In State v. Vasquez, the WA Court of Appeals held that the drive-by sentence aggravator is not met where a perpetrator ran 63 feet from his vehicle and around the corner of a grocery store prior to shooting and killing the victim.
Mr. Vasquez shot and killed Mr. Garcia as Mr. Garcia was seated in the front passenger side of a GMC Envoy parked at the Airport Grocery in Moses Lake, Washington. Mr. Garcia’s girlfriend was in the front driver’s seat and her five-year-old child was in the back seat, behind Mr. Garcia. Neither Mr. Garcia’s girlfriend nor her child were physically injured during the shooting.
At the crux of this case is the route Mr. Vasquez took to shoot Mr. Garcia.
For several minutes prior to the shooting, the Envoy was parked near the Airport Grocery’s front entrance. Mr. Vasquez then arrived at the scene in a Toyota pickup. The Toyota was parked on the side of the grocery, next to a fenced utility area, approximately 63 feet away from the Envoy.
Once the Toyota was parked, Mr. Vasquez ran from the pickup and hid behind the utility fence for nearly a minute. Mr. Vasquez then rushed around the corner of the grocery, across the front-side of the Envoy, and over to the area of the front passenger window of the Envoy. The front window was partially rolled down, exposing Mr. Garcia to Mr. Vasquez.
Mr. Vasquez shot and killed Mr. Garcia from point-blank range. Mr. Vasquez then retreated to the Toyota and it sped away. The entire shooting was captured on video by the grocery’s surveillance system. Approximately one minute and 16 seconds elapsed between the Toyota’s initial arrival and ultimate departure.
A jury convicted Mr. Vasquez of first degree murder with a drive-by shooting aggravator, along with several counts of drive-by shooting. Mr. Vasquez was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for the aggravated first degree murder conviction. He also received a 60-month firearm enhancement. Mr. Vasquez appealed on arguments that the evidence was insufficient to prove a drive-by shooting.
COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS
Washington’s drive-by shooting statute states, in pertinent part:
A person is guilty of drive-by shooting when he or she recklessly discharges a firearm as defined in RCW 9.41.010 in a manner which creates a substantial risk of death or serious physical injury to another person and the discharge is either from a motor vehicle or from the immediate area of a motor vehicle that was used to transport the shooter or the firearm, or both, to the scene of the discharge.
The legal question was whether the State’s evidence showed Mr. Vasquez was in the “immediate area” of the Toyota pickup truck at the time of the shooting. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, the Court of Appeals held the “immediate area” requirement was not met.
The Court of Appeals explained that a drive-by shooting is commonly understood to involve shots fired from inside a vehicle, or from “within a few feet or yards” of the vehicle. In other words, the crime contemplates a shooter who is either inside a vehicle or within easy reach of the vehicle.
“Mr. Vasquez’s offense did not fall within either circumstance,” reasoned the Court of Appeals. It further reasoned that Mr. Vasquez was far from reach of the Toyota at the time he shot Mr. Garcia. “In fact, Mr. Vasquez had to traverse several intervening obstacles in order to get a clear shot at his victim,” said the Court. “Although Mr. Vasquez was in the immediate area of Mr. Garcia’s Envoy at the time of the shooting, he was not in the immediate area of the Toyota that had transported him to the scene. Mr. Vasquez’s offense therefore does not qualify as a drive-by shooting.”
The Court concluded that because Mr. Vasquez was neither inside the Toyota nor within immediate reach of the Toyota at the time of the shooting, the State failed to present sufficient evidence justifying Mr. Vasquez’s convictions for drive-by shooting as well as the drive-by shooting aggravator to Mr. Vasquez’s first degree murder conviction.
Consequently, the Court reversed Vasquez’s drive-by shooting convictions and aggravator.
My opinion? The circumstances of this case are certainly tragic. However, it’s not uncommon for Prosecutors to charge people for crimes which don’t fit the facts and circumstances. That’s why it’s extremely important to hire a qualified and competent defense attorney who knows and understands the law. Defense counsel must question the evidence and, when necessary, argue pretrial motions to dismiss charges where evidence is lacking. Please contact my office if you, a family member or friend faces serious criminal charges similar to those in this case.