Tag Archives: Whatcom County Criminal Defense Attorney

Crime Fell In First 6 Months of COVID

Coronavirus Is Slowing Down the Criminal Justice System. Will Criminals  Cash In?

According to a recent FBI Report, violent and property crime both plunged across the United States in the first six months of 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic swept the country.

Even though lockdowns to prevent the spread of Covid-19 were inconsistent and non-existent in some areas, murders fell 14.8 percent from a year earlier and rapes dropped 17.8 percent, according to preliminary data compiled by the FBI.

Violent robbery fell 7.1 percent, and non-violent thefts and larceny fell by slightly more from the first half of 2019, the FBI said.

But arson jumped in the first half of this year, especially in large cities and in West, it said. Arson cases rose more than 52 percent in cities with populations over one million, and were up 28 percent in the western part of the country. The FBI did not offer any explanation of the decline in crime overall, or the surge in arson.

But the period covered by the data coincides with the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, including the declaration of a national emergency on March 13, California’s stay-at-home order on March 19, and New York issued a stay-at-home order on March 20.

Violent crime of all types fell in the period by 4.8 percent in the northeast and by smaller levels in the West and Midwest. But violent crime increased compared to 2019 in the South, by 2.5 percent. Generally southern states lagged others in taking serious steps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges. Hiring an experienced criminal defense attorney is the first and best step towards justice.

Study Finds Police Misconduct Leads to Wrongful Convictions

Advocacy group speaks out against wrongful convictions

A recent study found that actions by police officers, including witness tampering, violent interrogations and falsifying evidence, account for the majority of the misconduct that lead to wrongful convictions.

Titled, Government Misconduct and Convicting the Innocent: The Role of Prosecutors, Police and Other Law Enforcement, researchers from the National Registry of Exonerations studied 2,400 convictions of defendants who were later found innocent over a 30-year period and found that 35% of these cases involved some type of misconduct by police. More than half – 54% – involved misconduct by police or prosecutors.

The study comes as protests over racial injustice and police brutality spread across many cities for several months following the May 25 death of George Floyd in police custody.

Researchers found that misconduct by police and prosecutors is among the leading causes of disproportionate false conviction of Black defendants. For example, 78% of Black defendants who were wrongly accused of murder were convicted because of some type of misconduct. That number is 64% for white defendants, according to the study. An even wider gap: 87% of Black defendants later found innocent who were sentenced to death were victims of official misconduct vs. 68% for white defendants.

The study found that hiding evidence that is favorable to defendants is the most common type of misconduct.

Researchers cite five murder trials in which prosecutors concealed evidence about the cause of death. In one case, a woman was convicted of killing her boyfriend, but prosecutors did not disclose a medical report that found he had died of suicide.

“In a few rape exonerations, the authorities concealed evidence that the complainants had a history of making false rape allegations . . . And in at least a dozen child sex abuse cases, police, prosecutors and child welfare workers concealed statements by the supposed victims that they had not in fact been molested.” ~National Registry of Exonerations

In some cases – according to the study – police officers falsely claimed they were victims of assaults by defendants. In one such case, police officers from Chattanooga, Tennessee, beat a defendant at a reentry facility because he defended himself. Adam Tatum was sentenced to two years in prison for assaulting officers but was later exonerated after video showed that officers attacked him without provocation. Tatum sued and later settled for $125,000.

Also, police officers were disciplined or convicted of crimes in only 19% of exonerations that involved some type of misconduct, according to the study. That’s a rate five times higher than those for prosecutors, whose misconduct account for 30% of the cases.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime and evidence appears to have been withheld. Hiring an experienced and effective criminal defense attorney is the best step toward justice. Experienced attorneys regularly file and argue Motions to Compel and/or a Brady Motions; both of which force the Prosecutor to give exculpatory evidence and release discovery that they otherwise wouldn’t.

Cloud Storage & Privacy

Best cloud backup of 2020: Top ways to get your data backed up online |  TechRadar

In State v. Harrier, the WA Court of Appeals held that a person holds no privacy interest in  images obtained by an internet cloud storage service provider who then gives the images to law enforcement.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Synchronoss Technologies, Inc. is an internet cloud storage provider that provides cloud based storage for Verizon Wireless customers. The defendant Mr. Harrier had a Verizon account and subscribed to Synchronoss Cloud storage.

