Category Archives: Washington Court of Appeals

A Snowmobile Is Not a Motor Vehicle

Image result for snowmobile theft

In State v. Tucker, the WA Court of Appeals held that a snowmobile is not a “motor vehicle” for purposes of RCW 9A.56.65, which makes it a class B felony to commit theft of a motor vehicle.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In February 2016, Ms. Tucker and her accomplice broke into a cabin near Stampede Pass. The cabin was accessible only by snowmobiles. The pair stole several items of personal property, including a snowmobile.

The State charged Ms. Tucker with residential burglary, second degree theft, theft of motor vehicle, and third degree malicious mischief. A jury found Ms. Tucker guilty of first degree criminal trespass and theft of motor vehicle, but could not reach a verdict on the charge of second degree theft. The trial court declared a mistrial on that count, and it later was dismissed without prejudice.

Defense counsel, relying on State v. Barnes, filed a motion to arrest judgment on the theft of a motor vehicle conviction. The trial court denied the motion on the ground that the snowmobile was licensed and has a motor. Ms. Tucker timely appealed this aspect of her conviction.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

In short, the Court of Appeals reviewed existing caselaw under State v. Barnes and concluded that, similar to the riding lawn mower in the Barnes case, a snowmobile is not a motor vehicle.

“Here, a snowmobile is not a car or other automobile. To paraphrase the Barnes lead opinion, the legislature was responding to increased auto thefts, not increased snowmobile thefts.”

The Court of Appeals rejected the State’s argument that the stolen snowmobile should be classified as a motor vehicle because at the time and place it was stolen, a snowmobile was the only vehicle capable of transporting people or cargo. It reasoned that transporting people or cargo is not the touchstone agreed to by six justices in the Barnes Case.

“The concurring justices never stated that transporting people or cargo was a relevant consideration,” said the Court of Appeals. “Also, the lead and concurring justices also required the vehicle to be a car or other automobile. A snowmobile obviously is not a car or other automobile.”

The Court of Appeals concluded that because a snowmobile is not a car or other automobile, a snowmobile is not a motor vehicle for purposes of the statute. The Court reversed Ms. Tucker’s conviction for theft of motor vehicle and instructed the trial court to dismiss that conviction.

My opinion? Excellent decision. The Court appropriately relied on the Barnes decision and made the right decision.

Contact my office if you, a friend or family member are inaccurately charged with a crime which does not meet statutory definitions or the elements of the allegations. Chances are, a well-timed motion to dismiss the charges could win the day.

“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.

Suppress Evidence or Dismiss the Case?

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In State v. McKee, the WA Supreme Court held that when an appellate court vacates a conviction that is obtained with illegally seized evidence, the remedy is remand to the trial court with an order to suppress evidence and not out-rightly dismiss the case in its entirety.

BACKGROUND FACTS

A jury convicted Mr. McKee of four counts of possessing Depictions of Minors Engaged in Sexually Explicit Conduct. The Court of Appeals reversed those convictions on the ground that police had used an overbroad search warrant to obtain the underlying cell phone photos and videos.

The Court of Appeals reversed the conviction. Although the Court of Appeals provided no reasoning to justify that remedy, it appears to have thought dismissal was warranted because once the cell phone evidence was suppressed, there would be insufficient evidence to sustain the convictions at a second trial.

The State appealed on arguments that the Court of Appeals mistakenly reversed the conviction. It argued that dismissal was inappropriate because that testimony—i.e., the evidence that was not tainted by the invalid search warrant— would be sufficient to sustain the Possessing Depictions convictions on retrial.

LEGAL ISSUE

Whether the Court of Appeals erred when it dismissed the convictions after suppressing the cell phone evidence, thus barring any possibility of a retrial.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Supreme Court held that the typical remedy for a Fourth Amendment violation is suppression, not dismissal. Furthermore, the remedy of dismissal typically applies only when a conviction is reversed for insufficient evidence or the government’s misconduct has prejudiced the defendant and materially affected the possibility of a fair trial.

“The logic underlying this rule is that a reversal for insufficiency is tantamount to an acquittal, but a reversal for any other trial court error is not,” reasoned the WA Supreme Court. “A reversal for insufficiency indicates the government had its chance and failed to prove its case, while a reversal for another trial error indicates only that the defendant was convicted through a flawed process.”

This rule applies whenever the erroneous admission of evidence requires reversal, including when error stems from an illegal search or seizure.

