Category Archives: Washington Privacy Act

Body Camera Evidence Admissible

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

BACKGROUND FACTS

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

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

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

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

COURT’S ANALYSIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Domestic Violence & Cell Phone Privacy

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In State v. Smith, the WA Supreme Court held that the accidental recording of a domestic violence confrontation between the defendant and his wife was admissible at trial and did not violate the defendant’s rights under the Washington Privacy Act.

BACKGROUND FACTS

John Garrett Smith and Sheryl Smith were married in 2011. On the evening of June 2, 2013, the Smiths engaged in an argument at their home that turned violent. During the incident, Mr. Smith used the home’s landline cordless phone to dial his cell phone in an attempt to locate the cell phone. The cell phone’s voice mail system recorded the incident because Mr. Smith left the landline open during his attempt to find his cell phone. This voice mail contained sounds of a woman screaming, a male claiming the woman brought the assault on herself, more screams from the female and name calling by the male.

Mr. Smith punched and strangled Mrs. Smith to the point of unconsciousness and then left their home. When Mrs. Smith regained consciousness, her eyes were black and swollen shut, her face was swollen and bleeding, and she had difficulty breathing.’ Mrs. Smith was hospitalized for several days due to the severity of her injuries, which included a facial fracture and a concussion. For months after the assault, she suffered severe head pain, double vision, nausea, and vertigo.

The State charged Mr. Smith with attempted first degree murder, attempted second degree murder, first degree assault, and second degree assault for the incident.

The Motion to Suppress & Trial

Prior to trial, Mr. Smith filed a motion to suppress the audio recording found on his cell phone that captured part of the incident, including him threatening to kill his wife. Mr. Smith argued that Ms. Williams had unlawfully intercepted the recording pursuant to the Washington Privacy Act, when she listened to the voice message left on his phone. The trial court denied the motion to suppress, ruling that Ms. Williams’s conduct did not constitute an interception. The court also ruled that Washington’s Privacy Act, which prohibits the recording of private conversations without consent, did not apply because the information was accidentally recorded.

The case proceeded to a bench trial. The trial court found Mr. Smith guilty of attempted second degree murder, second degree assault, and the related special allegations of domestic violence, but acquitted him of the remaining counts and the aggravator. Mr. Smith was sentenced to a standard range sentence of 144 months.

The Appeal

He appealed, and his appellate argument focused on the trial court’s denial of the motion to suppress. Smith continued to assert that the recording was unlawfully admitted because Ms. Williams had unlawfully intercepted it.

The Court of Appeals reversed Mr. Smith’s conviction for attempted second degree murder, holding that the trial court erred in denying the motion to suppress the recording of the incident because (1) the recording was of a “private conversation” and (2) Mr. Smith had unlawfully recorded the “private conversation,” despite the fact that the recording was made inadvertently. The Court of Appeals rejected Mr. Smith’s assertion that Ms. Williams had unlawfully intercepted the conversation, and decided the case on a different issue, that is, whether Mr. Smith’s actions violated the privacy act. The State sought review on the issue of how the privacy act is to be properly applied in this case.

ISSUE

Whether the voice mail recording is admissible in Mr. Smith’s criminal prosecution.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Supreme Court  reverse the Court of Appeals and reinstated Mr. Smith’s attempted second degree murder conviction.

The Court reasoned that accidental, inadvertent recording on a cell phone voice mail of a domestic violence assault did not contain a “conversation” within the meaning of the privacy act, where the recorded verbal exchange consisted mostly of sounds of a woman screaming, a male claiming the woman brought the assault on herself, more screams from the female, name calling by the male, and the man stating he will kill the woman when she told him to get away. Furthermore, the owner of the cell phone was deemed to have consented to the voice mail recording due to his familiarity with that function.

The lead opinion was authored by Justice Madsen and signed by Justices Wiggins, Johnson and Owens. Justice González concurred in the result on the grounds that the defendant cannot invade his own privacy and cannot object about a recording he made being used against himself. Justice Gordon McCloud authored a separate concurring opinion, which was signed by Justices Stephens, Yu, and Fairhurst, in which she stated that the verbal exchange on the recording constitutes a “private” conversation which was solely admissible pursuant to statute.

Jail Phone Conversations Are Admissible At Trial

In State v. Dere, the Court of Appeals Division I held that a telephone conversation between a jail inmate and a person outside the jail is not a private communication when the participants are advised that the call will be recorded and must confirm their understanding that they are being recorded. Also, a recording of such a conversation is admissible evidence against the noninmate as well as against the inmate.

Defendant Zakaria Dere was a co-defendant in a Robbery. Before the trial, Dere posted bail and was released from custody. Dere received several calls from Mohamed Ali, a codefendant who remained in jail. Their conversations were recorded by the jail’s telephone system.

Unfortunately for Dere, the recordings gave evidence that Dere was an accomplice in the robbery. He argued a CrR 3.5 motion to suppress., however, the trial court denied his motion. Ultimately, Dere’s statements were used against him by the State at his trial. He was found guilty of Robbery. He appealed.

WASHINGTON PRIVACY ACT

The Court of Appeals addressed Dere’s argument that the admission of the recordings violated the Washington Privacy Act under RCW 9.73. Under this statute, recordings obtained in violation of the act are inadmissible for any purpose at trial. The act also makes it unlawful to intercept or record private communications transmitted by telephone without first obtaining the consent of all participants in the communication. Dere cited State v. Modica in arguing that a communication is private when parties manifest a subjective intention that it be private and where that expectation is reasonable.

Despite Dere’s arguments, the Court of Appeals reasoned that Dere’s conversations with Ali were not private communications. Dere and Ali did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their telephone conversations because they knew their calls were recorded and subject to monitoring. “Because the calls were not private communications, the privacy act does not apply,” reasoned the Court.

WASHINGTON CONSTITUTION

Next, the Court of Appeals addressed Dere’s claims that the recording of his calls violated his constitutionally protected privacy rights. The Court reasoned that although Article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution generally protects the privacy of telephone conversations, calls from a jail inmate are not private affairs deserving of protection:

” A jail recording system . . . and its operation typically demonstrates that at least one participant in a conversation has consented to the recording. The inspection of other forms of communication with inmates, such as ingoing and outgoing mail and packages, is not an invasion of a privacy interest protected by the Washington Constitution so long as the inmate is informed of the likelihood of inspection.”

With that, the Court of Appeals concluded there was no violation of Dere’s constitutional privacy interests. The Court upheld Dere’s Robbery conviction.

My opinion? Obviously, this case shows that suppressing jail inmate conversations is difficult to impossible; especially when the automated voice informs the callers that the conversations are being recorded. I always advise my jailed clients to limit their phone conversations with friends and family members. Speaking from experience, I’ve conducted many trials where Prosecutors use recorded jail inmate against my clients in attempts to incriminate them. Usually, the recorded conversations are suppressible on other grounds as being prejudicial, irrelevant, confusing, misleading etc. under ER 403. Still, trying to suppress incriminating statements is a terrible position to be in; especially when avoidable.