton had fired a shot in the apartment that struck the couch on which she was sitting.

Ultimately, the prosecutor charged Clayton with one count of second degree assault and one count of unlawful possession of a firearm for the September incident, as well as two counts of unlawful possession of a firearm for the two weapons recovered in October.

After conducting a CrR 3.6 hearing on a defense motion to suppress the recordings, the court permitted the video evidence only to the point where the officer discovered the guns and arrested Clayton. Body camera footage from one of the officers was played for the jury at trial. The jury acquitted Clayton on the assault charge, but convicted him of all three
unlawful possession charges.

COURT’S ANALYSIS

On appeal, Mr. Clayton argues that the police body camera recording was made in violation of the “Privacy Act,” rendering the evidence inadmissible.

The Court of Appeals  ultimately ruled, however, that because the police interaction with Mr. Clayton and his family was not a private conversation, there was no error.

The Court described how the Privacy Act prohibits recording a private communication unless all parties to the communication consent. Consequently, any information obtained from unknown recordings is inadmissible in court.

More specifically, a communication is private under the act when (1) the parties have a subjective expectation that it is private, and (2) that expectation is objectively reasonable.  Among other things, the subject matter of the calls, the location of the participants, the potential presence of third parties, and the roles of the participants are relevant to whether the call is private.

When it comes to body-worn cameras, law enforcement may record people who have been arrested upon (i) informing the person that a recording is being made, (ii) stating the time of the beginning and ending of the recording in the recording, and (iii) advising the person at the commencement of the recording of his or her constitutional rights. In addition, (iv) the recording may be used only for valid police or court activities. Finally, the person must be told that he or she is being recorded. However, there is no requirement that the individual consent to the recording.

In short, the Court reasoned that conversations with uniformed, on-duty law enforcement officers are typically not private conversations.

“People understand that information they provide to officers conducting an investigation is going to turn up in written police reports and may be reported in court along with the observations made by the officers . . . The conversations took place in his apartment, a place where he had some subjective expectation of privacy, but they also occurred in the presence of five others. The subject matter of the visit—a report of a gun being fired and subsequent search for the weapon—was not a private one.”

Consequently, the trial court did not err in denying the defendant’s motion to suppress and upheld his convictions.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges and the evidence involves recordings from police body-worn cameras.

“Am I Free To Leave?”

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In State v. Johnson, the WA Court of Appeals held that a “seizure” of a person occurs when an officer’s words and action would have conveyed to an innocent person that his or movements are being restricted. Officers need not create a complete obstruction of an individual’s movements in order for the encounter to become a seizure.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Officer Yates and Officer George of the Lynnwood Police Department were engaged in a proactive patrol late at night in an area known to have a high rate of criminal activity. The officers observed a silver vehicle enter a motel parking lot and park in a stall. After the vehicle came to rest, about a minute and a half passed without any person entering or leaving the vehicle. The officers became suspicious that its occupants were using drugs.

The officers, both of whom were armed and in uniform, approached the vehicle on foot and stood on opposite sides adjacent to the driver’s and passenger’s doors. They shined flashlights into the vehicle’s interior to enable them to see the vehicle’s occupants and ensure that neither was holding anything that could put the officers in danger. Because the vehicle was also flanked on both sides by cars parked in adjoining stalls, the officers had minimal space to move.

Officer Yates did not see any drugs or drug paraphernalia when he shined his flashlight inside the passenger compartment. Inside were the defendant Mr. Johnson and a female passenger.

Officer Yates stood on the passenger side while Officer George stood adjacent to the driver’s door. Yates sought to start a conversation with Johnson, who was in the driver’s seat, and did so by asking, “Hey, is this Taylor’s vehicle?” In fact, there was no “Taylor”; the ruse was intended to make Johnson feel more comfortable, in the hope that he would talk with the officer. Johnson appeared confused by the question, and Yates asked, again, whether the vehicle was “Taylor Smith’s vehicle.” In response, Johnson stated that the vehicle was his own and that he had recently purchased it.

