Justia Washington Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law
by
The issue before the Washington Supreme Court’s in this case was whether an individual’s YouTube channel qualified as “news media” for requests for certain records under the Washington Public Records Act (PRA). In 2014, Brian Green and Peter Auvil went to the County-City Building in Tacoma to file a document and pay a parking ticket. As they went through security, the guard asked to search Auvil’s bag. Auvil refused. A Pierce County deputy sheriff came to assist, and Auvil began to record a video of the interaction on his phone. Auvil continued to refuse to allow the security guard to search the bag, arguing that the security checkpoint was a violation of his privacy rights. The conversation escalated, and the deputy asked the men to leave. When Green stood too close to him, the deputy shoved Green and caused him to fall backward onto the floor. The deputy arrested Green for criminal obstruction and took him to jail. He was released approximately 24 hours later. The prosecuting attorney’s office dismissed the charge. In December 2017, Green e-mailed a PRA request to the Pierce County Sheriff’s public records office requesting “[a]ny and all records of official photos and/or birth date and/or rank and/or position and/or badge number and/or date hired and/or ID Badge for all detention center and/or jail personnel and/or deputies on duty November 26 & 27 2014.” A representative of the Sheriff’s “Public Disclosure Unit” sent 11 pages of records, but did not include photographs or dates of birth as requested, explaining that the information was exempt under the PRA. Green said he was “working on a story concerning the Pierce County Jail” and again signed his e-mail with the title, “Investigative Journalist.” Green claimed his 6,000-subscriber YouTube channel met the definition of “news media” under the PRA. The Supreme Court concluded the statutory definition of “news media” required an entity with a legal identity separate from the individual. Green did not prove that he or the Libertys Champion YouTube channel met the statutory definition of “news media,” and, thus, he was not entitled to the exempt records. Therefore, the trial court was reversed in part. The Court affirmed the trial court’s denial of Pierce County’s motion to compel discovery. View "Green v. Pierce County" on Justia Law

by
After attending multiple court hearings in his case for violating a domestic violence no contact order (DVNCO), Samuel Slater missed court the day his case was called for trial. The judge issued a warrant for his arrest, and Slater came to court to quash the warrant just over one month later. The State added a charge of bail jumping for his failure to appear (FTA). Slater moved to sever the charges, alleging that the charges were not cross admissible under an ER 403 and ER 404(b) analysis and that trying the charges together would cause him unfair prejudice and allow for improper propensity arguments as both charges included violation of a court order. Two different judges concluded that the FTA was admissible as flight evidence. Slater appealed, alleging that the trial court abused its discretion in not severing the charges as an FTA was not automatically admissible to infer consciousness of guilt, and that the prosecutor committed misconduct during closing. The Court of Appeals affirmed. The Washington Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, reversed the convictions, and remanded for the two charges to be severed. “Missing one court hearing does not rise to the level of flight evidence from which one can infer consciousness of guilt on the underlying crime. The judges in this case abused their discretion when they repeatedly denied Slater’s motion to sever the charges because the charges are not cross admissible. Further, although we need not reach this issue, the admission of the FTA as evidence of consciousness of guilt allowed the prosecutor to capitalize on the admission and to make improper comments regarding Slater’s alleged guilt and propensity to violate court orders. This impropriety could not have been cured by a jury instruction and the pretrial rulings effectively allowed the improper arguments during the State’s closing arguments.” View "Washington v. Slater" on Justia Law

by
This case concerned a conflict between Tacoma Municipal Court Judge David Ladenburg and the presiding judge of that court, Judge Drew Henke. Judge Ladenburg petitioned the Washington Supreme Court to issue a writ of mandamus or prohibition against Judge Henke, directing her to withdraw an order of consolidation she issued pursuant to General Rule 29 (GR 29). A threshold question for the Supreme Court’s review was whether a municipal judge, such as Judge Henke, was a “state officer” for purposes of article IV, section 4 of the Washington Constitution. The Court held a municipal judge was not a state officer, and therefore dismissed Judge Ladenburg’s petition. View "Ladenburg v. Henke" on Justia Law

