Flowers v. Mississippi: Supreme Court Finds Race-Based Peremptory Strikes Unlawful

Image result for batson peremptory

In Flowers v. Mississippi, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the State’s peremptory strikes in the defendant’s first four trials strongly supported the conclusion that the State’s use of peremptory strikes in the defendant’s sixth trial was motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Curtis Flowers was tried six separate times for the murder of four employees of a Mississippi furniture store. Flowers is black. Three of the four victims were white. At the first two trials, the State used its peremptory strikes on all of the qualified black prospective jurors.

In each case, the jury convicted Flowers and sentenced him to death, but the convictions were later reversed by the Mississippi Supreme Court based on prosecutorial misconduct. At the third trial, the State used all of its 15 peremptory strikes against black prospective jurors, and the jury convicted Flowers and sentenced him to death.

The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed again, this time concluding that the State exercised its peremptory strikes on the basis of race in violation of Batson v. Kentucky. Flowers’ fourth and fifth trials ended in mistrials. At the fourth, the State exercised 11 peremptory strikes—all against black prospective jurors. No available racial information exists about the prospective jurors in the fifth trial.

At the sixth trial, the State exercised six peremptory strikes—five against black prospective jurors, allowing one black juror to be seated. Flowers again raised a Batson challenge, but the trial court concluded that the State had offered race-neutral reasons for each of the five peremptory strikes. The jury convicted Flowers and sentenced him to death. The Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed. Flowers appealed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

Justice Kavanaugh delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Roberts, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor and Kagan joined. Justices Thomas and Gorsuch dissented.

Kavanaugh began by discussing the history behind the landmark Batson v. Kentucky. In his majority opinion he explained that under Batson, once a prima facie case of discrimination has been shown by a defendant, the State must provide race-neutral reasons for its peremptory strikes. The trial judge then must determine whether the prosecutor’s stated reasons were the actual reasons or instead were a pretext for discrimination.

“Four categories of evidence loom large in assessing the Batson issue here, where the State had a persistent pattern of striking black prospective jurors from Flowers’ first through his sixth trial,” said Justice Kavanaugh.

The Court reasoned that here, a review of the history of the State’s peremptory strikes in Flowers’ first four trials strongly supports the conclusion that the State’s use of peremptory strikes in Flowers’ sixth trial was motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent:

“The State tried to strike all 36 black prospective jurors over the course of the first four trials. And the state courts themselves concluded that the State had violated Batson on two separate occasions. The State’s relentless, determined effort to rid the jury of black individuals strongly suggests that the State wanted to try Flowers before a jury with as few black jurors as possible, and ideally before an all-white jury.”

The Court also reasoned that the State’s use of peremptory strikes in Flowers’ sixth trial followed the same discriminatory pattern as the first four trials.

“Disparate questioning can be probative of discriminatory intent,” said the Court.  “Here, the State spent far more time questioning the black prospective jurors than the accepted white jurors—145 questions asked of 5 black prospective jurors and 12 questions asked of 11 white seated jurors.”

Consequently, along with the historical evidence from the earlier trials, as well as the State’s striking of five of six black prospective jurors at the sixth trial, the dramatically disparate questioning and investigation of black prospective jurors and white prospective jurors at the sixth trial strongly suggest that the State was motivated in substantial part by a discriminatory intent.

Furthermore, the Court reasoned that comparing prospective jurors who were struck and not struck is an important step in determining whether a Batson violation occurred. “Here, Carolyn Wright, a black prospective juror, was struck, the State says, in part because she knew several defense witnesses and had worked at Wal-Mart where Flowers’ father also worked,” said the Court. “But three white prospective jurors also knew many individuals involved in the case, and the State asked them no individual questions about their connections to witnesses. White prospective jurors also had relationships with members of Flowers’ family, but the State did not ask them follow-up questions in order to explore the depth of those relationships.”

Finally, the Court ruled that the State also incorrectly explained that it exercised a peremptory strike against Wright because she had worked with one of Flowers’ sisters and made apparently incorrect statements to justify the strikes of other black prospective jurors. “When considered with other evidence, a series of factually inaccurate explanations for striking black prospective jurors can be another clue showing discriminatory intent,” said the Court. Consequently, the trial court at Flowers’ sixth trial committed clear error in concluding that the State’s peremptory strike of black prospective juror Carolyn Wright was not motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent. Pp. 26–30.