“Thus, in a case like this one, an appellate court does not evaluate the sufficiency of the untainted evidence remaining after suppression. Provided the total evidence (tainted and untainted) was sufficient to sustain the verdict, the remedy is limited to reversal and suppression.”

With that, the WA Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and remanded to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with the order to suppress evidence seized as a result of the faulty warrant.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges  involving a questionable search and seizure. Briefing and arguing a well-supported 3.6 Motion to Suppress Evidence could ultimately result in the charges getting dismissed.

Necessity Defense vs. Climate Change

In State v. Ward, the WA Court of Appeals held that a defendant who was charged with burglary in the second degree after he broke into a pipeline facility and turned off a valve, which stopped the flow of Canadian tar sands oil to refineries in Skagit and Whatcom Counties, was entitled to argue a necessity defense to the jury. The defendant contended that his commission of the crime was necessary to avoid harm to the climate, as governments had failed to meaningfully address the crisis of climate change.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Kinder Morgan transports tar sands oil from Canada into the United States by pipeline. On October II, 2016, Kinder Morgan was notified by telephone that persons “would be closing a valve, one of our main line valves in the Mount Vernon area within the next 15 minutes.” Following the call, Ward cut off a padlock and entered the Kinder Morgan pipeline facility off of Peterson Road in Burlington, WA. Ward then closed a valve on the Trans-Mountain pipeline and placed sunflowers on the valve. At the same time, other protesters closed similar valves in North Dakota, Montana, and Minnesota. Collectively, the protests temporarily stopped the flow of Canadian tar sands oil from entering into the United States.

Ward was arrested at the pipeline facility and charged with burglary in the second degree, criminal sabotage, and criminal trespass in the second degree. Ward admitted his conduct but argued that his actions were protected under a necessity defense. The trial court granted the State’s pretrial motion in limine to preclude all witnesses and evidence offered in support of Ward’s necessity defense.

Ward’s first trial ended with a hung jury. The State then recharged Ward with burglary in the second degree and criminal sabotage. Ward moved for reconsideration of the trial court’s order granting the State’s motion in limine. In support of his motion, Ward offered argument, the curriculum vitae for eight proposed expert witnesses, and voluminous scientific evidence documenting the impacts of climate change, that climate change is primarily caused by greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activity, and the contribution of burning tar sands oil. The trial court denied Ward’s motion for reconsideration and excluded all testimony and evidence in support of Ward’s necessity defense. A second jury found Ward guilty of burglary but were unable to return a verdict on criminal sabotage.

Ward appealed on arguments that the trial court denied his constitutional right to present a defense by striking all testimony and evidence of necessity.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Court of Appeals reasoned that the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article 1, sections 21 and 22 of the Washington Constitution guarantee a defendant the right to trial by jury and to defend against criminal allegations. If Ward submitted a sufficient quantum of evidence to show that he would likely be able to meet each element of the necessity defense, then the trial court’s exclusion of evidence in support of his sole defense violated Ward’s constitutional rights.

NECESSITY DEFENSE

The Court explained that the Necessity is available when the pressure of circumstances cause the accused to take unlawful action to avoid a harm which social policy deems greater than the harm resulting from a violation of the law. To successfully raise the necessity defense the defendant must prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that: (1) they reasonably believed the commission of the crime was necessary to avoid or minimize a harm, (2) the harm sought to be avoided was greater than the harm resulting from a violation of the law, (3) the threatened harm was not brought about by the defendant, and (4) no reasonable legal alternative existed.

THE NECESSITY DEFENSE APPLIES

The Court held that that here, Ward’s necessity defense applies. In short, Ward’s past successes in effectuating change through civil disobedience in conjunction with the proposed expert witnesses and testimony about Ward’s beliefs were sufficient evidence to persuade a fair minded, rational juror that Ward’s beliefs were reasonable.

First, Ward offered evidence that he has been working with environmental issues for more than 40 years but that the majority of his efforts failed to achieve effective results. Ward asserted that because of these failures he came to understand that the issue of climate change would require other than incremental change and that direct action was necessary to accomplish these goals.

Second, Ward offered sufficient evidence to show that the harms of global climate change were greater than the harm of breaking into Kinder Morgan’s property. Ward asserted that the extent of the harm resulting from his actions were the loss of a few locks and the temporary inconvenience to Kinder Morgan’s employees. Compared to this, Ward introduced “voluminous scientific evidence of the harms of climate change.”