Synchronoss ran a cursory search of all stored digital files and found six digital images with hash values matching those of known instances of child pornography. Synchronoss reported this information via CyberTip to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) who forwarded the information to local police for investigation.

The police opened and viewed the six image files and confirmed that the images were child pornography. Police then obtained search warrants based on the descriptions of the images and served them on Verizon and Synchronoss. The search warrant directed Synchronoss to provide “all information” held by Synchronoss associated with the suspect telephone number associated with the images.

Police received information from Verizon that confirmed that Harrier was the subscriber/account holder for the suspect telephone number. Synchronoss also gave police a thumb drive containing account data associated with the suspect telephone number.

Law enforcement obtained a search warrant for Harrier’s residence. They seized Harrier’s cell phone. The cell phone was determined to be the same phone associated with the Verizon account and the Synchronoss files that were the basis of the initial search warrant.

Law enforcement interviewed Harrier after advising him of his constitutional rights prior to asking questions. He made incriminating statements. Harrier was later charged with two counts of first degree possession of depictions of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct and three counts of second degree possession of depictions of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct.

Prior to trial, Harrier filed a 3.6 motion to suppress the evidence against him, and the trial court denied the motion. The parties proceeded to a bench trial. Harrier was found guilty as charged. Harrier appealed on arguments that the police, by opening and viewing the images from NCMEC, exceeded the scope of Synchronoss’ lawful search of the images and thus, the opening and viewing of the images was unlawful, and the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

In short, the WA Court of Appeals held that Harrier had no privacy interest in the images obtained by Synchronoss and delivered to the police; therefore, the police’s viewing of the images was not a warrantless search.

The Court reasoned that the Fourth Amendment protects a person’s subjective and reasonable expectation of privacy. Also, the WA Constitution in article I, section 7 provides that no person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law.

However, the Court reasoned that if a private affair is not disturbed, then there is no Constitutional violation. Also, the Court rejected Harrier’s arguments the Private Search Doctrine prohibited the police from obtaining contraband:

“The Private Search Doctrine is based on the rationale that an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy is destroyed when the private actor conducts his search,” said the Court of Appeals. “Our Supreme Court held in Eisfeldt that the private search doctrine is inapplicable under our State Constitution.”

The court also recognized that when a private party hands evidence over to the police, there is no privacy interest in that evidence:

“We know from the hash values that the files Synchronoss found were child pornography and that this information, the images, and the CyberTip are reliable . . . Because a private party conducted the search and the images are contraband, Harrier did not have a privacy interest in them. Thus, the police’s opening and viewing the images from a private party was not unlawful. Accordingly, Harrier’s arguments fail.” ~WA Court of Appeals.

The Court concluded that the trial court did not err by denying Harrier’s motion to suppress and affirmed Harrier’s convictions.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family members who were arrested after police obtained incriminating evidence from a questionable search of their phone records and/or cyber account information. Hiring an experienced criminal defense attorney is the first and best step towards justice.

Improper Opinion Testimony

Chicago cops reluctantly testify against 1 of their own

In State v. Hawkins, the WA Court of Appeals held it inappropriate at trial for a prosecutor to seek opinion testimony from a police officer regarding the defendant’s guilt or the credibility of witnesses.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

The Defendant Mr. Hawkins was arrested and charged with assault in the third degree for briefly strangling Mr. Ali, a King County Metro bus driver, over a fare dispute. The incident was witnessed by a passenger who did not speak English and a passenger who saw an argument occur, but did not witness actual physical touching.

The State’s only other witnesses were Deputy Baker and Deputy Garrison, the King County Sheriff’s detective that reviewed Baker’s initial investigation and referred Hawkins’s case for prosecution. Over defense counsel’s repeated objections, the prosecutor tried to elicit opinion testimony from both deputies concerning whether they believed whether the bus driver Ali was a credible witness.

