Justia Washington Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law
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Petitioner Daniel Elwell was charged with one count of residential burglary. He disagreed with his assigned trial counsel about a number of issues, including the probable merit of a motion to suppress based on an alleged unlawful search. Elwell ultimately filed a written motion to suppress the stolen item, although counsel assisted by eliciting testimony and presenting oral argument before the court. The trial court denied Elwell’s motion to suppress, and he was convicted. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that Elwell’s motion to suppress was properly denied on the basis of the open view doctrine and that Elwell’s right to counsel had not been violated. The Washington Supreme Court found the open view doctrine did not justify the police officer’s actions in this case. Instead, the Court held that the officer engaged in an unlawful, warrantless search in violation of article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution. Therefore, it was error to deny Elwell’s motion to suppress. However, the Court found the error was harmless. Further, the Court held Elwell was not deprived of the right to counsel. View "Washington v. Elwell" on Justia Law

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Julie Fairbanks began dating Charmarke Abdi-Issa shortly after she moved to Seattle with her dog, Mona. Mona was a small Chihuahua and Dachshund mix. Fairbanks testified she was close to Mona. Abdi-Issa, however, had a history of disliking Mona. Abdi-Issa was abusive toward Fairbanks and Mona, even threatening to kill them both. Abdi-Issa insisted on taking the dog for a walk. Witnesses saw Abdi-Issa kick Mona so hard it went airborne and into some nearby bushes. A witness called police; police discovered the dog still alive, under a bush. When it was transported to a nearby veterinary clinic, the dog had died. A necropsy found that Mona had died from multiple instances of blunt force trauma. The State charged Abdi-Issa with first degree animal cruelty under RCW 16.52.205 and sought a domestic violence designation under RCW 10.99.020 and RCW 9A.36.041(4). The State also charged two sentencing aggravators: (1) that the crime had a destructive and foreseeable impact on persons other than the victim under RCW 9.94A.535(3)(r) and (2) that Abdi-Issa’s conduct during the crime of domestic violence manifested deliberate cruelty or intimidation of the victim, RCW 9.94A.635(3)(h)(iii). Abdi-Issa unsuccessfully moved to dismiss the domestic violence designation and aggravators multiple times. The Court of Appeals vacated the domestic violence designation, the no- contact order, and the impact on others sentencing aggravator. The Washington Supreme Court was asked to determine whether the trial court correctly concluded that animal cruelty could be a crime of domestic violence. The Court was also asked whether the trial court properly instructed the jury that it could find this crime had a destructive and foreseeable impact on persons other than the victim. The Supreme Court affirmed the trial court on both issues. View "Washington v. Abdi-Issa" on Justia Law

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Justin Jennings was convicted of felony murder and unlawful possession of a firearm for the killing of Chris Burton. At trial, the court held that a toxicology report showing Burton had methamphetamine in his system at the time of death was inadmissible because it was irrelevant and speculative. Jennings appealed, arguing the exclusion of the report violated his constitutional right to present a defense. The Court of Appeals affirmed. Jennings sought review of that decision and also challenged his sentence in light of the Washington Supreme Court’s recent decision in Washington v. Blake, 481 P.3d 521 (2021). The Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ holding that the trial court’s exclusion of the toxicology report did not violate Jennings’ right to present a defense. However, the Court clarified the test that applied to a claimed constitutional violation of the right to present a defense. In addition, the Court vacated Jennings’ sentence and remanded to the trial court for resentencing in light of Blake. View "Washington v. Jennings" on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the Washington Supreme Court's review centered on the amount of reimbursement that counties were entitled to from the State for costs associated with purchasing, installing, and operating additional ballot boxes. In order to answer that question, the Court first had to consider the relationship between RCW 29A.40.170 (the ballot box statute), RCW 29A.04.430 (the reimbursement statute, or "Section 430"), and RCW 43.135.060 (the unfunded mandate statute). The Supreme Court held Section 430 controlled over the unfunded mandate statute and provided reimbursement only of the State’s proportional share for the costs of compliance with the ballot box statute. Further, the Court held that the 2020 amendment of Section 430 did not violate article II, section 37 of the Washington Constitution and that respondents Snohomish, Kittitas, and Whitman Counties could not claim any vested right that would require the Court to invalidate the retroactive effect of Section 430. The Court therefore reversed the order granting partial summary judgment and remanded to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Wash. State Ass'n of Counties v. Washington" on Justia Law

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In 2017, respondent Zachary Bergstrom was charged with possession of a controlled substance. He was later released on bail. For various reasons, among them, hospitalization, tardiness, and struggles with drug addiction and homelessness, Bergstrom missed three required court dates. Because of these failures to appear (FTAs), the State charged him with three counts of bail jumping. The jury acquitted Bergstrom of the underlying possession charge but convicted him of three counts of bail jumping under former RCW 9A.76.170 (2001) (the bail jumping statute). On appeal, Bergstrom argued: (1) the to-convict jury instructions were constitutionally infirm because they omitted an essential element; (2) the State’s evidence that Bergstrom knew of the required court dates was “equivocal” and therefore insufficient on two counts of bail jumping; and (3) defense counsel’s failures to object to certain evidence and to request an affirmative defense instruction amounted to ineffective assistance of counsel. The Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part, agreeing that the to-convict jury instructions were deficient but on the alternate ground that “the to-convict instructions did not require the State to prove an element of bail jumping - that Bergstrom knowingly failed to appear as required.” The court nonetheless determined the error was harmless, and he therefore knowingly failed to appear on those dates. In the unpublished portion of its opinion, the court reversed Bergstrom’s bail jumping conviction for his FTA on January 12, 2018 due to ineffective assistance of counsel. The Washington Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals in part because “knowingly failed to appear” was not an element of the 2001 bail jumping statute in effect at the time of Bergstrom’s FTAs because the legislature amended the bail jumping statute in 2001 to expressly replace this language with the broader knowledge requirement, “knowledge of the requirement of a subsequent personal appearance before any court of this state.” Despite omission of the phrase “as required,” the to-convict jury instructions, as a whole, informed the jury of each essential element of bail jumping and were, therefore, constitutionally sound. The Supreme Court otherwise affirmed the Court of Appeals because the evidence that Bergstrom had knowledge of the April 18, 2018 court date was sufficient to convict. View "Washington v. Bergstrom" on Justia Law

