The Defendant was accused of using a pair of ordinary pliers to remove an anti-theft security device at a store. He was caught and charged with Retail Theft With Extenuating Circumstances. His attorney argued a Knapstad motion to dismiss on the basis that ordinary pliers were not “an item, article, implement or device designed to overcome security systems including, but not limited to, lined bags or tag removers.
The judge granted the motion and reasoned that including common tools into the definition of devices designed to overcome security systems would render every act of removing a security device an extenuating circumstance. The State appealed.
Some background on Knapstad motions is necessary. In State v. Knapstad, 107 Wash.2d 346 (1986), the Supreme Court created a procedure similar to summary judgment in a civil case, under which a criminal defendant can, by way of pre-trial motion, challenge the sufficiency of the prosecution’s evidence. In essence, if the prosecution cannot show by competent affidavit that it has a prima facie case of guilt on all elements, the court must dismiss the charge.
In evaluating sufficiency of evidence, the court looks at the undisputed material facts already in the court record from the finding of probable cause, and ascertains whether as a matter of law, the prosecution has established a prima facie showing of guilt. For more information on Knapstad Motions, please read my Legal Guide titled, Dismissing Cases Through Knapstad Motions.
Likewise, some background on the felony charge of Retail Theft With Extenuating Circumstances. Under former RCW 9A.5.360(1)(b), an extenuating circumstance for retail Theft charges includes being in possession of an item, article, implement, or device designed to overcome security systems including, but not limited to, lined bags or tag removers.
Here, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s dismissal pursuant to the defendant’s Knapstad motion. They reasoned the criminal statute was ambiguous about the definition of the class of “tools” which created the aggravating factor of “Retail Theft.”
Also, the “Rule of Lenity” made another basis for upholding the trial court’s decision: “Because the language of former RCW 9A.56.360(1)(b) is ambiguous, we first turn to the principles of statutory construction, the legislative history and the statutory scheme to determine the legislature’s intent.
If this analysis still does not clearly show the legislature’s intent, the Rule of Lenity requires us to interpret the statute in Reeve’s favor.” Here, the Court ruled that the principles of statutory construction and an analysis of the legislative history and statutory scheme do not resolve the ambiguity of the statute in the State’s favor. For these reasons, the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision.
My opinion? Good decision. Both the trial court and the court of Appeals got it right.
Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime. Hiring an effective and competent defense attorney is the first and best step toward justice.