With that, the Supreme Court reversed Flowers’ conviction and remanded the case back to the trial court.

My opinion? Good decision. Although the facts and allegations are terrible for Mr. Flowers, prosecutors simply cannot use exercise race-based peremptory challenges to get justice.

Washington Is Toughest State to Get a Driver’s License

An article by Seattle Times staff reporter claims that Washington is the toughest state to obtain a driver’s license.

Personal-injury law firm Siegfried & Jensen. Using state handbooks and public documents about the requirements of each state’s tests, the firm examined a variety of information, including the number of questions on the knowledge portion of the exam and the number of maneuvers tested in the skills portion.

The ratings also take into account the cost of getting a license, whether a state offers free retakes and whether a learner’s permit is required for applicants 18 and older, among other factors. Because the cost of testing in Washington varies by testing location, the study evaluated Washington state based on the typical cost of testing in Seattle, the most populous city.

Washington’s difficulty score (80 out of a possible 100) was almost twice that of South Dakota, which was ranked the easiest with a score of 42. The study controlled for mitigating circumstances such as veteran status or disability.

Washington state Department of Licensing (DOL) spokesperson Christine Anthony said no one she talked to at the DOL had heard that Washington had the strictest license requirements in the nation. In Washington, more people fail the written knowledge test than the driving-skills test, according to driving-school instructors, Ms. Anthony and DOL data.

In the first four months of 2019, about 77% of people who took the driving-skills portion of the test passed, regardless of whether the test was administered at one of the state Department of Licensing offices or through a private driver-training school.

However, only about half of the more than 84,000 people who took the knowledge test in that same time period passed on the first try, according to DOL data.

The knowledge test recently got more difficult: In 2016, the state added 15 questions, bringing the total to 40, Anthony said. And a new curriculum will roll out in August that addresses the important roles of decision-making and attitude in driving, she said.

Passing rates for the knowledge test were higher at private driving schools (55%) than at DOL offices (46%,) according to data provided by the DOL. That rate is likely affected by the fact that many driving schools allow applicants to retake the test for free, while the DOL does not, said J.C. Fawcett of the Puget Sound-based Defensive Driving School.

At $85 for the license and test combined, the whole endeavor costs more in Washington than in any other state. Washington’s road test is the most comprehensive, covering 19 maneuvers, including parallel parking, parking on a hill and backing up around a curve.

Please contact my office if you a friend or family member face charges of Driving Without a License or Driving While License Suspended.

More Women In Prison

Image result for women in prison

Interesting article by the Sentencing Project reveals a profound increase in the involvement of women in the criminal justice system.

The article explain this is a result of more expansive law enforcement efforts, stiffer drug sentencing laws, and post-conviction barriers to reentry that uniquely affect women. The female prison population stands nearly eight times higher than in 1980. More than 60% of women in state prisons have a child under the age of 18.

Some specific points of interest:

  • Between 1980 and 2017, the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 700%, rising from a total of 26,378 in 1980 to 225,060 in 2017.
  • Though many more men are in prison than women, the rate of growth for female imprisonment has been twice as high as that of men since 1980. There are 1.3 million women under the supervision of the criminal justice system.
  • In 2017, the imprisonment rate for African American women (92 per 100,000) was twice the rate of imprisonment for white women (49 per 100,000).
  • Hispanic women were imprisoned at 1.3 times the rate of white women (67 vs. 49 per 100,000).
  • The rate of imprisonment for African American women has been declining since 2000, while the rate of imprisonment for white and Hispanic women has increased.
  • Between 2000 and 2017, the rate of imprisonment in state and federal prisons declined by 55% for black women, while the rate of imprisonment for white women rose by 44%.
  • The rate at which women are incarcerated varies greatly from state to state. At the national level, 63 out of every 100,000 women were in prison in 2017.2) The state with the highest rate of female imprisonment is Oklahoma (157) and the state with the lowest incarceration rates of females is Massachusetts (9).
  • Women in state prisons are more likely than men to be incarcerated for a drug or property offense. Twenty-five percent of women in prison have been convicted of a drug offense, compared to 14% of men in prison; 26% of incarcerated women have been convicted of a property crime, compared to 17% among incarcerated men.
  • The proportion of imprisoned women convicted of a drug offense has increased from 12% in 1986 to 25% in 2017.
  • Of the 48,043 youth in residential placement, 15% (7,293) are girls.
  • As with boys, girls are confined considerably less frequently than at the start of the century. In 2001, 15,104 girls were confined in residential placement settings. By 2015, this figure had been cut in half.
  • Girls of color are much more likely to be incarcerated than white girls. The placement rate for all girls is 47 per 100,000 girls (those between ages 12 and 17). For white girls, the rate is 32 per 100,000. Native girls (134 per 100,000) are more than four times as likely as white girls to be incarcerated; African American girls (110 per 100,000) are three-and-a-half times as likely; and Latina girls (44 per 100,000) are 38% more likely.
  • Though 85% of incarcerated youth are boys, girls makeup a much higher proportion of those incarcerated for the lowest level offenses. Thirty-eight percent of youth incarcerated for status offenses (such as truancy and curfew violations) are girls. More than half of youth incarcerated for running away are girls.