“When civil disobedience and the necessity defense intersect, it is the intent of the protester, not the effectiveness of the protest, that is of the utmost relevance.”

Furthermore, the Court of Appeals reasoned that Ward’s actions were not intended to be merely symbolic in nature because the harms that Ward asserted he was trying to alleviate were more than just climate change, generally, but also included both the specific dangers of Canadian tar sands oil and the impacts of sea level rise on Washington.

“As such, the evidence he planned to introduce was not solely aimed at inducing jury nullification and the trial court erred in preventing Ward from introducing evidence in support of his necessity defense,” said the Court of Appeals.

With that, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded Ward’s conviction.

My opinion? I’m proud and impressed that our Court of Appeals allowed such a broad and permissive view of the Necessity defense. Apparently, the harm that climate change brings may necessitate  drastic measures.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges where the Necessity Defense could be argued and proven. Cases like State v. Ward show that a strong, well-supported defense of Necessity should be liberally given to juries when the facts support the defense. Kudos to Mr. Ward’s defense counsel for taking the case to jury, appealing the judge’s rulings and getting a successful outcome on appeal. Excellent work.

Credit Card Value

Image result for cancelled credit card

In State v. Sandoval, the WA Court of Appeals held that an access device (credit card) need not be able to obtain something of value at the time it is found on a defendant. The access device need only be able to obtain something of value at the time it was last in the possession of its lawful owner.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Ms. Sandoval entered into an agreement with a car dealership. The agreement allowed Sandoval to take home and use a vehicle for three days to determine whether she wanted to purchase it. After three days, the dealership lost contact with Sandoval and made unsuccessful attempts to retrieve the vehicle. The dealership reported the vehicle stolen.

Eventually, the police found Sandoval and her husband in the stolen vehicle at the address
listed in the agreement. The police arrested Sandoval for possession of a stolen vehicle and
searched her incident to that arrest. In Sandoval’s purse, the police found a credit card with somebody else’s name on it, Sandoval’s sister’s birth certificate, and a pipe with methamphetamine residue.

The credit card had been stolen in early February. At that time, the card was active and could have been used to buy goods. Shortly thereafter, the card’s owner cancelled the card.

The State charged Sandoval with possession of a stolen vehicle, possession of stolen property in the second degree, identity theft in the second degree, and possession of a controlled substance.

At trial, the court instructed the jury on the elements of possession of stolen property in the second degree. The court told the jury that the State had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the stolen property was an access device.

The court defined an access device as, “any card, plate, code, account number, or other means of account access that can be used alone or in conjunction with another access device to obtain money, goods, services, or anything else of value. In the same instruction, the court stated, “The phrase ‘can be used’ refers to the status of the access device when it was last in possession of its lawful owner, regardless of its status at a later time.

The jury convicted Sandoval on all charges except identity theft in the second degree. The
State dismissed that charge.

Sandoval appealed on the argument that an access device must be able to obtain something of value at the time it is found on a defendant, not at the time it was last in the possession of its lawful owner.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that RCW 9A.56.010(1) defines “access device” as any card, plate, code, account number, or other means of account access that can be used alone or in conjunction with another access device to obtain money, goods, services, or anything else of value, or that can be used to initiate a transfer of funds, other than a transfer originated solely by paper instrument.

Here, the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s definition containing the phrase “can be
used,” a phrase which is not statutorily defined. It reasoned that under State v. Schloredt, it was irrelevant whether a victim cancelled his or her account prior to a defendant’s arrest in determining whether stolen credit cards were “access devices” under the statute. Similar to the facts in Schloredt, it was irrelevant that the credit cards Ms. Sandoval possessed were cancelled by its lawful owner.

Also, the Court of Appeals rejected Sandoval’s argument that she received ineffective assistance of counsel when her attorney failed to request a jury instruction for unwitting possession as an affirmative defense for her possession of a controlled substance charge.

The Court reasoned that the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 22 of the Washington State Constitution guarantee the right to effective assistance of counsel. Furthermore, in an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, prejudice exists if there is a reasonable probability that, except for counsel’s errors, the results of the proceedings would have differed.

Here, the Court reasoned that Sandoval testified that she obtained the credit card and methamphetamine pipe at the same time, and both items were found on Sandoval in the same location. Therefore, if the jury found that the State carried its burden in showing beyond a reasonable doubt that Sandoval knowingly possessed the credit card, then it is doubtful that Sandoval could have carried her burden to show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that she unwittingly possessed the methamphetamine pipe.