Meanwhile, Officer George, who was leaning over the driver’s side door, noticed a handgun placed between the driver’s seat and the door.

George alerted Yates to the presence of the firearm, drew his own handgun, opened the driver’s door and removed the weapon from Johnson’s vehicle. Subsequently, Johnson was removed from the vehicle. Meanwhile, police dispatch informed the officers that Johnson’s driver’s license was suspended in the third degree, and that he had an outstanding arrest warrant and a felony conviction. The officers then informed Johnson that he was being detained but not placed under arrest and advised him of his Miranda rights.

Eventually, Johnson was charged with unlawful possession of a firearm in
the first degree.

Before trial, Johnson moved to suppress the evidence of the gun found in his possession, contending that it was found attendant to his unlawful seizure. After an evidentiary hearing, the trial court granted Johnson’s motion. However, the judge did not make a determination as to whether Johnson was seized prior to the discovery and removal of the firearm, instead ruling that the encounter was a “social contact” and that “law enforcement had an insufficient basis to initiate a social contact.” The trial court further acknowledged that granting the motion to suppress essentially terminated the State’s case. The State appeals from the order granting Johnson’s motion.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

“In a constitutional sense, the term “social contact” is meaningless. The term has been adopted by lawyers and judges to describe circumstances that do
not amount to a seizure.”

The Court of Appeals further reasoned that term has been adopted by lawyers and judges to describe circumstances that do not amount to a seizure. It explained, for example, that a social contact is said to rest someplace between an officer’s saying ‘hello’ to a stranger on the street and, at the other end of the spectrum, an investigative detention (i.e., Terry stop).

“Fortunately, seizure jurisprudence is well-developed,” said the Court. It said the WA Constitution does not forbid social contacts between police and citizens. A police officer’s conduct in engaging a defendant in conversation in a public place and asking for
identification does not, alone, raise the encounter to an investigative detention. Not
every encounter between a police officer and a citizen is an intrusion requiring an
objective justification. Thus, the police are permitted to engage persons in conversation and ask for identification even in the absence of an articulable suspicion of wrongdoing.

“However, officers need not create a complete obstruction of an individual’s movements in order for the encounter to become a seizure. The test is whether a reasonable person faced with similar circumstances would feel free to leave or otherwise terminate the encounter.”

The Court of Appeals held the search and seizure unlawful. In the instant case, the defendant was seized when officers asked for proof of his identity under a totality of the circumstances analysis as (1) the defendant was seated in a parked car that was flanked by cars parked in each of the adjoining spaces when the two uniformed officers stood adjacent to the vehicle’s doors, such that neither the defendant nor his passenger would have been able to open the doors and walk away from the vehicle without the officers moving or giving way; (2) the defendant could not move his vehicle in reverse without risking his car making contact with one or both of the officers and a barrier prevented the vehicle from pulling forward, (3) the officers illuminated the interior of the vehicle with flashlights, and (4) the officers used a ruse to begin the contact, asking “Is this Taylor’s car?” (5) when the officers approached the vehicle and initiated a conversation with Johnson, they saw him seated with a female passenger and neither officer observed any signs of drug use, (6) Johnson was cooperative with Officer Yates and answered his questions, and (7) beyond the aforementioned hunch, the officers were aware of nothing that constituted a reasonable, articulable suspicion of potential criminal activity.

With that, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not err in granting
Johnson’s motion to suppress evidence of the subsequently discovered firearm.

My opinion? Good decision. Please contact my office if you a friend or family member are arrested for a crime and believe an unlawful search or seizure happened. Hiring an experienced defense attorney is the first and best step toward justice.

Firearms & Terry Stops

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In State v. Tarango, the WA Court of Appeals held that the presence of a firearm in public and the presence of an individual openly carrying a handgun in a “high-risk setting,” are insufficient, standing alone, to support an investigatory stop.

