Category Archives: Washington Court of Appeals

Search Incident to Arrest

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In State v. Richards, the WA Court of Appeals held that a search of an arrestee’s person, purses or handbags extends to closed, but not locked containers found on their person at the time of arrest.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On November 11, 2017, a loss protection officer at a retail store in Woodland, observed Richards placing store merchandise into her purse. The officer approached Richards after she left the store without paying for the items in her purse. Two police officers, who were waiting outside, detained Richards and escorted her to the loss protection office.  There, the officers arrested Richards and searched her purse.

During the search of the purse, the officers discovered the stolen merchandise and a closed, zippered pouch. They opened the pouch and searched it, looking for theft tools used for removing secure access devices. The pouch contained drug paraphernalia, foil residue, straws, and syringes.

The State charged Richards with unlawful possession of heroin. Richards filed a motion to suppress the contents of the pouch found in her purse. The trial court considered the evidence set out above and denied the motion. Richards subsequently was convicted of possession of heroin. She appeals her conviction.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

In short, the Court of Appeals held that officers did not exceed the scope of a lawful search incident to arrest when they searched a closed pouch in Richards’s purse that she was carrying at the time of arrest. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals affirmed Richards’s conviction.

The Court reasoned that both the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution prohibit warrantless searches unless one of the exceptions to the warrant requirement applies.

One exception to the warrant requirement is a search of a person incident to a lawful arrest of that person. Under this exception, an officer making a lawful custodial arrest has authority to search the person being arrested as well articles of the arrestee’s person such as clothing and personal effects.

“An article immediately associated with the arrestee’s person may be searched if the arrestee has actual possession of it at the time of a lawful custodial arrest,” reasoned the Court of Appeals. “This rule is referred to as the ‘time of arrest’ rule. Based on this rule, an officer may search a purse or a bag in the arrestee’s possession at the time of arrest.”

However, the Court of Appeals also reasoned that the search incident to arrest exception did not apply to the search of a locked box inside a backpack an arrestee was carrying at the time of the arrest. For example, in State v. VanNess, the court concluded that the locked box in the backpack could not be searched without a warrant because the arresting officer raised no concerns about his safety and there was no indication that the officer believed that the box would contain evidence relevant to the crime of arrest.

“The issue here is whether the same rule applies to a closed, unlocked container in Richards’s purse. We conclude that it does not.”

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the search of a closed, unlocked pouch in a purse in the arrestee’s possession simply does not implicate the type of significant privacy interests that would render the search of the pouch unlawful.

The Court concluded that officers searching a purse or bag incident to arrest may lawfully search closed, unlocked containers within that purse or bag. “Accordingly, we hold that the trial court did not err in denying Richards’s motion to suppress the evidence discovered in the search of the pouch in her purse.”

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges involving a search of persons, vehicles or homes. It’s critically important to retain experienced defense counsel like myself who are knowledgeable of Washington’s search and seizure laws.

Exigent Circumstances Support Warrantless Blood Draw

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In State v. Anderson, the WA Court of Appeals held that exigent circumstances supported a warrantless blood draw at the scene from a driver arrested for vehicular homicide and vehicular assault.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In October 2014, Anderson was living with his high school friend, Mr. Powers. Powers would occasionally let Anderson drive his car. The evening of October 24, 2014, Anderson drank at home and then went to a bar to watch a hockey game. About 12:30 am., Powers heard Anderson’s voice and then heard his car start. Anderson took Powers’s car without his permission.

Around 2:00 a.m., Sergeant Jamie Douglas responded to a multivictim car crash in Auburn. At the scene, Douglas saw an “obliterated” car off the roadway, a path of debris, an uprooted tree with an 18-inch base, uprooted utility boxes, and guy wires that had been supporting a telephone pole torn out of the ground. The speed limit on the road was 35 m.p.h. but, based on the scene, Douglas estimated the car was traveling close to 100 mph. Deputy Jace Hoch had observed the car earlier traveling at about 90 mph. but could not catch it. He asked dispatch to let the Auburn Police Department know that the car was heading toward Auburn. Four of the five passengers in the car died.

Multiple individuals who responded to the scene smelled alcohol on Anderson. Anderson told paramedic Paul Nordenger that he had had “a few drinks.” Nordenger drew Anderson’s blood at the scene without a warrant. Test results showed that his blood alcohol content (BAC) was 0.19 grams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood and that he had 2.0 nanograms of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) per milliliter. Anderson was taken to Harborview Medical Center. Toxicologist Asa Louis testified that a second blood draw taken there showed a BAC of 0.18.

The State charged Anderson with four counts of vehicular homicide, one count of vehicular assault, one count of reckless driving, and an a sentencing aggravator for injury to the victim substantially exceeding the level of bodily harm necessary to satisfy the elements of vehicular assault. A jury convicted Anderson as charged.