by
The parent in this case, J.C., contended that the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) did not tailor its offer of services to accommodate her intellectual disability prior to recommending termination of her parental rights. “Understandable offers of services are essential to giving a parent a meaningful opportunity to remedy their parental deficiencies and preserve their parent-child relationship. … A termination is certainly erroneous where DCYF did not fulfill its duty to understandably offer services to the parent. Absent sufficient evidence proving that DCYF fulfilled this duty, it is not possible for a court to determine why efforts to reunite the family were unsuccessful. Perhaps the parent was unwilling or unable to remedy their deficiencies. Or perhaps the parent was capable of improvement but struggling to understand precisely what they must do. Both situations are frustrating and potentially devastating for those involved, but there is a world of difference between them.” In this case, the Washington Supreme Court concluded DCYF did not prove by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence that it made sufficient efforts to ensure that its offers of services were reasonably understandable to J.C. in light of her potential intellectual disability. It therefore reversed the order terminating her parental rights. View "In re Termination of Parental Rights to M.A.S.C." on Justia Law

by
On May 15, 1915, the State of Washington charged Alec Towessnute, a Yakama tribal member, with multiple fishing crimes. These criminal charges stemmed from the fact that he was fishing in the usual and accustomed waters of the Yakama tribe the day before without a state-issued fishing license using an unpermitted fishing hook. The parties stipulated that the United States had entered into a treaty with the Yakama Nation on June 9, 1855 (ratified by the United States Senate on March 8, 1859), and that the area where Mr. Towessnute fished “has been used and enjoyed by said Indians during the fishing season of each and every year since said treaty was made; that said fishing place has from time immemorial been used and enjoyed by said Indians and their ancestors and known by the Indian name of ‘Top-tut’.” Mr. Towessnute objected to the charges. Relying on the stipulation, he explained that Benton County had no jurisdiction over the matter because he had committed no crime by exercising his treaty fishing rights. The trial court judge agreed: on June 10, 1915, Benton County Superior Court entered a final judgment in the matter, dismissing all the charges against Mr. Towessnute. The 1916 Washington Supreme Court reversed, mandating that the criminal charges be reinstated, overruling Mr. Towessnute’s objections. In 2015, the descendants of Mr. Towessnute sought vacation of any record of conviction against Mr. Towessnute. Given that such a conviction could not be proved by the record, the trial court declined to take any action. Under the Rules of Appellate Procedure (RAP) 1.2(c), the 2021 Washington Supreme Court acted to waive any of the RAP “to serve the ends of justice.” The mandate issued by the Washington Supreme Court in 1916 was recalled and any conviction existing then or now against Mr. Towessnute was vacated. View "Washington v. Towessnute" on Justia Law

by
The facts in this case were disputed: petitioner Leland Knapp, IV had intercourse with B.S. on Super Bowl Sunday, February 7, 2016; Knapp was high on methamphetamine at the time; and Knapp and B.S. had been friends since high school, when B.S. was Knapp’s boss at a Jack in the Box restaurant. After Knapp left the residence, he was soon stopped by police. Knapp told police, ‘“It’s her word against mine”’ when he deduced that B.S. had called the police to accuse him of rape. B.S. contended Knapp raped her. Police took B.S.’s statement and transported her to the hospital, where an examination revealed genital injuries consistent with rape. A bandana B.S. maintained Knapp used to gag her had genetic material matching B.S.’ saliva and skin cells. Knapp contended B.S. alleged rape as retribution for Knapp’s refusal to give B.S. methamphetamine, for which she often offered sex in exchange. Knapp argued the intercourse was consensual. The question before the Washington Supreme Court in this case was whether the instructions given in Knapp’s trial adequately communicated the appropriate instruction with regard to a party’s burden of proof with respect to rape cases. Washington law previously treated consent as an affirmative defense to rape, but the Supreme Court recently recognized, however, that placing the burden of proving a consent defense on the defendant violated the defendant’s due process rights. Now, “once a defendant asserts a consent defense and provides sufficient evidence to support the defense, the State bears the burden of proving lack of consent as part of its proof of the element of forcible compulsion.” The Court determined the instructions in this case properly informed the jury of the applicable law, were not misleading, and permitted Knapp to argue his theory of the case, therefore, they were constitutionally adequate. Accordingly, the Court affirmed Knapp’s conviction. View "Washington v. Knapp" on Justia Law

