Category Archives: Violent Crime

Police Stop Booking Some People Into Whatcom Jail Due To Coronavirus

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Informative article by Denver Pratt of the Bellingham Herald says that Whatcom County law enforcement agencies stopped booking people into the Whatcom County Jail for certain crimes on Thursday, March 19, due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Apparently, people arrested will be booked and released for everything except certain offenses that represent a serious threat to public safety. Those crimes include domestic violence, violations of a no-contact order, felony DUI, sex offenses, burglary and other violent crimes. Those booked for misdemeanor DUI will be held until sober.

The memo suggests officers arrest, book and release people when they can, giving them notice of when to appear in court. And those who are booked on charges that pose a threat to public safety will be held until they see a judge.

At this point, seven Whatcom County residents have been diagnosed with the respiratory illness, one of whom died, according to the Whatcom County Health Department.

Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo said the measures are looking out for the health of the people who work in the jail, as well as those incarcerated there.

“They’re in place because of some compelling public safety and public health issues. We want to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but do it in a way that doesn’t minimize public safety. We’re still booking and holding violent people. These are temporary measures . . . We’re trying to take the jail population as low as we can safely and reasonably do under the circumstances.” ~Sheriff Bill Elfo

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges and are jailed indefinitely in the midst of the Coronavirus Pandemic. Obviously, getting released as soon as possible is a major priority. And hiring an experienced attorney is the first and best step toward justice.

Crime Rates By WA Cities

 

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A recent report from www.backgrounchecks.org  ranks Washington cities by crime rates. In short, although Washington cities are lower than average violent crime, there’s an increase in property crime.

“In the state’s larger cities such as Seattle and Spokane, you’re more likely to have your car broken into than become the victim of an assault. Still, despite Washington’s property crime issue, there are plenty of communities in the state with an all-around high level of safety.”  ~backgroundchecks.org

According to the report, the safest city in Washington is Snoqualmie. Recording just two violent crimes in 2017, Snoqualmie logged a very low 0.15 violent crimes per 1,000 residents, along with a property crime rate half of the U.S. national average.

Backgroundchecks.org uses the most recent FBI crime statistics to create state rankings. There were initially 7,430 cities in the data set. After filtering out the cities with populations of less than 10,000, 2,929 cities remained. The website then calculated violent crime rates and property crime rates by dividing the crime numbers by the population to get rates per 1,000. They also calculated the ratio of law enforcement workers to per 1,000. These were weighted with -50% for the violent crime rate, -25% for the property crime rate, and +25% for the law enforcement rate. The resulting metric gave us a the safety index score. In short, the higher this number more safe the city is.

Not every person arrested is guilty of a crime.  Other studies show that densely populated cities also have higher incidence of overall arrests. Therefore, please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime.

A Cell Phone “Ping” Is a Search

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In State v. Muhammad, the WA Supreme Court held that a warrantless cell phone “ping” is a search under the WA Constitution and the Fourth Amendment.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Police investigated the rape and murder of Ms. Ina Claire Richardson. The night she was killed, Richardson had shopped at a local grocery store.  Security cameras recorded her walking through the parking lot toward a distinctive maroon sedan. Minutes later, the vehicle’s headlights switched on, and the vehicle exited the parking lot, drove onto an access road behind a nearby hotel, and parked. Two individuals appeared in the car, which remained parked for approximately one hour. Police officers later discovered a condom wrapper at this location.

On November 10, 2014, a law enforcement officer recognized the unique features of the maroon sedan from the security footage and conducted a traffic stop. The driver was Mr. Muhammad. During the stop, the officer asked Muhammad about his vehicle, asked him whether he had gone to the grocery store or had been in the area on the night of the murder, and obtained Muhammad’s cell phone number before letting him go.

After this encounter, law enforcement “pinged” Muhammad’s cell phone without a warrant. The ping placed Muhammad in an orchard in Lewiston, Idaho. Washington and Idaho police arrived, seized Muhammad’s cell phone, and impounded his car. Police also sought and obtained a search warrant for Muhammad’s car.