My opinion? Researchers have consistently found that incarcerated women face different problems than men, and those issues are often exacerbated by incarceration. Women are more likely to have a history of abuse, trauma, and mental health problems when they enter prison, but treatment is often inadequate or unavailable in prisons. The health systems in prison often fail to meet women’s unique physical health needs, including reproductive healthcare, management of menopause, nutrition, and treatment for substance abuse disorders.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime. Being a defendant is difficult enough. However, being a female defendant brings even more challenges.

A Police Vest Is a Uniform

Image result for police vests

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.

Terry Stop Held Unlawful

Image result for police chase black man

In United States v. Brown, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that an anonymous tip that a person saw a black male with a gun does not provide reasonable suspicion to make a Terry stop in Washington, where possession of a firearm is presumptively lawful.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Mr. Brown, who is a black man, had the misfortune of deciding to avoid contact with the police. Following an anonymous tip that a black man was carrying a gun—which is not a criminal offense in Washington State—police spotted Brown, who was on foot, activated their lights, and pursued him by car, going the wrong direction down a one-way street. Before flashing their lights, the officers did not order or otherwise signal Brown to stop. Brown reacted by running for about a block before the officers stopped him at gunpoint.

Police pursued Brown for one block before stopping him and ordering him to the ground at gunpoint. The officers placed Brown in handcuffs and found a firearm in his waistband. A further search revealed drugs, cash, and other items.

Police seized Mr. Brown even though there was no reliable tip, no reported criminal activity, no threat of harm, no suggestion that the area was known for high crime or narcotics, no command to stop, and no requirement to even speak with the police.

Brown moved to suppress the evidence from the searches, arguing that the officers lacked reasonable suspicion to stop him under Terry v. Ohio. The district court disagreed and denied the motion.

ISSUE

Whether police officers were justified in briefly stopping and detaining Mr. Brown.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that an an officer may only conduct a brief, investigatory stop when the officer has a reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot.  Illinois v. Wardlow.

“Here, the lack of facts indicating criminal activity or a known high crime area drives our conclusion. The Metro officers who stopped Brown took an anonymous tip that a young, black man “had a gun”—which is presumptively lawful in Washington—and jumped to an unreasonable conclusion that Brown’s later flight indicated criminal activity. At best, the officers had nothing more than an unsupported hunch of wrongdoing.”

With that, the court reasoned that the circumstances of this case fails to satisfy the standard established by Terry and Wardlow. “The combination of almost no suspicion from the tip and Brown’s flight does not equal reasonable suspicion.”

Furthermore, the Court reasoned that in Washington State, it is lawful to carry a gun. Although carrying a concealed pistol without a license is a misdemeanor offense in Washington,  the failure to carry the license is simply a civil infraction.

Additionally, the Court of Appeals downplayed Brown running from police. “No one disputes that once the Metro officer activated his patrol car lights, Brown fled,” said the Court. “But the Supreme Court has never endorsed a per se rule that flight establishes reasonable suspicion. Instead, the Court has treated flight as just one factor in the reasonable suspicion analysis, if an admittedly significant one. “Notably, the officers did not communicate with Brown, use their speaker to talk with him, or tell him to stop before they flashed their lights and then detained him,” said the Court. “Under these circumstances, Brown had no obligation to stop and speak to an officer.”

