State v. Thompson: Disruptive Defendants In Trial

In State v. Thompson, the WA Court of Appeals Division II held that  a Defendant’s right to be present during trial is not violated if they are taken away after being verbally and/or physically disruptive and refuse to promise that such behavior will stop.

Here, late one evening, Thompson approached a group of high school students, two of whom were sitting in a car. Thompson pulled out a gun and ordered the students to surrender their possessions. Three of them handed over backpacks and other items, while the two girls in the car closed and locked the doors. After looking through the items, Thompson demanded the car. When one of the boys protested and tried to get the gun, Thompson shot him in the abdomen. The other boys wrestled Thompson to the ground and held him until the police arrived.

The State charged Thompson with four counts of Robbery in the First Degree while armed with a firearm and one count Assault First Degree while armed with a firearm, Unlawful Possession of a Firearm in the First Degree and Possession of a Stolen Firearm.

When Thompson’s trial began on January 28, 2014, he wore a leg restraint. Before testimony began, jail personnel asked for increased restraints due to a physical altercation at the jail. After a hearing on the matter, the trial court authorized the placement of a stun device under Thompson’s clothing.

Later that same day, Thompson pushed over the counsel table at which he was seated, yelled several profanities, and struggled with corrections officers before being subdued and removed from the courtroom. When he returned in handcuffs, shackles, and a belly chain, the trial court ruled that he would be taken to another courtroom where he could attend the trial over a video feed.

The trial court informed Thompson that he would have the right to be present in court if he assured the judge that his behavior would improve. Specifically, the judge said the following:

“And, of course, Mr. Thompson has the right to reclaim his ability to be present in court upon a real assurance that his conduct will improve and that he will not be verbally or physically disruptive.”

Before the trial recessed for the day, the trial court reminded Thompson that he could return to the courtroom the following day if he agreed to behave. Thompson was instructed to inform his attorney or corrections staff of his decision.

The next day, on February 4, trial resumed. Thompson had not decided whether he would behave in court. The judge said he would not further inquire into Thompson’s desire to return to the courtroom because Thompson knew the procedure by which he could return the day before and still refused to comply or reply. After the State rested, Thompson declined to testify, and the jury retired to deliberate at the end of the day.

On February 5, the jury found Thompson guilty as charged.

On appeal, Thompson raised the legal issue of whether the trial court denied his right to be present at trial by removing him from the courtroom for the final three days of trial without informing him daily that he could return if he conducted himself properly.

However, the Court of Appeals disagreed. The Court reasoned that a criminal defendant has a constitutional right to be present in the courtroom at all critical stages of the trial. Also, this right derives from the 6th Amendment’s constitutional right to confront adverse witnesses and the Washington rules of criminal procedure.

The Court also reasoned, however, that the right to be present is not absolute. A defendant’s persistent, disruptive conduct can constitute a voluntary waiver of the right to be present in the courtroom. Once lost, this right can be reclaimed “as soon as the defendant is willing to conduct himself consistently with the decorum and respect inherent in the concept of courts and judicial proceedings.”

The Court of Appeals followed basic guidelines under State v. Chapple to assist trial courts in exercising their discretion in cases like this. First, the defendant must be warned that his conduct may lead to removal. Second, the defendant’s conduct must be severe enough to justify removal. Third, the trial court should employ the least severe alternative that will prevent the defendant from disrupting the trial. Fourth, the defendant must be allowed to reclaim his right to be present upon assurances that his or her conduct will improve. These guidelines, said the court, are intended to ensure that trial courts exercise their discretion in a manner that affords defendants a fair trial while maintaining the safety and decorum of the proceedings.

Here, the trial court clearly informed Thompson of both his right to return and the manner in which he could exercise that right. With that, the Court affirmed Thompson’s convictions.

My opinion? In my experience, trial judges are extremely sensitive to how defendants behave in court. Decorum MUST be maintained by witnesses, attorneys and defendants at all times. Any disruptions of proceedings are viewed disdainfully, as we see in this opinion.