Muhammad was taken into custody. He denied any involvement in the rape and murder and eventually asked for legal counsel. Police later searched Muhammad’s car. They discovered blood on the passenger seat; in the trunk, they found latex gloves and other incriminating evidence. The police also discovered condoms in the trunk of the sedan. These condoms matched the condom wrapper found by the hotel service entrance. Finally, The blood was matched to that of Ms. Richardson. Autopsy swabs of Richardson’s vagina and fingernails revealed a limited amount of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) matching Muhammad’s profile.

The police obtained a search warrant for Muhammad’s cell phone records. These calls he made on the night of the incident connected to multiple cell towers, indicating that Muhammad was moving. One such cell tower placed Muhammad in the location where Richardson’s body was found.

Muhammad was arrested and charged with rape and felony murder.

At trial, Muhammad moved to suppress all physical evidence collected as a result of the warrantless ping of his cell phone. After a CrR 3.6 hearing, the trial court issued a written order denying the motion based in part on exigent circumstances. A jury convicted Muhammad as charged. Muhammad appealed his convictions.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

  1. The Cell Phone “Ping” Tracking Was A Warrantless Search.

The WA Supreme Court held that the “ping” tracking of Muhammad’s cell phone was indeed a search.

“When law enforcement loses sight of a suspected individual, officers need merely ask a cellular service carrier to ping that individual’s phone and almost instantaneously police acquire data on the suspect’s past and present location,” said the Court. “This location tracking technique does substantially more than binoculars or flashlights; it enables officers to see farther than even the walls of a home—it pierces through space and time to pinpoint a cell phone’s location and, with it, the phone’s owner.”

The Court further reasoned that this type of search was exactly what happened to Mr. Muhammad. “The police could not locate Muhammad,” said the Court. “They knew only that he had likely left the area after officers returned to his apartment complex and found the maroon sedan had disappeared. As Muhammad pointed out, the officers’ senses alone could not locate him unless they converted his phone into a tracking device,” said the Court.

“Historical and real-time CSLI, like text messages, reveal an intensely intimate picture into our personal lives. Our cell phones accompany us on trips taken to places we would rather keep private, such as the psychiatrist, the plastic surgeon, the abortion clinic, the AIDS treatment center, the strip club, the criminal defense attorney, the by-the-hour motel, the union meeting, the mosque, synagogue or church, the gay bar and on and on.”

              2. Exigent Circumstances Exist to Justify the Warrantless Cell Phone Search.

The Court said that because the State failed to get a warrant prior to pinging Muhammad’s cell phone, the evidence obtained pursuant to the improper search should be suppressed unless the State proves that an exception to the warrant requirement applies. “Exigent Circumstances” is one of those exceptions.

To prove exigent circumstances, the State must point to specific, articulable facts and the reasonable inferences therefrom which justify the intrusion. “The mere suspicion of flight or destruction of evidence does not satisfy this particularity requirement,”said the Court.

The Court reasoned that under the facts of this case, the State has proved exigent circumstances—specifically that Muhammad was in flight, that he might have been in the process of destroying evidence, that the evidence sought was in a mobile vehicle, and that the suspected crimes (murder and rape) were grave and violent charges.

With that, the WA Supreme Court affirmed Muhammad’s conviction.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges and the evidence was obtained through a warrantless search of cell phone data and/or location. It is imperative to hire an experienced criminal defense attorney who is well-versed in the law regarding search and seizure of this evidence.

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.

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.

Washington Crime Report Released

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The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC) just released its 2017 Crime in Washington Annual Report.

It was compiled from data submitted to the Washington State Uniform Crime Reporting Program of the WASPC by Washington State law enforcement agencies.