My opinion? Good decision. Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime under circumstances where the police may have conducted an unlawful search or seizure. Hiring competent defense is the first and best step toward gaining justice.

Whatcom County Jail Settles ACLU Lawsuit

Image result for whatcom jail

A settlement agreement has been proposed in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union last year against the Whatcom County Jail and the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office, according to a press release sent Tuesday from ACLU’s Washington chapter.

Filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, the ACLU’s lawsuit, Kortlever v. Whatcom County et. al, challenged Whatcom County’s refusal to provide people access to MAT even though it provides other clinically appropriate medications to inmates. Singling out a group of people because of their disability and denying them access to medical services to which they would otherwise be entitled is prohibited under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Whatcom County’s willingness to change its policies means that the court will not have to decide whether the previous policy was unlawful.

The lawsuit, filed in June 2018, alleged the jail had a policy for giving medication, such as buprenorphine (Suboxone or Subutex) or methadone, to pregnant women suffering from opioid use disorder, but had no policy for non-pregnant individuals, essentially forcing them to go into withdrawal once they were booked, according to court records.

Under the settlement, the Whatcom County Jail now will provide people in the jail with medication-assisted treatment (MAT) services to treat opioid use disorder, according to a press release sent Tuesday from the sheriff’s office.

Opioid use disorder is classified as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and also is a recognized substance use disorder. A person qualifies as having opioid use disorder if they meet two or more criteria that reflect impaired health function over a 12-month period. The disorder is a chronic condition and is often accompanied by changes to brain chemistry, the ACLU release stated.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are in jail and face criminal charges. Being incarcerated brings a considerable strain on family, mental health, employment and quality of life. A competent defense attorney can argue a motion to release the defendant or reduce bail. For more information, please read my Legal Guide titled, “Making Bail.”

38-Year Delay Violates Speedy Trial

Image result for speedy trial

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.

 

Cities Can’t Criminalize Homelessness

Image result for police arrest homeless

Great article by   of Curbed describes how the Ninth Circuit’s Martin v. City of Boise, held that city law enforcement cannot  arrest or punish people for sleeping on public property unless they provide adequate and relatively accessible indoor accommodations.

BACKGROUND FACTS

The Martin case, which originated in 2009 when six residents sued the city, argued that laws against sleeping in public and qualifying that action as Disorderly Conduct were unconstitutional, specifically discussed reasonable and accessible spots for everyone. That means having beds accessible for the disabled and for pregnant women and families. An important argument in the Martin case concerned faith-based services that required those staying there to pray in a certain manner. Judges declared spots that coerced religious observation were not accessible to all.

The April 1 decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers nine states in the western U.S. including California and Washington, rejects a petition to challenge a September ruling on the case. The 2-1 decision by a panel of three judges means that the earlier decision by the court stands, an affirmation of the theory that criminalizing people for camping of sleeping in public without any place to go is illegal.

“The government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.”

~Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals

The ruling means unless there is enough shelter space for the homeless population of a city such as Seattle or San Francisco, city officials can’t enforce anti-vagrancy laws or prohibitions against camping in public parks or sidewalks. The court can’t force cities to build adequate shelter space or homeless housing, but it can make it unconstitutional for them to criminalize homelessness until that burden has been met.

Reporter Patrick Sisson wrote that Eve Garrow, a homelessness policy analyst and advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), expects that advocacy groups such as her own will soon engage in proactive public education campaigns to ensure municipalities are aware of the Martin decision and the group’s interpretation of the court ruling.

“I do believe if cities and counties continue to enforce in a way that’s now clearly unconstitutional, advocacy organizations will engage in litigation to protect the civil rights of these people,” she says.

The legal reasoning grew out of an interpretation of the Eighth Amendment and its prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, according to Ms. Garrow.

“You’re criminalizing someone for behavior that’s unavoidable,” she says. “Everyone has to sleep.” In effect, she says, municipal laws that ban sleeping in public are making it illegal to be poor.

Steve Berg, vice president of programs and policy for the National Alliance to End Homelessness, says the decision has gotten a lot of attention, and will hopefully accelerate the movement towards more supportive housing and services.

“There are still too many people in local governments who think the right answer to homelessness is arresting people,” he says.

Good decision, Ninth Circuit.

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?”

Image result for police cars surround vehicle

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.