Several of the defense’s objections were sustained, but the court eventually allowed Officer Baker to answer. Although Deputy Baker’s answer was couched in probable cause to arrest, Baker’s answer implied he believed Ali’s version of events over Hawkins.

Deputy Garrison’s answers also gave an opinion about credibility. Garrison stated he would only refer a case for prosecution if there was “some credible ability to prosecute.”

The jury convicted Hawkins as charged.

On appeal, Hawkins contends that the prosecutor committed prejudicial misconduct by eliciting opinion testimony from police witnesses concerning witness credibility.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Court of Appeals reasoned that a prosecutor must enforce the law by prosecuting those who have violated the peace and dignity of the state by breaking the law. A prosecutor also functions as the representative of the people in a quasi-judicial capacity in a search for justice. The Court elaborated that defendants are among the people the prosecutor represents and the prosecutor owes a duty to defendants to see that their rights to a constitutionally fair trial are not violated. Thus, said the Court, a prosecutor must function within boundaries while zealously seeking justice.

Also, the Court of Appeals emphasized there are some areas of opinion testimony that are inappropriate in criminal trials.

“This is particularly true when the opinion testimony is sought from law enforcement,” said the Court of Appeals. “Officer testimony has an aura of special reliability and trustworthiness.”

The Court of Appeals said the State’s case was weak.

“There is no question that the State’s case against Hawkins was weak. There was no physical evidence, there was no surveillance footage, and Ali had no visible injuries and declined medical attention. The State offered no firsthand witnesses other than Ali.” ~WA Court of Appeals

As a result, the Court reasoned that the State’s case inappropriately focused on the police officers’ opinion of the bus driver Ali’s credibility:

“Because the State’s case was weak, eliciting the officers’ opinions that they believed they had a credible witness in Ali had a clear prejudicial effect on Hawkins’s right to a fair trial.” ~WA Court of Appeals

The Court ruled the Defendant’s case was prejudiced and overturned his conviction.

My opinion? Good decision. A prosecutor functions as the representative of the people in the search for justice. The prosecutor also owes a duty to defendants to see that their rights to a constitutionally fair trial are not violated. It is inappropriate in a criminal trial for the prosecutor to seek opinion testimony as to the guilt of the defendant, the intent of the accused, or the credibility of witnesses. This is particularly true where the opinion sought is that of a law enforcement officer.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges. Hiring an experienced and competent defense attorney is the first and best step toward justice.

Prosecutor’s “War On Drugs” Comments Deprived Defendant of a Fair Trial

Is It Time To End The War on Drugs? Senator Cory Booker Thinks So. -  DailyClout

In State v. Loughbom, the WA Supreme Court held that the Prosecutor’s comments during trial advocating the “War on Drugs” deprives a defendant of a fair trial.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

In May 2017, Mr. Loughbom was charged with three counts of various drug crimes. In October of 2017, Loughbom’s case proceeded to jury trial.  During trial, the prosecutor referenced the “War on Drugs” three times:

1. During his opening statement, the prosecutor said, “The case before you today represents yet another battle in the ongoing war on drugs throughout our state and throughout our nation as a whole. I’ve been tasked with presenting the evidence against the defendant, Gregg Loughbom, of the crimes of Delivery and Conspiracy to Deliver a Controlled Substance.”

2. The prosecutor began his closing argument by stating, “The case before you represented another battle in the ongoing war on drugs throughout our state and the nation as a whole. I have been tasked with presenting the evidence against the defendant, Gregg Loughbom, of the crimes of delivery of controlled substances . . . and conspiracy to deliver a controlled substance.”

3. During the State’s rebuttal argument, the prosecutor stated that “law enforcement cannot simply pick and choose their Confidential Informants to be the golden children of our society to go through and try and complete these transactions as they go forward in the, like I said, the ongoing war on drugs in this community and across the nation.”

Although the jury found Mr. Loughbom not guilty of one drug charge, he was found guilty of delivery of methamphetamine and conspiracy to deliver a controlled substance other than marijuana. The trial court sentenced Loughbom to 40 months in prison and 12 months of community custody.