BACKGROUND FACTS

At around 2:00 in the afternoon on a winter day in 2016, Mr. Matthews drove to a neighborhood grocery store in Spokane, parking his car next to a Chevrolet Suburban in which music was playing loudly. A man was sitting in the passenger seat of the Suburban, next to its female driver. When Mr. Matthews stepped out of his car and got a better look at the passenger, who later turned out to be the defendant Mr. Tarango, he noticed that Mr. Tarango was holding a gun in his right hand, resting it on his thigh. Mr. Matthews would later describe it as a semiautomatic, Glock-style gun.

As he headed into the store, Mr. Matthews called 911 to report what he had seen, providing the 911 operator with his name and telephone number. The first officer to respond saw a vehicle meeting Mr. Matthews’s description parked on the east side of the store. He called in the license plate number and waited for backup to arrive. Before other officers could arrive, however, the Suburban left the parking area, traveling west.

The Suburban was followed by an officer and once several other officers reached the vicinity, they conducted a felony stop. According to one of the officers, the driver, Lacey Hutchinson, claimed to be the vehicle’s owner. When told why she had been pulled over, she denied having firearms in the vehicle and gave consent to search it.

After officers obtained Mr. Tarango’s identification, however, they realized he was under Department of Corrections (DOC) supervision and decided to call DOC officers to perform the search.

In searching the area within reach of where Mr. Tarango had been seated, a DOC officer observed what appeared to be the grip of a firearm located behind the passenger seat, covered by a canvas bag. When the officer moved the bag to get a better view of the visible firearm—the visible firearm turned out to be a black semiautomatic—a second firearm, a revolver, fell out. Moving the bag also revealed a couple of boxes of ammunition. At that point, officers decided to terminate the search, seal the vehicle, and obtain a search warrant. A loaded Glock Model 22 and a Colt Frontier Scout revolver were recovered when the vehicle was later searched.

The State charged Mr. Tarango, who had prior felony convictions, with two counts of first degree unlawful possession of a firearm. Because Mr. Tarango had recently failed to report to his community custody officer as ordered, he was also charged with Escape from community custody.

Before trial, Mr. Tarango moved to suppress evidence obtained as a result of the traffic stop, arguing that police lacked reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. However, the trial court denied the suppression motion. Later, at trial, the jury found Mr. Tarango guilty as charged. He appealed.

ISSUE

The issue on appeal was whether a reliable informant’s tip that Mr. Tarango was seen openly holding a handgun while seated in a vehicle in a grocery store parking lot was a sufficient basis, without more, for conducting a Terry stop of the vehicle after it left the lot.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

First, the Court of Appeals held that Mr. Tarango’s motion to suppress should have been granted because officers lacked reasonable suspicion that Mr. Tarango had engaged in or was about to engage in criminal activity.

The Court reasoned that warrantless searches and seizures are per se unreasonable unless one of the few jealously and carefully drawn exceptions to the warrant requirement applies.

“A Terry investigative stop is a well-established exception,” said the Court. “The purpose of a Terry stop is to allow the police to make an intermediate response to a situation for which there is no probable cause to arrest but which calls for further investigation . . . To conduct a valid Terry stop, an officer must have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity based on specific and articulable facts known to the officer at the inception of the stop.”

Additionally, the Court of Appeals reasoned that in evaluating whether the circumstances supported a reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct, it reminded that Washington is an “open carry” state, meaning that it is legal in Washington to carry an unconcealed firearm unless the circumstances manifest an intent to intimidate another or warrant alarm for the safety of other persons.

“Since openly carrying a handgun is not only not unlawful, but is an individual right protected by the federal and state constitutions, it defies reason to contend that it can be the basis, without more, for an investigative stop.”

Here, because the officers conducting the Terry stop of the Suburban had no information that Mr. Tarango had engaged in or was about to engage in criminal activity, the officers lacked reasonable suspicion.