“Thus, we conclude that it was not reasonably probable that the jury would have found Sandoval not guilty of possession of a controlled substance if they had been instructed on the unwitting possession defense.”

Therefore, the Court reasoned that Sandoval was not prejudiced by her counsel’s failure to request the instruction. Because Sandoval has not met her burden to prove prejudice, her ineffective assistance of counsel claim fails.

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

Marijuana & Necessity

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In State v. Ruelas, the WA Court of Appeals held that a defendant in possession of more than 40 grams of marijuana who asserts a necessity defense must present a medical expert witness to support the defense.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On November 10, 2015, Sergeant Garcia stopped Mr. Ruelas for speeding. Mr. Ruelas rolled down his window and gave Sergeant Garcia his license and registration. Sergeant Garcia smelled marijuana coming from the pickup truck. He asked Mr. Ruelas about the smell and asked him to roll down his rear window. Mr. Ruelas complied, and Sergeant Garcia saw a large garbage bag containing marijuana. Sergeant Garcia then arrested Mr. Ruelas for felony possession of marijuana.

Mr. Ruelas said he had a medical marijuana card but did not provide one. Sergeant Garcia then read Mr. Ruelas his Miranda rights.

On February 26, 2016, the State charged Mr. Ruelas with one count of possession of marijuana over 40 grams.

On June 13, 2016, the trial court held a CrR 3.5 hearing. The court found that Mr. Ruelas’s initial pre-Miranda statement was the result of a routine processing question and that his additional statements were made either spontaneously and not in response to a question likely to produce an incriminating response. The court denied Mr. Ruelas’s suppression motion. After the court’s ruling, Mr. Ruelas requested a continuance to find an expert witness.

After two more continuances, on October 18, 2016, Mr. Ruelas filed his final witness list. However, the list did not include a medical expert.

On October 25, 2016, trial began. The court addressed motions in limine and questioned Mr. Ruelas about his defense of medical necessity. Mr. Ruelas explained that he was asserting the common law defense of medical necessity, not the statutory defense under the Washington State Medical Use of Cannabis Act. The State objected to the defense on the basis that Mr. Ruelas could not lay a proper foundation without having a medical expert testify. The court agreed, and did not allow testimony from Mr. Ruelas’s expert.

The trial resumed, closing arguments were given, and the jury found Mr. Ruelas guilty. He appealed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & DISCUSSION

The WA Court of Appeals found that the Necessity defense required medical testimony. It reasoned that a defendant asserting the necessity defense must prove four elements by a preponderance of the evidence. The four elements are: (1) the defendant reasonably believed the commission of the crime was necessary to avoid or minimize the harm, (2) the harm sought to be avoided was greater than the harm resulting from a violation of the law, (3) the threatened harm was not brought about by the defendant, and (4) no reasonable legal alternative was available that is as effective as marijuana.

Here, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the defendant was required to show corroborating medical evidence that no other legal drugs were as effective in minimizing the effects of the disease. Furthermore, it reasoned that it made sense that the expert could testify to knowing the qualities of other drugs, not just the personal preference of the defendant.

The Court of Appeals also disagreed with Mr. Ruelas’s arguments that the trial court wrongfully disallowed Mr. Ruelas’s expert witness from testifying. In fact, the Court actually addressed whether Mr. Ruelas himself should be sanctioned for violating the discovery rule that parties must disclose their witnesses well before trial begins:

“A trial court may sanction a criminal defendant under CrR 4.7(h)(7)(i) for failing to comply with discovery deadlines by excluding the testimony of a defense witness.”

Here, however, the trial court did not sanction Mr. Ruelas’s for the late disclosure of his expert witness.

“Our review of the record convinces us that Mr. Ruelas did not act willfully or in bad faith,” said the Court of Appeals. “Mr. Ruelas explained that it was difficult to obtain his mother’s medical records, which Dr. Carter needed to review. Mr. Ruelas also expressed difficulty in communicating with Dr. Carter, who he described as very busy.”

Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals also rejected Ruelas’s arguments that the trial court abused its discretion when it precluded Ruelas’s expert witness from testifying. “Mr. Ruelas does not cite any authority that holds that a trial court abuses its discretion when it precludes an expert disclosed during trial from testifying,” said the Court of Appeals. “We presume there is no authority.”