Among other issues, Anderson claimed that exigent circumstances did not exist for officers to conduct a warrantless blood draw at the scene.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that as a general rule, warrantless searches and seizures are per se unreasonable, in violation of the Fourth Amendment and article I, section 7 of the Washington State Constitution. A blood test is a search and seizure. A recognized exception to the warrant requirement allows a warrantless search or seizure when exigent circumstances exist.

“A court examines the totality of the circumstances to determine whether they exist,” said the Court. “They exist where the delay necessary to obtain a warrant is not practical because the delay would permit the destruction of evidence.” Furthermore, the natural dissipation of alcohol in the blood may support a finding of exigency in a specific case, for example, when delay results from the warrant application process.”

Next, the Court of Appeals’ legal analysis focused on prior cases U.S. Supreme Court and WA Supreme Court cases. It observed that Missouri v. McNeely upheld the proposition that the presence of other officers weighs against the conclusion that exigent circumstances existed. Also, in State v. Inman, the WA Court of Appeals held that exigent circumstances for a blood draw existed when Mr.  Inman crashed his motorcycle on a rural road, injuring him and his passenger. In that case, Inman had facial trauma; including bleeding and abrasions on the face, and a deformed helmet. A bystander told police that Inman had been unconscious for five minutes before regaining consciousness. A paramedic administered emergency treatment. A responding officer spoke with lnman and smelled intoxicants on him. Finally, Inman admitted that he had been drinking before driving his motorcycle.

“The circumstances here are more like those in Inman,” said the Court of Appeals. “Similar to Inman, the trial court found that Anderson was in a high-impact collision resulting in serious injuries.  Here, Mr. Anderson sustained serious injuries that required treatment, multiple responders smelled alcohol on him, he told an officer at the scene that he had been drinking before driving, a paramedic told the first responding officer that the medics would be giving the driver medication and intubating him, the first responding officer knew from his experience in law enforcement and as a paramedic that this emergency treatment could impair the integrity of the blood sample, and that it would take 40 to 90 minutes to obtain a warrant for a blood draw.

“A warrant was not practical because the delay caused by obtaining a warrant would result in the destruction of evidence or postpone Anderson’s receipt of necessary medical care,” reasoned the Court of Appeals. “The totality of the circumstances establish that exigent circumstances existed to justify a warrantless blood draw.”

Please contact my office of you, a friend or family member are charged with an alcohol-related driving charge and police execute a warrantless blood draw. Retaining an experienced DUI attorney who is experienced with the legalities of blood draws is the first and best step toward obtaining justice.

Court Denies “Community Caretaking” Argument

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

BACKGROUND FACTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COURT’S RATIONALE & CONCLUSIONS

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

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

A. Community Caretaking Exception to the Warrant Requirement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drunk Bicycling

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Great article by traffic reporter Doug Dahl of the Bellingham Herald reveals that it’s legal to text while riding bike on a public road. In short, Washington’s distracted driving law applies to any person that is driving a motor vehicle on a public highway.”

“Since a bike isn’t a motor vehicle, this law, as I understand it, doesn’t apply,” says Mr. Dahl. “When it comes to texting (arguably one of the more dangerous behaviors on the road) cyclists get a pass.”

Mr. Dahl is correct. While some states do have laws against cycling while impaired, Washington is not one of those states. In City of Montesano vs. Wells, the WA Court of Appeals reversed the conviction of a man charged with DUI while riding a bicycle and held the original intent of DUI laws did not include bicycles. The Court reasoned that because bicycles do not have the force and speed of cars, a drunk bicyclist is not capable of causing the tremendous “carnage and slaughter” associated with impaired driving.

My opinion? Although it’s not a wise decision to text while cycling, police cannot stop or arrest bicyclists for this traffic offense alone. In State v. Ladson, the WA Supreme Court held that our State Constitution forbid the use of pretext as a justification for a warrantless search or seizure. Applied here, in other words, police cannot pull you over to conduct an unlawful pretext search for weapons, drugs or any other contraband if they see you merely texting while riding a bicycle.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are pulled over, searched and/or arrested for texting while riding a bicycle.

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.

A Police Vest Is a Uniform

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

BACKGROUND FACTS

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

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

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

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

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

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

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

With that, the Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction.

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

38-Year Delay Violates Speedy Trial

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

BACKGROUND FACTS

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

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

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

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

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

Length of Delay.

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

Reason for Delay.

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

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

State Failing to Request Extradition.

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

Assertion of Speedy Trial Right.

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

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

Prejudice from Delay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Snowmobile Is Not a Motor Vehicle

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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.