Loughbom appealed on arguments that the prosecutor’s repeated comments about the war on drugs constituted flagrant and ill intentioned misconduct.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Supreme Court began by saying We presume prosecutors act impartially “in the interest of justice.” At the same time, we expect prosecutors to “‘subdue courtroom zeal,’ not to add to it, in order to ensure the defendant receives a fair trial.” State v. Walker, 182 Wn.2d 463, 477, 341 P.3d 976 (2015) (quoting Thorgerson, 172 Wn.2d at 443). Justice can be secured only when a conviction is based on specific evidence in an individual case and not on rhetoric. We do not convict to make an example of the accused, we do not convict by appeal to a popular cause, and we do not convict by tying a prosecution to a global campaign against illegal drugs.

“We agree with Loughbom and hold that the prosecutor’s remarks about the war on drugs were improper and rise to the level of being flagrant and ill intentioned. The prosecutor’s repeated invocation of the war on drugs was a thematic narrative designed to appeal to a broader social cause that ultimately deprived Loughbom of a fair trial.” ~WA SUpreme Court

The Court also reasoned that the prosecutor’s repeated references to the war on drugs were erroneous, and that framing Loughbom’s prosecution as representative of the war on drugs violated his right to a fair trial.

With that, the WA Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and remand for a new trial.

My opinion? Excellent decision. Clearly,the prosecutor’s repeated appeals to the war on drugs caused incurable prejudice. It is deeply troubling that the State employed the war on drugs as the theme of Loughbom’s prosecution and reinforced this narrative throughout his trial.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime and the case may proceed to trial. A highly skilled and experienced defense attorney like myself can help prevent the prosecution from conducting misconduct and preserve these issue for appeal when they arise.

Federal Government Encourages Men to Limit Drinking to Once a Day

Men Should Limit Alcohol to One Drink Per Day, According to New ...

Excellent article by Cortney Moore of Fox News sheds light on how the federal government is advising men to not drink more than one alcoholic beverage a day as it gets close to finalizing the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

This new guidance, which is updated every five years, is lower than the recommended serving limit the U.S. government issued in its previous iteration, which was set at two drinks per day.

“If alcohol is consumed, it should be in moderation,” the report stated at the time, which was jointly written by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “For those who choose to drink, moderate alcohol consumption can be incorporated into the calorie limits of most healthy eating patterns.”

Ms. Moore reported that during the Coronavirus Pandemic, alcohol consumption has notably increased. Days after the World Health Organization declared the virus a pandemic, alcohol sales rose by 55 percent in the week of March 21, according to market research from Nielsen. By June, alcohol sales were reportedly up by around 27 percent.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges with alcohol being a factor. Any increases in alcohol use during the pandemic could be a cause for concern. It can be very tempting to seek alcohol in an attempt to cope with negative emotions associated with the crisis.

Alcohol Consumption Increases During Coronavirus Pandemic

 

A news article by reporter of the Seattle Times says that a recent study from RTI International, a nonprofit research institute, found that people’s alcohol consumption has substantially increased in direct response to the surging Coronavirus Pandemic.

According to the article, the start of the COVID-19 pandemic forced many people into their homes, where they were encouraged to shelter in place for weeks. And, while many restaurants and bars closed as a result of the pandemic, a new study finds that people – especially women, those who are unemployed, Black people and parents – have actually been drinking more than they did before COVID-19 hit.

The results of the study came from a poll conducted in May on about 993 people from various regions of the country. Overall, it found that a person’s average drinks per day increased 27 percent, while the increased frequency of exceeding “drinking guidelines” increased by 21 percent and binge drinking by 26 percent.

Drinking guidelines established by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism say that men should consume no more than four drinks per day and/or 14 drinks per week, while women should consume no more than three per day or seven per week.

But while on average Americans are drinking more, researchers found that minorities and women are more likely to be drinking more since the pandemic began.

The study also found:

  • 16 percent of respondents increased their usual quantity by an average of two drinks; and
  • 27 percent increased the total number of drinks consumed on “more than usual” days by 4.5 drinks.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with alcohol-related crimes during the Coronavirus Pandemic. It’s very easy to become dismayed, distracted and depressed in these times. Hiring an experienced criminal defense attorney is the first and best step toward justice.

