Justia Washington Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law
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Petitioner Sammy Weaver was charged with one count of residential burglary under RCW 9A.52.025. In the jury instructions, the parties agreed to include the lesser included offense of criminal trespass in the first degree. At trial, Weaver was found guilty of only the lesser charge of criminal trespass in the first degree. On appeal, Weaver alleged the jury instruction for knowledge conflicted with the instruction for trespass, relieving the State of its burden of proving each element of criminal trespass beyond a reasonable doubt. The Washington Supreme Court found Weaver did not invite the error because he did not propose the instruction to which he assigned error, defining “knowledge.” The Court rejected Weaver’s claim on the merits because the jury instructions, when read as a whole, correctly stated the law and did not relieve the State of its burden to prove each element beyond a reasonable doubt. Therefore, Weaver’s judgment of conviction was affirmed. View "Washington v. Weaver" on Justia Law

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In the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, petitioner Robert Williams filed a personal restraint petition (PRP) arguing that the conditions of his confinement constituted cruel punishment in violation of the state and federal constitutions. While confined in Department of Corrections (DOC) facilities, Williams asked the Washington Supreme Court to order his sentence be served in home confinement at his sister’s home in Florida until COVID-19 no longer posed a threat to him. The Supreme Court issued an order recognizing that article I, section 14 of the Washington Constitution was more protective than the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution regarding conditions of confinement and that Williams’s then current conditions of confinement were cruel under the state constitution: specifically, the lack of reasonable access to bathroom facilities and running water, as well as DOC’s failure to provide Williams with appropriate assistance in light of his physical disabilities. The Court granted Williams’s PRP and directed DOC to remedy those conditions or to release Williams. DOC later reported that it had complied with this court’s order and had placed Williams in a housing unit designed for assisted living care. Williams was relocated to a single cell with no roommates and a toilet and sink, and was given access to Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant restrooms and a readily available medical staff, an assigned wheelchair pusher/therapy aide, and an emergency pendant allowing him to call for assistance. To this, the Supreme Court concluded these actions remedied the unconstitutional conditions and declined to order Williams’s release. By this opinion, the Supreme Court explained its reasoning underlying its grant of Williams' PRP. View "In re Pers. Restraint of Williams" on Justia Law

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In 1995, petitioner Timothy Haag was sentenced to mandatory life without parole for a crime he committed at the age of 17. In 2018, at a Miller-fix resentencing conducted pursuant to RCW 10.95.030, the resentencing court expressly found that “Haag is not irretrievably depraved nor irreparably corrupt.” Yet the court resentenced Haag to a term of 46 years to life; the earliest that he could be released is at the age of 63. Haag sought review by the Washington Supreme Court, arguing that the trial court erroneously emphasized retribution over mitigation and that his sentence amounted to an unconstitutional de facto life sentence. To this, the Supreme Court agreed, holding the resentencing court erred because it gave undue emphasis to retributive factors over mitigating factors. The Court also held Haag’s 46-year minimum term amounts to an unconstitutional de facto life sentence. Judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for resentencing. View "Washington v. Haag" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Jessica Vazquez was convicted of maintaining a dwelling for controlled substances, possessing methamphetamine, and possession of drug paraphernalia. Sarah McFadden, Vazquez’s attorney, objected only once during trial, which resulted in the jury considering highly prejudicial, inadmissible evidence. Vazquez claimed the Court of Appeals did not properly evaluate counsel’s performance and that she was denied effective assistance of counsel. After review, the Washington Supreme Court agreed, holding that McFadden’s failure to object to inadmissible evidence fell below the standard for effective performance and that but for McFadden’s lack of objections, there was a reasonable probability that the outcome of the trial would have been different. The appellate court was reversed, and the case remanded for further proceedings. View "Washington v. Vazquez" on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the Washington Supreme Court’s review centered on whether a citizen’s affidavit was sufficient to initiate criminal proceedings under the citizen complaint rule, CrRLJ 2.1(c). Geene Felix was a Washington Department of Social and Health Services social worker who was involved in child welfare matters regarding Thomas Stout’s two children. In 2016, Felix signed two dependency petitions under penalty of perjury, alleging that Stout’s children were dependent. Stout disputed Felix’s factual account in the dependency petitions., alleging that Felix committed the crime of false swearing when she made certain statements in the petitions. The crime of false swearing is a gross misdemeanor with a two-year statute of limitations. In 2018, one day short of two years after Felix filed the dependency petitions, Stout filed an affidavit of complaining witness seeking to institute a citizen complaint against Felix. The court issued a summons notice to Felix, and a probable cause hearing was set for two weeks later. At the December hearing, the court first considered the timeliness issue. Felix argued that a criminal action can be commenced only by the filing of an indictment or complaint, which must be done within the statute of limitations. The court agreed with Felix and ruled that “[a] criminal action is commenced by filing a complaint.” Therefore, because Stout did not file a criminal complaint within the two-year statute of limitations, the court dismissed his citizen complaint as untimely. The court did not reach the merits of the case, and denied reconsideration. He then sought review in the Court of Appeals, and the commissioner denied discretionary review. The Court of Appeals also denied his request to modify the commissioner’s ruling. The Supreme Court commissioner granted discretionary review. The Washington Supreme Court held that under CrRLJ 2.1, criminal proceedings were indeed initiated by the filing of a criminal complaint, and an affidavit under CrRLJ 2.1(c) was only part of the citizen’s request for the court’s approval to file the complaint. Here, the criminal complaint was not filed before the expiration of the statute of limitations. Therefore, the Supreme Court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the citizen complaint as untimely. View "In re Citizen Complaint by Stout v. Felix" on Justia Law