Car Stop & Purse Search

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In State v. Lee, the WA Court of Appeals held that a passenger’s consent to a search of her purse was not spoiled by police conduct during the traffic stop.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Defendant Ms. Lee was the front seat passenger in a car driven by Mr. Peterman. Detective Tilleson initiated a traffic stop for two traffic infractions. Detective Tilleson asked Peterman for his identification, learned his license was suspended, and arrested him for first degree driving while license suspended or revoked. Peterman consented to a search of the car.

Detective Tilleson told Ms. Lee to step out to facilitate his search of the car. She left her purse inside the car. Detective Tilleson ran Lee’s identification information to determine if she had a driver’s license so she could drive the car if it was not impounded. He learned Lee had a valid driver’s license and a conviction for possession of a controlled substance.

Lee began to pace back and forth near the car. At some point, Detective Fryberg directed Lee to sit on a nearby curb. During a conversation, Lee told Detective Tilleson the purse in the car was hers. Detective Tilleson asked Lee for permission to search her purse, telling her that he was asking “due to her prior drug conviction.” He also gave Lee warnings pursuant to State v. Ferrier that she was not obligated to consent and that she could revoke consent or limit the scope of the search at any time.

Lee consented to the search. When Detective Tilleson asked Lee if there was anything in her purse he should be concerned about, she said there was some heroin inside. Detectives found heroin and methamphetamine in her purse, advised Lee of her Miranda rights, and arrested her for possession of a controlled substance with intent to manufacture or deliver.

Before trial, Lee moved to suppress the evidence obtained from the search of her purse. The trial court denied Lee’s motion to suppress the results of the search of her purse. The court found “the testimony of the detectives involved was more credible than the defendant’s testimony. The trial court also determined that all of Lee’s statements were voluntary and that none were coerced. Finally, the court concluded that Lee validly consented to a search of her purse.

At the bench trial, the judge found Lee guilty as charged. Lee appealed on arguments that she did not validly consent to the search of her purse because the detectives unlawfully seized her.

LEGAL ISSUE

Whether police exceeded the reasonable scope and duration of the traffic stop by asking Ms. Lee’s consent to search her purse while mentioning her prior drug conviction.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Court of Appeals stated that both the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and article 1, section 7 of the Washington Constitution prohibit a warrantless search or seizure unless an exception applies. Voluntary consent is an exception to the warrant requirement.

“But an otherwise voluntary consent may be vitiated by an unlawful seizure,” reasoned the court of Appeals. “When analyzing a passenger’s consent to search the purse she left in
the car, we start with the traffic stop that led to the search.”

Here, the Court said the Fourth Amendment and WA Constitution both recognize an
investigative stop exception to the warrant requirement as set forth in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Terry v. Ohio. “The rationale of Terry applies by analogy to traffic stops applies by analogy to traffic stops,” said the Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals explained that the proper scope of a Terry stop depends on the purpose of the stop, the amount of physical intrusion upon the suspect’s liberty, and the length of time the suspect is detained. A lawful Terry stop is limited in scope and duration to fulfilling the investigative purpose of the stop. “Once that purpose is fulfilled, the stop must end,” reasoned the Court.

Ultimately, the Court found that once the arrested driver consented to a search of the vehicle, it was not unreasonable for the detective to ask the passenger – here, Ms. Lee – if she consented to a search of the purse she left in the car. The detectives legitimately checked Lee’s identification to determine whether she was a licensed driver and could drive the car from the scene following Peterson’s arrest. And the search of the purse occurred roughly 18 minutes after the traffic stop began.

“We conclude Lee’s voluntary consent to search her purse was not vitiated by police conduct at the traffic stop. Specifically, under the totality of the circumstances, the police did not exceed the reasonable scope and duration of the traffic stop.”

In addition, the Court reasoned that the mention of Lee’s prior drug conviction must also be considered as part of the totality of the circumstances. “Here, there was a single mention of the conviction in passing,” said the Court. “There was no physical intrusion upon Lee.”

With that, the Court of Appeals concluded that the police did not exceed the reasonable scope or duration of the traffic stop under the totality of the circumstances. Therefore, Lee failed to establish that her voluntary consent to search her purse was vitiated by police conduct. Her conviction was affirmed.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime involving a questionable search and seizure by the police. Hiring competent and experienced defense counsel is the first and best step toward justice.