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David Dodge was convicted of first degree murder, rape, and burglary for crimes he committed in 1997, when he was 17 years old. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison. Twenty years later, the Washington legislature passed RCW 9.94A.730, giving people like Dodge who received lengthy sentences for crimes committed as juveniles, a chance for earlier release, after serving at least 20 years of their sentence. The statute: (1) required the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board (ISRB) to begin with a presumption of release after 20 years and to apply that presumption of release by considering “affirmative and other conditions” that could make release work; and (2) directed the ISRB to “give public safety considerations the highest priority when making all discretionary decisions regarding the ability for release and conditions of release.” In his personal restraint petition (PRP), Dodge challenged the ISRB’s application of this statute to his petition for early release after he had served more than 20 years of his 50-year sentence, arguing the ISRB erred by: (1) failing to apply the presumption of release contained in RCW 9.94A.730; (2) failing to consider conditions of release that could reduce his risk to an acceptable level, as the statute mandated; and (3) relying primarily on static historical facts about his crime rather than on evidence of his rehabilitation. In a matter of first impression for the Washington Supreme Court, it found that the ISRB placed singular weight on the duty to consider public safety, while failing to apply the presumption of release or meaningfully consider any conditions of release that might reduce risk to an appropriate level. The Court therefore reversed the Court of Appeals and remanded to the ISRB for a new early release hearing. View "In re Pers. Restraint of Dodge" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Francisco Moreno was convicted of first degree burglary, which was defined by statute and required the State to prove that an accused: (1) entered or remained unlawfully in a building; (2) with an intent to commit a crime. On appeal, Moreno argued that both the charging document and jury instructions were constitutionally deficient because they omitted the implied essential element of knowledge of the unlawfulness of his entering or remaining. The Court of Appeals affirmed Moreno’s convictions, concluding that no implied essential element exists for first degree burglary. Finding no reversible error, the Washington Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals. View "Washington v. Moreno" on Justia Law

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Jerry Lynn Peterson pleaded guilty to the sale of heroin in violation of RCW 69.50.410 of the Uniform Controlled Substances Act (UCSA). She petitioned the Washington Supreme Court to hold that RCW 69.50.410, if not all of the UCSA, was invalid and unconstitutional because, she contended, the statute had been impliedly repealed and, among other things, violated the privileges and immunities clause of the state constitution. Accordingly, she argued, the charges against her had to be dismissed. Finding no constitutional infirmity in the statute, the Supreme Court rejected Peterson’s arguments and remanded for resentencing. View "Washington v. Peterson" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Brian Anderson was convicted of four counts of delivery of a controlled substance, methamphetamine. The fourth amended information alleged that the first count was subject to RCW 69.50.435(1)(c)’s “[a]dditional penalty” because the offense occurred “[w]ithin one thousand feet of a school bus route stop designated by the school district.” The special verdict form asked the jury whether the defendant delivered a controlled substance to a person “within one thousand feet of a school bus route stop designated by a school district.” The jury was not instructed on the definition of “school bus route stop.” But unchallenged jury instructions proposed by the State defined “school bus” as a vehicle with a seating capacity of more than 10, among other specifications, and the State presented no evidence on the seating capacity of any buses or on the other listed definitional factors. The jury then answered yes to the special verdict form’s question, and the court imposed RCW 69.50.435(1)(c)’s “[a]dditional penalty” (or sentencing enhancement). Anderson contended on appeal that under the law of the case doctrine, the unchallenged jury instruction defining “school bus” in such detail compelled the State to prove that a “school bus” meeting that detailed definition actually used the school bus stops at issue here. He further argued the evidence was insufficient to meet that burden of proof. The State acknowledged that it presented no evidence on the “school bus” definitional details; it argued that neither the statute nor the law of the case doctrine required it to do so. To this, the Washington Supreme Court agreed and affirmed the trial court. View "Washington v. Anderson" on Justia Law

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In this case, the issue presented for the Washington Supreme Court’s review centered on whether Governor Inslee exceeded his constitutional authority to veto whole bills, “entire section[s]” of bills, and “appropriation items” when he vetoed a single sentence that appeared seven times in various portions of section 220 of ESHB 1160, the 2019 transportation appropriations bill. Section 220 appropriated moneys to the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) for public transportation-related grants. The vetoed sentence (the “fuel type condition”) barred WSDOT from considering vehicle fuel type as a factor in the grant selection process. The Supreme Court concluded the Governor did exceed his authority; the bill was a valid legislative limit on an executive agency’s expenditure of appropriated funds. The Court therefore affirmed the superior court’s ordered on summary judgment in favor of the legislature. View "Washington State Legislature v. Inslee" on Justia Law