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In 2016, Steven Long was living in his truck. Long, then a 56-year-old member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation, worked as a general tradesman and stored work tools as well as personal items in his vehicle. One day, Long was driving to an appointment when the truck began making “grinding” noises. In July 2016, Long parked in a gravel lot owned by the city of Seattle. Long stayed on the property for the next three months. On October 5, 2016, police alerted Long that he was violating the Seattle Municipal Code (SMC) 11.72.440(B) by parking in one location for more than 72 hours. Long claimed he told the officers that he lived in the truck. Later that day, a parking enforcement officer posted a 72-hour notice on the truck, noting it would be impounded if not moved at least one city block. Long did not move the truck. While Long was at work on October 12, a city-contracted company towed his truck. Without it, Long slept outside on the ground before seeking shelter nearby to escape the rain and wind. Long contested the infraction and eventually agreed to a payment plan to reimburse the city for the costs of the impoundment. He now argued, among other things, that the impoundment violated Washington’s homestead act, ch. 6.13 RCW, and the federal excessive fines clause. The Washington Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s conclusion that Long’s truck automatically qualified as a homestead, and that no declaration was required. However, because Seattle had not yet attempted to collect on Long’s debt, former RCW 6.13.070 did not apply, and Long’s homestead act claim was premature. Thus, the Supreme Court reversed the superior court’s decision that Seattle violated the act.As to Long’s excessive fines claim, the Court held the impoundment and associated costs were fines and that an ability to pay inquiry was necessary. Long showed he lacked the ability to pay the imposed costs. View "City of Seattle v. Long" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Juan Enriquez-Martinez was in custody in Oregon, held on both Washington and Oregon pending charges. For his Washington conviction, he was denied credit for the time he spent in jail in Oregon on a variety of grounds. Finding none of those grounds availing, the Washington Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and remanded for recalculation of the credit to which Petitioner was entitled on his Washington charges. View "Washington v. Enriquez-Martinez" on Justia Law

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Reverend George Taylor was a long-time climate activist. Rev. Taylor has made many attempts to mitigate the risks of coal and oil trains passing through Spokane, Washington. After repeated efforts without effect, he organized a peaceful protest on Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF Railway) railroad tracks. As a result, Rev. Taylor was charged with criminal trespass in the second degree and unlawful obstruction of a train. In response, he raised the necessity defense. Rev. Taylor believed his actions were necessary to prevent the imminent harms of climate change and train derailment. Whether the necessity defense was ultimately available to him depended on when a defendant has demonstrated that there were no reasonable legal alternatives to violating the law. This case went before the Washington Supreme Court due to a conflict between Division Three and Division One of the Court of Appeals in Washington v. Ward, 438 P.3d 588, review denied, 193 Wn.2d 1031 (2019). Division Three issued a split decision affirming the superior court, holding that Rev. Taylor could not present the necessity defense because “[t]here are always reasonable legal alternatives to disobeying constitutional laws.” The Supreme Court found that whie there were always alternatives in the abstract, an alternative that repeatedly failed when attempted was not a reasonable alternative. Because Rev. Taylor raised an issue of fact whether his actions were reasonable under the necessity defense, given his previous ineffective efforts to exercise legal alternatives, the Supreme Court reversed on this issue. View "Washington ex rel. Haskell v. Spokane County Dist. Court" on Justia Law

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Damarius Butts, Isaiah Obet, Charleena Lyles, and seven other people were shot and killed by law enforcement officers in King County, Washington in 2017. In response to community demands for greater police accountability, King County Executive (Executive) Dow Constantine issued a series of executive orders to reform the procedures for conducting coroner’s inquests. The King County Superior Court struck down those executive orders on various grounds, and nearly all parties appealed some aspect of that ruling. The Washington Supreme Court determined every party’s arguments had some merit and all prevailed to some degree. The Court held that the Executive’s authority to conduct coroner’s inquests included the power to establish the procedures by which those inquests are conducted, as long as those procedures are consistent with applicable state and county law. The Court therefore largely upheld Executive Constantine’s recent reforms. But the Court struck portions of the executive orders that the Families and the Law Enforcement Parties showed conflicted with state law, including those that would prevent inquest juries from fulfilling their duties under the Coroner’s Act. The Families were correct that the law required inquest juries be able to examine the involved officers and to decide whether those officers killed Butts, Obet, and Lyles by criminal means. Accordingly, the Supreme Court vacated the superior court’s order and remanded to grant in part the Families’ petitions for writs of mandamus. View "Family of Butts v. Constantine" on Justia Law

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A valuable diamond was stolen from a jewelry store. Within days, Respondent Lynell Denham sold that diamond. Police suspected Denham committed the burglary and got a warrant for his cell phone records. Cell site location information included in those records placed Denham’s phone near the jewelry store around the time of the burglary. Denham contended the affidavits supporting the warrant for his phone records lacked specific facts that would suggest evidence of a crime would be found in those records. He also contended a video interview where he discussed sophisticated burglary techniques was improperly admitted. The Washington Supreme Court found the warrant application contained sufficient detail to conclude evidence of a crime would more likely than not be found in the cell site location information in telephone company records of Denham’s cell phones and that the video recordings were properly admitted. Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and affirmed Denham’s convictions. View "Washington v. Denham" on Justia Law