Excessive Parking Fines

How a Parking Ticket Impacts a Driver

In Pimentel v. City of Los Angeles, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause applies to excessive municipal parking fines.

BACKGROUND FACTS

The City of Los Angeles imposes civil fines for parking meter violations. Under the ordinance Los Angeles Municipal Code § 88.13, if a person parks her car past the allotted time limit and forces people to drive around in search of other parking spaces, she must pay a $63 fine. And if she fails to pay the fine within 21 days, the City will impose a late-payment penalty of $63. In sum, a person who overstays a metered parking spot faces a fine of anywhere from $63 to $181, depending on her promptness of payment.

Appellant Mr. Pimentel and the other appellants sued the City of Los Angeles under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, asserting that the fines and late payment penalties violate the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause and the California constitutional counterpart.

The case made its way through the lower federal district court. The lower court ordered that the initial parking fine was not grossly disproportionate to the offense and thus survives constitutional scrutiny. The case was appealed to the Ninth Circuit, however, who issued its own opinion below.

COURT’S REASONING & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals held that although the initial parking fine was not disproportionate to the offense, the the City’s late fee runs afoul of the Excessive Fines Clause.

The Court said the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment limits the government’s power to extract payments, whether in cash or in kind, as punishment for some offense. Also, the Court reasoned that the Excessive Fines Clause traces its lineage back to at least the Magna Carta which guaranteed that a free man shall not be fined for a small fault.

“For centuries, authorities abused their power to impose fines against their enemies or to illegitimately raise revenue,” said the Ninth Circuit. “That fear of abuse of power continued to the colonial times. During the founding era, fines were probably the most common form of punishment, and this made a constitutional prohibition on excessive fines all the more important.”

The Court extended the  four-factor analysis found in United States v. Bajakajian to decide whether a fine is “grossly disproportionate” to the offense: (1) the nature and extent of the crime, (2) whether the violations was related to other illegal activities, (3) the other penalties that may be imposed for the violation, and (4) the extent of the harm caused.

The Court reasoned that under the first Bajakajian factor—  the nature and extent of the crime — the plaintiffs were indeed culpable because there was no factual dispute that they violated the parking infraction code for failing to pay for over-time use of a metered space. However, the Ninth Circuit also found the the parking transgressions were small:

“But we also conclude that appellants’ culpability is low because the underlying parking violation is minor. We thus find that the nature and extent of appellants’ violations to be minimal but not de minimis.”

The Court further reasoned that the second Bajakajian factor — whether the violations was related to other illegal activities — was not as helpful to its analysis: “We only note that there is no information in the record showing whether overstaying a parking meter relates to other illegal activities, nor do the parties argue as much.”

Similarly, the Court said that the third Bajakajian factor — whether other penalties may be imposed for the violation — also did not advance its analysis. “Neither party suggests that alternative penalties may be imposed instead of the fine, and the record is devoid of any such suggestion.”

Finally, the Court turned to the fourth Bajakajian factor — the extent of the harm caused by the violation. “The most obvious and simple way to assess this factor is to observe the monetary harm resulting from the violation,” said the Court. Ultimately, it reasoned that while a parking violation was not a serious offense, the fine is not so large, either, and likely deters violations.

With that, the Ninth Circuit held that the City’s initial parking fine of $63 was not grossly disproportional to the underlying offense of overstaying the time at a parking space. Nevertheless, the Court also held that the 100% late fee on the initial fine must be remanded back to the lower district court for the City to justify:

“The government cannot overstep its authority and impose fines on its citizens without paying heed to the limits posed by the Eighth Amendment. Yet in its brief to this court, the City of Los Angeles did not even bother addressing the constitutionality of its late fee. Based on the record, we do not know the City’s justification for setting the late fee at one hundred percent of the initial fine.”

With that, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals gave the case back (remanded) to the lower court for a further analysis on this issue.