Consequently, the Court of Appeals ruled that Tarango’s motion to suppress should have been granted. The Court also reversed and dismissed his firearm possession convictions.

Please contact my office if, a friend or family member face criminal charges. Similar to the excellent defense attorney in this case, experienced attorneys routinely research, file and argue motions to suppress evidence when it is gained by unlawful search and seizure and in violation a defendant’s Constitutional rights.

Autopsy Photos Admitted

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In State v. Whitaker, the WA Court of Appeals held that a trial court properly admitted 15 of 100 autopsy photographs over the objection of the defendant who was charged with aggravated murder. The probative value of the photographs in helping to illustrate the medical examiner’s testimony outweighed their prejudicial effect.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Mr. Whitaker was charged with helping his friend Mr. Anderson and several others kidnap and Ms. Burkheimer, who was Anderson’s ex-girlfriend. Whitaker helped to bind, hide, and transport Burkheimer. He helped to dig her grave, rob her, bury her, and destroy evidence
of her murder.

At trial, the court admitted 15 autopsy photographs during the testimony of the medical examiner. The medical examiner testified that around 100 photographs were taken during Burkheimer’s autopsy and that the 15 selected for trial showed the injuries to Burkheimer’s body, what the medical examiner looked at when he decided where the bullet exit and entry wounds were, and how Burkheimer’s injuries related to one another.

The jury found Whitaker guilty of premeditated first degree murder, with an aggravating factor of kidnapping and a firearm enhancement, and conspiracy to commit first degree murder. During the trial, Whitaker moved for a mistrial several times, alleging numerous errors were made during trial; one of the errors being whether the trial court improperly admitted the photographs of the victim’s autopsy.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Court of Appeals upheld Whitaker’s conviction and reasoned that accurate photographic representations are admissible, even if gruesome, if their probative value outweighs their prejudicial effect.

“A bloody, brutal crime cannot be explained to a jury in a lily-white manner.”

“The admission of autopsy photographs is in the sound discretion of the trial court,” said the Court of Appeals. “Photographs have probative value where they are used to illustrate or explain the testimony of the pathologist performing the autopsy. Unless it is clear from the record that the primary reason to admit gruesome photographs is to inflame the jury’s passion, appellate courts will uphold the decision of the trial court.” Furthermore, reasoned the Court, the law requires an exercise of restraint, not a preclusion simply because other less inflammatory testimonial evidence is available.

The medical examiner’s testimony explaining the photographs and his conclusions about Burkheimer’s injuries was straightforward and not inflammatory.

“There is no doubt that these photographs are disturbing,” said the court. “But this was a brutal crime, and the record does not show that the primary reason for admitting the photographs was to inflame the jury.” Rather, reasoned the Court, the photographs were admitted to support the testimony of the medical examiner. “The State did not offer all 100 of the photographs but instead selected 15 that best illustrated Burkheimer’s injuries,” said the Court. Therefore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by admitting them.

With that, the Court of Appeals upheld Mr. Whitaker’s conviction and sentence.

My opinion? The admissibility of evidence is one of the most important battles in trial practice. Courts conduct balancing tests on this issue under Evidence Rules 401, 402 and 403. Under these evidence rules, judges can admit evidence which is relevant and probative as long as the evidence is also not prejudicial to the defendant’s case.  Prejudicial evidence includes evidence which may inflame the passions of the jury. Understandably, however, the prejudicial effect can be outweighed by the probative value. In this case, the probative value of the medical examiner’s testimony outweighed the prejudicial effect these photos may have had on the jury.

Contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime involving photographic evidence which could be prejudicial to the case.

I-940 Passed By Voters

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Excellent article from Seattle Times reporter Steve Miletich informs us that Initiative 940,  the measure that would remove a 32-year-old barrier in state law that has made it virtually impossible to bring criminal charges against police officers believed to have wrongfully used deadly force, has passed with strong support.