FACTS AT A GLANCE

  • In 2017, Crimes Against Persons showed an increase of 0.4% with 84,145 offenses reported; compared to 2016 offenses reported of 83,771.
  • In 2017, Crimes Against Property showed an decrease of 6.7% with 295,274 offenses reported; compared to 316,361 offenses reported in 2016.
  • In 2017, Crimes Against Society showed an increase of 5.9% with 32,011 offenses reported; compared to 30,230 offenses reported in 2016.
  • Group A offenses were cleared by arrest or exceptional means 25.6% of the time.
  • The crime rate (per 1,000 in population) for Group A offenses was 69.1.
  • The total arrest rate per 1,000 in population was 25.6.
  • Juveniles comprised of 6.9% of the total arrests.
  • Domestic Violence offenses made up 50.4% of all Crimes Against Persons.
  • A total of 25,400 persons were arrested for DUI, including 163 juveniles.
  • A total of 531 hate crime incidents were reported.
  • There were a total of 1,643 assaults on law enforcement officers and no officers killed in the line of duty.
  • Full-time law enforcement employees totaled 15,873; of these 11,078 were commissioned officers.
  • There were 11,986 arrests for drug abuse violations; of that number, 10.2% were persons under 18 years of age.
  • Possessing/concealing of marijuana constituted 16.7% of the total drug abuse incidents; the distributing/selling of marijuana accounted for 1.1% of incidents(type of criminal activity can be entered three times in each incident).
  • Possessing/concealing of heroin constituted 32.2% of the total drug abuse incidents; the distributing/selling of heroin accounted for 4.6% of incidents (type of criminal activity can be entered three times in each incident).
  • The weapon type of “Personal Weapons” (hands, fists or feet) was reported in 51,817 incidents; firearms were reported in 8,465 incidents (up to three weapons can be reported in each incident).
  • There were 6,212 sexual assault (forcible and non-forcible) incidents reported in 2017. There were a total of 6,212 victims in these incidents; with a total of 6,300 offenders.
  • There were a total of 54,294 domestic violence incidents reported; 12,023 of these incidents were Violations of Protection or No Contact Orders.

Overall, the data is very interesting.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime. Consultations are free. I provide effective criminal defense for people charged with felonies and misdemeanors. It is extremely important to hire an attorney like myself who is willing to devote significant attention to the case. I say this because people convicted of a crime face more than just criminal penalties. They also face a potential lifelong social stigma, as well as diminished employment, housing and educational opportunities. I proudly represent clients in Skagit and Whatcom County, Washington.

 

Right to Impartial Jury

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

BACKGROUND FACTS

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

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

Jury Selection

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

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

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

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

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

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

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My opinion? Bad decision.

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

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

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

WA Supreme Court Changes Race Bias Jury Selection Test

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In State v. Jefferson, the WA Supreme Court modified the the third step of a Batson challenge to a peremptory strike of a juror in Washington. At the final step, the trial court must ask whether an objective observer could view race or ethnicity as a factor in the use of peremptory strike. If so, then the strike must be denied and the challenge to that strike must be accepted.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On February 14, 2013, Jefferson was involved in a fight over a pair of designer sunglasses. The fight ended with the shooting of Rosendo Robinson. Jefferson was subsequently charged with attempted murder in the first degree, assault in the first degree, and unlawful possession of a firearm in the first degree. His defense was that someone else pulled the trigger.

Jury selection began on May 4, 2015. On the second day of jury selection, the State exercised a peremptory strike against Juror 10, the last African-American in the jury pool. Jefferson challenged this strike with a Batson motion. After going through the three-step Batson analysis, the trial court denied the Batson motion and ruled that the State had provided a nondiscriminatory explanation for its peremptory challenge of Juror 10. The trial proceeded and lasted approximately 10 days.

The jury convicted Jefferson of attempted murder in the first degree, assault in the first degree, and unlawful possession of a firearm in the first degree. Jefferson was sentenced to 337.5 months of incarceration.