Victim Restitution

Image result for bobcat tractor

In State v. Romish, the WA Court of Appeals held that a defendant’s obligation to pay a victim’s restitution in possession of stolen property cases is only limited to damage that the State can prove was caused by the defendant’s conduct.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Mr. Romish pled guilty to possession of stolen property of a Bobcat tractor. In his guilty plea statement, Mr. Romish admitted to knowingly possessing stolen property, but he denied altering the condition of any of the property in his possession. He also did not indicate when he came into possession of the stolen property.

At the plea and sentencing hearing, Mr. Romish’s attorney agreed that restitution could be ordered if the State showed a causal connection between the damage to the Bobcat and Mr. Romish’s possession of it, but expressed doubts that the State could establish such a connection. Mr. Romish denied altering the condition of the Bobcat. Counsel also disputed the amount of claimed damages and requested a separate hearing on restitution.

A restitution hearing was held October 12, 2017. The only witness to testify was the owner of the stolen property. He described the damage that was sustained by the Bobcat as a result of the theft. He also explained that the Bobcat had been repainted in a haphazard manner and that a taillight had been broken. Although there did not appear to be any functional damage, the owner had the Bobcat serviced it, just to make sure.

Receipts showed the service, repair and repainting costs totaled $4,897.42. In addition to having the Bobcat repaired and serviced, the owner testified he had to rent replacement equipment during the period that the Bobcat was unavailable for use in his excavation business. Rental fees were incurred not only for the period that the Bobcat was missing as stolen, but also for the time the Bobcat was out of commission for service and repairs. The total rental cost was $4,928.46.

On cross-examination, the property owner denied knowing who stole the Bobcat or
who had repainted it. The owner testified that the paint on the Bobcat was neither fresh
nor wet when it was recovered. And the property owner denied seeing any paint at the
location where the Bobcat was recovered.

After the close of evidence, the trial court ordered Mr. Romish to pay restitution for all costs associated with the disappearance, repair and repainting of the Bobcat. Although the court recognized Mr. Romish had not been convicted of stealing the Bobcat, it nevertheless reasoned it could find at least by a preponderance of the evidence that the damage to the Bobcat had occurred while it was in Mr. Romish’s possession. The total amount of restitution was set at $9,825.88.

Mr. Romish appealed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals took Mr. Romish’s side. It vacated the trial court’s restitution order and remanded Romish’s matter for a new restitution hearing.

“The law of restitution relies on causation . . .” said the Court of Appeals, ” . . . and that reliance creates a distinction between theft and possession of stolen property.” Furthermore, the Court reasoned that culpability for possession of stolen property does not necessarily include culpability for the stealing of the property. “The actual thief is guilty of a different crime.”

The Court further reasoned that when a defendant has been convicted of possessing—but not the theft of—stolen property, sentencing courts must ensure a true causal connection links the defendant’s conduct to the victim’s losses. The mere fact that property was recently stolen does not permit inferring causation. “Instead, we require more specific evidence tying the defendant’s conduct to the victim’s losses,” said the Court.

Here, the Court held that no such evidence was presented in Mr. Romish’s case:

“Although the Bobcat was found in a barn at Mr. Romish’s residence, there was no evidence of painting supplies or recent painting activities at that location. Nor were there shards of glass or plastic that might signify the tail light had been broken at Mr. Romish’s
residence. In addition, the paint on the Bobcat was not fresh. This suggests that at least some time had passed between the repainting of the Bobcat and the date of its recovery by law enforcement.”

Additionally, the evidence presented at the hearing doidnot link Mr. Romish’s criminal conduct to many of the victim’s claimed damages. “No evidence was presented that might lead one to believe the Bobcat would not have been repainted or the taillight broken ‘but
for’ Mr. Romish’s possession,” said the Court of Appeals. “In like manner, there is no reason to think Mr. Romish’s possession of the Bobcat was the ‘but for’ cause of the victim’s rental fee expenses prior to the offense conduct date of August 23, 2016. Given these circumstances, the order of restitution must be reversed.”

My opinion? This case presented an interesting question regarding causation and damages in a criminal law context. Although the victim’s plight is sympathetic, and although there was substantial evidence that Mr. Romish stole the Bobcat, the Court was correct in its ruling that the State lacked evidence showing that Mr. Romish actually damaged the stolen Bobcat. Theft and property damage require two different levels of proof.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges. A defendant’s obligation to pay restitution to the victim of a crime is a huge issue in criminal law. Hiring competent and experienced defense attorney is a step in the right direction.