Passage of the measure means that prosecutors will no longer have to prove law-enforcement officers acted with “evil intent” — or so-called “malice” — when considering whether to file criminal charges such as manslaughter. Washington is the only state with such restrictive language.

The measure passed with 60 percent of the vote statewide. In King County, support exceeded 70 percent.

According to Miletich, a spokesperson for the I-940 campaign said the win means “Washington becomes the first state in the nation to pass a police training and accountability measure in response to a national conversation about use of force and relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”

I-940 requires proof that a reasonable officer would have used deadly force in the same circumstance and sincerely believed the use of deadly force was warranted. I-940 also requires de-escalation and mental-health training for police; requires officers to administer first aid to a victim of deadly force; and requires independent investigations into the use of deadly force.

At one point, state legislators passed a compromise bill earlier this year that addressed concerns raised by some law-enforcement organizations about certain wording in the initiative.

I-940 proponents accepted the bill, agreeing to keep the initiative off the ballot. But the state Supreme Court agreed with a challenger that the initiative couldn’t be modified by the Legislature and must be presented to the voters in its original form.

My opinion? Excellent. It’s about time. All of us want to ensure our families, communities and law enforcement officers as safe. But last year, more people were killed in encounters with law enforcement than in 45 other states, and almost a third of those killed were experiencing a mental health crisis. No officer wants to find themselves in this situation, but right now officers in Washington aren’t provided with enough training to help them de-escalate a potentially deadly encounter.

 

FBI Historical Cell Site Analysis

Image result for Cellular Analysis Survey Team (CAST)

In State v. Ramirez, the WA Court of Appeals held that cell site location testimony is widely accepted throughout the country, and it is not error under ER 702, to allow an FBI agent with sufficient training and experience to testify regarding historical cell site analysis.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Mr. Ramirez was charged with two counts of premeditated first degree murder and one count of unlawful possession of a firearm. All crimes occurred at Spokane County’s Broadway Square Apartments.

In addition to other pretrial motions, the defense also filed a motion to exclude a report and testimony from FBI Special Agent Jennifer Banks. The State named Special Agent Banks as an expert witness on historical cell site analysis. According to Banks’s report, records obtained from Mr. Ramirez’s cell phone provider placed him near the Broadway Square Apartments 10 minutes before the first 911 call was placed. The defense argued that Banks’s testimony should be struck based on late disclosure and because it failed to meet both the Frye standard for admissibility and the criteria for expert testimony under ER 702.

The parties argued the pending pretrial motions on the morning set for trial. Prior to jury selection, the trial court also held a Frye hearing to determine the admissibility of Special Agent Banks’s testimony. She testified that due to being a member of the FBI’s Cellular Analysis Survey Team (CAST), she received training in deciphering cell phone records.

Agent Banks also described two components to her work. First, she interprets historic call detail records from cellular telephone providers in order to discern the location of cell towers activated by a particular voice call or text message. Second, she performs field tests of geographic areas to determine the strength of various cell towers. These tests involve driving through a location with a scanning device which uploads cellular frequencies in a given area to a computer program and plots signal strengths on an area map. Agent Banks testified that CAST agents had testified in approximately 400 courts throughout the country and that the CAST methodology is more widely accepted in the law enforcement community than any other cellular location method.

Defense counsel argued that Agent Banks’s testimony should be struck because her expert report was untimely and because the FBI’s mapping software had not been validated. The State made clear that it would not object to a continuance if Mr. Ramirez wanted more time to evaluate Agent Banks’s report. However, Mr. Ramirez insisted on moving forward with trial as scheduled. The trial court ultimately permitted the State to go forward with Agent Banks’s testimony, finding that the substance of the testimony was not novel.