Jefferson appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the convictions. He appealed again. This time, the WA Supreme Court granted Jefferson’s appeal and addressed Jefferson then petitioned for review on three issues: (1) whether the trial court erred in denying the Batson motion to deny the State’s peremptory strike of Juror 10 under the current Batson test, (2) whether this court should revisit the Batson test, and (3) whether the trial court erred in denying Jefferson’s motion for mistrial.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Supreme Court described the Batson test. First, the trial court must recognize a prima facie case of discriminatory purpose when a party strikes the last member of a racially cognizable group. Second, the burden shifts to the State to come forward with a race-neutral explanation for the challenge. If the State meets its burden at step two, then third, the trial court then has the duty to determine if the defendant has established purposeful discrimination.

“We hold that the trial court correctly ruled that there was no purposeful discrimination in the peremptory strike of Juror 10 under Batson,” said the Court. “However, our Batson protections are not robust enough to effectively combat racial discrimination during jury selection.” In fact, said the Court, the Batson framework makes it very difficult for defendants to prove discrimination even where it almost certainly exists.

“We need to do better to achieve the objectives of protecting litigants’ rights to equal protection of the laws and jurors’ rights to participate in jury service free from racial discrimination.”

Consequently, the Court modified its three-step Batson test by replacing Batson’ s current inquiry at step three with a new inquiry.

“If a Batson challenge to a peremptory strike of a juror proceeds to that third step of Batson’s three-part inquiry, then the trial court must ask whether an objective observer could view race or ethnicity as a factor in the use of the peremptory strike. If so, then the strike must be denied and the challenge to that strike must be accepted.”

Applying this new standard, the Court found that race could have been a factor in Juror 10’s dismissal. Here, the prosecutor essentially called out Juror 10 with a sarcastic comment for no apparent reason. Taken together with other evidence on the record, the prosecutor lacked racially neutral reasons for striking Juror 10. The strike reflected differential treatment of the sole African-American juror, and hence, the strike supported an inference of implicit bias. The WS Supreme Court quoted the late U.S. Supre Court’s Justice Thurgood Marshall, who expressed his concern about such nebulous justifications in the Batson opinion:

“A prosecutor’s own conscious or unconscious racism may lead him easily to the conclusion that a prospective black juror is “sullen,” or “distant,” a characterization that would not have come to his mind if a white juror had acted identically. A judge’s own conscious or unconscious racism may lead him to accept such an explanation as well supported.”

Furthermore, the WA Supreme Court reasoned that in its Saintcalle opinion, it recognized the pervasive force of unconscious bias, stating, “People are rarely aware of the actual reasons for their discrimination and will genuinely believe the race-neutral reason they create to mask it.”

The Court therefore reversed Jefferson’s convictions and remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.

My opinion? Excellent decision. Although the facts are against the defendant and are sympathetic toward the victim, race should never play a factor in the administration of justice. The WA Supreme Court’s new Batson framework rightfully addresses the problem of implicit race bias. This case is an excellent step in the right direction.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime and there’s some belief that implicit racial bias affects the investigations, prosecution and/or judicial proceedings of the case. It’s very important to hire defense counsel that is sensitive to and familiar with the nuances of racial biases that are implicit throughout the criminal justice system.

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.

Violation of No-Contact Order & Defense of Property

Image result for no contact order violation

In State v. Yelovich, the WA Supreme Court held that a “Defense of Property” jury instruction is not available when there is a valid court order prohibiting the defendant from contacting the protected party.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Mr. Yelovich and Ms. De Armond dated for more than five years. At some point, and during all times relevant to this case, there was a valid no-contact order prohibiting Yelovich from contacting De Armond. The order forbids Yelovich from “coming near and from having any contact whatsoever, in person or through others, by phone, mail or any means, directly or indirectly” with De Armond. It also prohibited Yelovich from causing any physical harm or bodily injury to De Armond.