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.

Signalling Turns

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In State v. Brown, the WA Court of Appeals held that a driver, who moved left from a middle lane to a dedicated left turn lane while signaling his intention to change lanes, is not required to reactive his turn signal before turning left from the reserve lane unless public safety is implicated. Therefore, evidence discovered when a driver is stopped for failing to signal a turn when public safety is not implicated must be suppressed.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On the evening of March 22, 2015, Trooper Acheson of the WA State Patrol patrolled the streets of Kennewick. At 10:15 p.m., while traveling eastbound on Clearwater Avenue, Trooper Acheson saw Mr. Brown driving a Toyota Tundra, turn right from Huntington Street onto Clearwater Avenue. During the turn, the left side tires of the Tundra, a large pickup, crossed the white dashed divider line between the two eastbound lanes by one tire width for a brief moment, after which the vehicle fully returned to its lane of travel. Brown’s diversion across the dividing line did not endanger any travel. Acheson observed Brown’s tires cross the white dashed divider line, and he continued to view Brown’s driving thereafter.

Shortly after entering Clearwater Avenue, Mr. Brown signaled his intent to change lanes, and to move to the left or inner eastbound lane, by activating his left turn signal that blinked numerous times. Brown entered the inner lane of the two lanes.

Soon, Mr. Brown approached the intersection of Clearwater Avenue and Highway 395, where the eastbound lanes widen to three lanes. The innermost of the three lanes becomes a designated left turn only lane. Brown again wished to change lanes so he could turn left. Brown signaled his intent to move left into the dedicated turn lane. Brown maneuvered his vehicle into the dedicated turn lane, at which point the left turn signal cycled-off.

Mr. Brown stopped his vehicle in the dedicated left turn lane while awaiting the light to turn green. He did not reactivate his turn signal. Trooper Acheson pulled behind Brown. No other traffic was present on eastbound Clearwater Avenue. When the light turned green, Brown turned left onto northbound Highway 395. Trooper Mason Acheson then activated his patrol vehicle’s emergency light and stopped Brown.

Trooper Acheson stopped David Brown based on Brown’s crossing the eastbound lanes’ divider line during his turn from Huntington Street onto Clearwater Avenue. He did not stop Brown based on Brown’s failure to signal his left turn onto Highway 395. After stopping Brown, Trooper Acheson investigated Brown for suspicion of driving under the influence of intoxicants (DUI). Acheson arrested Brown for DUI.

Brown filed a motion to suppress evidence garnered from the stop of his car by Trooper Acheson. The court concluded that, because Brown violated no traffic law, Trooper Acheson lacked probable cause to initiate the traffic stop. Therefore, the court suppressed all evidence gained from the stop and thereafter dismissed the prosecution.

The Prosecutor appealed the dismissal to the superior court. According to the superior court, David Brown violated RCW 46.61.305(2), which requires a continuous signal of one’s intent to turn during the last one hundred feet before turning left. Because Trooper Mason Acheson observed Brown’s failure to continuously signal before turning left onto the highway, Acheson gained reasonable suspicion of a traffic infraction. The superior court remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings.

Mr. Brown appealed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that RCW 46.61.305(2) declares that a driver must, “when required,” continuously signal an intention to turn or cross lanes during at least the last one hundred feet traveled before turning or moving lanes. This appeal asks if this statute compels a driver, who moved left from a middle lane to a dedicated left turn lane while signally his intention to change lanes, to reactivate his turn signal before turning left from the reserved turn lane.

“We hold that the statute only requires use of a signal in circumstances that implicate public safety. Because the circumstances surrounding David Brown’s left-hand turn from a left-turn-only lane did not jeopardize public safety, we hold that Trooper Acheson lacked grounds to stop David Brown’s vehicle.”

With that, the Court of Appeals reversed the superior court, reinstated the district court’s grant of David Brown’s motion to suppress and dismissed the charge of driving while under the influence.

My opinion? Good decision. It makes sense that unless public safety is an issue, police officers shouldn’t have probable cause or reasonable suspicion to pull over a vehicle that’s clearly in the left-turn lane even though their vehicle turn signal is not activated. Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges of DUI, Reckless Driving, Driving While License Suspended or other criminal traffic violations.