My opinion? Good decision. At the end of the day, paying a 100% late fee for a parking fine is truly excessive. The case is novel because we don’t see much litigation surrounding the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment. We do know, however, that the Eighth Amendment also encompasses the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, which is the most important and controversial part of the Amendment.  The issues relating to that constitutional amendment are, in some ways, shrouded in mystery. What does it mean for a punishment to be “cruel and unusual”? How do we measure a punishment’s cruelty? And if a punishment is cruel, why should we care whether it is “unusual”?

Again, good decision.

Shackling Defendants In Court – Without Reason – Is Unconstitutional.

Court ruling about shackles puts stress on judicial system | Local ...

In State v. Jackson, the WA Supreme Court held that the shackling or handcuffing of a defendant at any stage of proceedings without an individualized inquiry into whether shackles or restraints are necessary violates the defendant’s constitutional rights.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In 2017, Mr. Jackson,  was charged with assault in the second degree, domestic violence, for strangling his fiancée. At every court appearance, Jackson was forced to wear some form of restraints pursuant to jail policy. The trial court did not engage in any individualized determination of whether restraints were necessary for courtroom safety but, instead, filed a consolidated opinion adopting the jail policy for all superior court appearances for all incarcerated defendants. After a jury found Jackson guilty, he appealed, arguing that his constitutional right to due process was violated when he was forced to wear restraints without an individualized inquiry into their necessity.

The Court of Appeals held that the shackling of Jackson without an individualized inquiry into whether shackles were necessary violated his constitutional rights. However, it also held that this violation was harmless; thus leaving Jackson with a constitutional violation without a remedy.

Both the Prosecutor and Mr. Jackson appealed to the WA Supreme Court. Jackson argued that the Court of Appeals did not apply the constitutional “harmless error test” correctly. The State, on the other hand, cross-petitioned for review of the constitutionality of the use of pretrial restraints.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Supreme Court reviewed the history of defendants wearing pretrial restraints in court:

“The problems in the history of shackling in early America are not limited to the courts and incarcerated individuals . . . The use of shackling as a means of control and oppression, primarily against people of color, has run rampant in the history of this country . . . Shackles and restraints remain an image of the transatlantic slave trade and the systematic abuse and ownership of African persons that has endured long beyond the end of slavery. Shackles and restraints also represent the forced removal of Native people from their homelands through the Trail of Tears and the slave labor of Native people. We recognize that although these atrocities occurred over a century ago, the systemic control of persons of color remains in society, particularly within the criminal justice system.” ~WA Supreme Court

Next, the Court reasoned that under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and article I, section 22 of the Washington State Constitution, it is well settled that a defendant in a criminal case is entitled to appear at trial free from all bonds or shackles except in extraordinary circumstances.

That said, the WA Supreme Court also mentioned that the right to be free from restraint is not absolute, and trial court judges are vested with the discretion to give measures that implicate courtroom security, including whether to restrain a defendant in some capacity in order to prevent injury.

Next, the court  identified several factors under State v. Hartzog which help a trial court determine if a defendant needs to be shackled:

“The seriousness of the present charge against the defendant; defendant’s temperament and character; his age and physical attributes; his past record; past escapes or attempted escapes, and evidence of a present plan to escape; threats to harm others or cause a disturbance; self-destructive tendencies; the risk of mob violence or of attempted revenge by others; the possibility of rescue by other offenders still at large; the size and mood of the audience; the nature and physical security of the courtroom; and the adequacy and availability of alternative remedies.” ~WA Supreme Court quoting State v. Hartzog

The Court reasoned that a trial court must engage in an individualized inquiry into the use of restraints prior to every court appearance. Furthermore, the State does not meet this burden by simply establishing that no jurors observed the restraints during trial.

“When the State does not meet its burden to prove that the use of restraints at trial was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant is entitled to a new trial and the defendant may only be restrained or shackled during any stage of the proceedings after the court makes an individualized inquiry into whether shackles or restraints are necessary,” said the Court.

With that, the WA Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals on harmlessness and remanded for a new trial with instructions that at all stages of court proceedings, the court shall make an individualized inquiry into whether shackles or restraints are necessary.