On the day in question, Yelovich parked his car in the driveway of his son’s house. He was moving boxes from the garage, and an approximately four-and-a-half-foot wood fence separated him and his car. After about an hour, Yelovich believed he saw someone through the fence, but he could not identify the person. When he went to his car, which had a broken passenger window, he saw that his cell phone and other personal belongings were missing. He saw De Armond walking down the street, and he testified at trial that he “knew then that she did it.”

Yelovich was aware that he was prohibited from contacting De Armond, but he thought the police would not arrive in time to recover his phone. Although he admitted it “was an irrational, radical move,” he chased after her in his car. When he found her a few blocks later, he got out of his car and attempted to take her purse because he believed she had put his phone in it.  A struggle ensued, and De Armond testified that he was “bouncing her off the ground.” Her testimony was corroborated by a Good Samaritan who intervened. He testified that he “saw a man straddling a female. I saw him striking her,” and “he was lifting her up off the ground and slamming her on the ground.”

Both the fire department and police responded to the incident. De Armond was treated for minor injuries, including redness, bruising, and a small laceration. The responding police officer who interviewed De Armond noted she seemed intoxicated and “she had a really hard time keeping herself together.”

The State charged Yelovich with one count of felony violation of a no-contact order predicated on his assault of De Armond and one count of Bail Jumping. At trial, he argued that he was entitled to a jury instruction on defense of property because he was protecting his cell phone, which he believed De Armond had stolen.

For those who don’t know, a jury instruction is a guideline given by the judge to the jury about the law they will have to apply to the facts they have found to be true. The purpose of the instructions is to help the jury arrive at a verdict that follows the law of that jurisdiction. AT any rate, the judge refused, reasoning that Yelovich “was acting offensively, not defensively to protect property.”

The jury convicted Yelovich as charged. He appealed only his felony violation of the no-contact order on the basis that he was improperly denied a jury instruction. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court, and Yelovich appealed.

ISSUE

Whether the trial court improperly refuse to instruct the jury on the affirmative defense of defense of property.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The SUpreme Court reasoned that under statute, Violation of a No-Contact Order is usually a gross misdemeanor, but it is elevated to a Class C felony if the restrained party assaults the protected party during the violation. Therefore, assault is an essential element of the crime of felony violation of a no-contact order, and the State must prove it occurred beyond a reasonable doubt.

Yelovich relies on Washington’s Self-Defense and Defense of Property Statute to claim that he may use defense of property as an affirmative defense. The statute states:

“The use, attempt, or offer to use force upon or toward the person of another is not unlawful . . . whenever used by a party about to be injured, or by another lawfully aiding him or her, in preventing or attempting to prevent an offense against his or her person, or a malicious trespass, or other malicious interference with real or personal property lawfully in his or her possession, in case the force is not more than is necessary.”

Yelovich argues the statute provides “a valid affirmative defense whenever assault is charged or whenever assault is an element of the charged crime,” and therefore it may be used when the charged crime is felony violation of a no-contact order. However, Yelovich’s position ignores the critical role of the underlying no-contact order in this case.

The Court further reasoned that the standard language included in the order warned Yelovich that as the restrained party, he has the sole responsibility to avoid or refrain from violating the order’s provisions.

“By the terms of the order, Yelovich has no power to engage in self-help if doing so brings him into contact with De Armond. This bright line rule ensures that victims are not left wondering whether conduct prohibited by the no-contact order might later be deemed lawful. It therefore furthers the legislature’s goal to provide victims of domestic violence the maximum protection from abuse.”

The Court concluded that, in sum, Yelovich had sole responsibility for not violating the terms of a valid court order that forbids him from contacting De Armond, and so he had no authority to chase De Armond when he believed she had taken his phone. Accordingly, Yelovich was not entitled to a jury instruction on defense of property because his conduct violated the court order.

My opinion? Although the statute is very clear that mutual violations of the order and Defense of Property is not a defense, other defenses do exist. Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges for violating a no-contact order.