TRIAL

During her testimony, Agent Banks explained how her CAST analysis applied to Mr. Ramirez’s case. Agent Banks said Mr. Ramirez’s call detail records included not only a code for each cell site antenna activated by Mr. Ramirez’s phone calls and texts, but also the 120-degree angle that the antenna had been pointed at the time of connection. By plotting the call detail data onto a map, Agent Banks determined Mr. Ramirez’s cell phone was in the area of the Broadway Square Apartments at 9:24 p.m. on November 1, 2014. This was approximately 10 minutes before the first 911 calls.

In addition to interpreting the call detail records, Agent Banks explained the field test she performed in connection to Mr. Ramirez’s case. To perform the test, Special Agent Banks drove through Spokane Valley, collecting cell tower frequencies with an FBI scanner. The FBI’s scanning software was then able to generate a map, showing the coverage strength area for each of the cell towers activated by Mr. Ramirez’s cell phone. The maps developed from the drive-through process largely corroborated the information indicated from the maps developed solely from the call detail records.

The jury found Mr. Ramirez guilty as charged. He appealed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

Among other issues, Mr. Ramirez argued the trial court erred when it found Agent Banks’s cell site analysis admissible under Frye and ER 702. Mr. Ramirez complained that the software program used by the FBI is proprietary, and thus has not been subject to independent peer review. He also claimed Agent Banks’s testimony was unhelpful to the jury because the FBI cell site location methodology failed to account for imperfections in the cell transmission process, such as weather, obstructions, and network traffic.

The Court of Appeals discussed the Frye standard for determining the admissibility of novel scientific evidence. The standard has two parts. It asks (1) whether the underlying theory is generally accepted in the scientific community, and (2) whether there are techniques utilizing the theory that are capable of producing reliable results. Evidence not involving “new methods of proof or new scientific principles” is not subject to examination under Frye. The Court also reasoned that with respect to the Frye standard, cell site location testimony is not novel; and is widely accepted throughout the country:

“Historical cell-site analysis can show with sufficient reliability that a phone was in a general area, especially in a well-populated one. It also shows the cell sites with which the person’s cell phone connected, and the science is well understood.”

Furthermore, the Court reasoned that Agent Banks bolstered the reliability of her historical analysis by performing a drive-through analysis of the signal strength of the cell towers activated by Mr. Ramirez’s cell phone and evaluating the particular characteristics of the cell tower with which Mr. Ramirez’s phone connected, including its power and the direction its antennae were facing.

“The theories behind the drive-through test/cell tower strength testimony were sound,” reasoned the Court. It is not novel or uncommon to measure the strength of cell tower or radio frequencies. In addition, computer programs routinely generate maps that correspond to real-world data. “Concerns about the FBI’s software program did not present a reason for excluding Agent Banks’s testimony under Frye, said the Court.

Finally, the Court of Appeals decided the trial court also did not abuse its discretion in admitting Agent Banks’s testimony under ER 702. “It is undisputed that Agent Banks qualifies as an expert in historical cell site analysis,” said the Court. “Her testimony was also helpful to the jury.” The Court explained that Agent Banks did not overestimate the quality of her cell site analysis. Throughout her testimony, she made the jury aware of the imprecision of cell site location information. She cross tested the information obtained from the cell location records with information from her drive-through signal strength test. “Mr. Ramirez cannot identify any realistic risk that the jury would have been confused by the nature of this testimony. The evidence was therefore properly admitted.”

With that the Court of Appeals affirmed Mr. Ramirez’s judgment and sentence.

My opinion? Interesting decision. The admissibility of this evidence involves challenges which, in turn, involve very complex questions of physics, signal timing, reliability, etc. First, does the network reliably collect and report the underlying data, in particular the signal timing and power measurements? Second, is the enhanced historical cell sector analysis a reliable method to determine accurate location information for a target cell phone at a point in the past? A closely related third question is what scope of expertise required to establish the reliability of the data collected and the methods used to interpret that data.

Contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime involving historical cell site analysis from a law enforcement officer.