My opinion? Good decision. The manner in which the justice system treats people in these public settings matters for the public’s perception, including that of the defendant. Practices like routine shackling are inconsistent with our constitutional presumption that people who have not been convicted of a crime are innocent until proven otherwise.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges. Hiring an experienced and effective criminal defense attorney is the first and best step towards justice.

True Threats

P Emojis and Emoticons in Court – The Air Force JAG Corps Reporter

In State v. D.R.C., the WA Court of Appeals held that a 17-year-old girl’s text messages to friends which aired her grievances about her mother after they verbally argued did not constitute “true threats” for purposes of proving Harassment.

BACKGROUND FACTS

The case against 17-year-old juvenile defendant D.R.C. began with a mother-daughter dispute over whether D.R.C. violated house rules by possessing gang-colored clothing. The argument took place in D.R.C.’s bedroom, and at some point D.R.C. slammed her door shut. D.R.C.’s mother responded by removing the door from its hinges.

During the argument with her mother, D.R.C. was on her phone and texting with several friends, indicating she wanted to kill her mother. The texts were vaguely worded and peppered with smiling emojis and the initialism “LOL.”

After removing D.R.C.’s bedroom door, the mother confiscated D.R.C.’s phone and turned to leave the room. As she was leaving, D.R.C.’s mother heard a loud noise. D.R.C. had punched her bedroom wall, leaving a hole in it. D.R.C.’s mother called the police. The police arrived and talked to D.R.C. and her mother, but did not take further action. Later that night, D.R.C.’s mother reviewed D.R.C.’s phone and discovered the text messages.

D.R.C.’s mother shared the text messages with the police. The State charged D.R.C. with felony harassment in juvenile court. The case proceeded to trial. The juvenile court found D.R.C. guilty of harassment.

D.R.C. appealed under arguments that the State failed to meet the additional burden of proving a true threat.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that in order to penalize a defendant for harassment, the State must prove not only the elements of the offense but also that the defendant’s words were not the type of speech protected by the First Amendment.

“A true threat is a serious threat,” said the Court. “It is not an idle statement, a joke, or even a hyperbolic expression of frustration.” The court further reasoned that when analyzing whether a statement is a “true threat” it looks carefully at the context of the inflammatory statement in order to avoid infringement on the precious right to free speech.

“The focus of the true threat analysis is on the speaker. But we do not look at the speaker’s actual intent . . . Instead, the test is objective . . . We ask whether a reasonable person in the speaker’s position would foresee their statement would be interpreted as a serious expression of intent to cause physical harm.” ~WA Court of Appeals

Next, the Court of Appeals examined whether D.R.C.’s friends thought the threats were “true threats.” It reasoned that D.R.C.’s past conversation with one friend supports D.R.C.’s testimony that she tended to use hyperbolic language with her friends. “In the prior text between D.R.C. and Lexy, D.R.C. accompanied her statements about harming or killing a mutual acquaintance with ”Lmfao”; the face with tears of joy emoji, ; a shrug emoji, ; a smiling face with horns emoji, ; a zany face emoji, ; and a heart emoji,” said the Court of Appeals. “The combination of the initialism and emojis conveyed an unmistakable message of sarcasm, as opposed to a serious intent to cause harm or death.”

“The language used by D.R.C. was distastefully violent, but it was not as disturbing as some of the past statements held to fall within First Amendment protections.” ~WA Court of Appeals

The Court of Appeals reversed D.R.C.’s conviction – but not without warning:

“While we rule in D.R.C.’s favor, our disposition should not be interpreted as approval of D.R.C.’s choice of language . . . We, like the trial court, find nothing funny in the texts. Nevertheless, the First Amendment protects all sorts of speech, even when the sentiment is hurtful or vile.” ~WA Court of Appeals

My opinion? I’ve gained jury acquittals in similar cases. In proving harassment charges, the State must prove that a reasonable person would have felt the threats were true threats under the circumstances. That’s a high burden to prove. Many people – indeed, most people – are guilty of making threats during or after an emotional situation. However, simply uttering threats does not logically mean that the threat is intended to be carried out out.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with Harassment. Hiring an experienced criminal defense attorney like myself is the first and best step towards justice.