by
The Washington Supreme Court was asked to decide whether an order revoking a sexually violent predator’s (SVP) conditional release to a less restrictive alternative (LRA) placement pursuant to RCW 71.09.098 was one of the limited number of superior court orders appealable as of right under Washington's Rules of Appellate Procedure. The Court held that it was not; rather, such orders were subject to discretionary review in accordance with RAP 2.3(a). View "In re Det. of McHatton" on Justia Law

by
In November 2017, M.S. was charged with third degree assault of a King County Metro bus driver. M.S. approached the driver’s side window of a King County bus while it was parked. When the bus driver leaned out the driver’s side window to speak to M.S., M.S. squirted urine from a plastic bottle at the bus driver. M.S. pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of fourth degree assault and requested a deferred disposition of the criminal assault charge. The court also asked M.S. if he understood that the court could impose a manifest injustice sentence outside the standard range if it found aggravating factors. The court did not mention at the hearing or in the plea agreement any existing aggravating factors it could rely on if it did impose a manifest injustice sentence. The court granted M.S.’s request for a deferred disposition and in it required M.S. to comply with a number of conditions of community supervision. The trial court ultimately sentenced M.S. to a manifest injustice disposition based on facts and aggravating factors that M.S. had no notice of at the time of his plea. The Court of Appeals affirmed M.S.’s sentence and rejected M.S.’s argument that any right to notice of the factual basis of a manifest injustice disposition existed prior to pleading guilty. The issue this case presented for the Washington Supreme Court's review centered on whether a juvenile, before entering a guilty plea in a criminal proceeding, had a statutory or constitutional due process right to notice of the factual basis of and the intent to seek a manifest injustice disposition. The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and held that a juvenile has a right to notice of the factual basis necessary to support a manifest injustice sentence before deciding to plead guilty. View "Washington v. M.S." on Justia Law

by
In 2017, D.L., a 14-year-old boy, was charged with three counts of first degree rape and one count of attempted first degree rape of his 5-year-old half brother. At the time, D.L. had no prior criminal history. D.L. successfully negotiated a plea deal with the prosecutor, reducing the charges to a single count of first degree attempted child molestation. D.L. stipulated in his plea agreement that the trial court could use the probable cause statement to determine the facts that supported his conviction. But when the court imposed the manifest injustice disposition, it relied on three facts that were not in the probable cause affidavit: (1) that D.L.’s victim had a cognitive disability; (2) that D.L. refused accountability; and (3) that D.L. would not cooperate with treatment. This case asked the Washington Supreme Court whether due process required that the State give a juvenile notice of these specific facts before pleading guilty if they will be used to justify a manifest injustice disposition. "Ultimately, due process requires that juveniles be treated in a manner that is fundamentally fair. ... Without adequate notice, juveniles and their attorneys cannot predict which facts might be unearthed and weaponized to extend the juvenile’s sentence after the plea. This lack of notice causes unfair surprise to young defendants and serves only to undermine juveniles’ and their families’ trust in our juvenile justice system. Our adult defendants in Washington are not treated so unfairly and neither should we so treat our juveniles." As a result, the manifest injustice disposition was improperly imposed. As D.L. already served his sentence and this case was technically moot; the Court resolved this legal issue without modifying D.L.’s sentence. View "Washington v. D.L." on Justia Law

by
Kshama Sawant served on the Seattle City Council since 2013. Ernest Lou, among others, filed recall charges alleging that Councilmember Sawant delegated city employment decisions to a political organization outside city government, used city resources to promote a ballot initiative and failed to comply with public disclosure requirements, disregarded state orders related to COVID-19 and endangered the safety of city workers and other individuals by admitting hundreds of people into Seattle City Hall while it was closed to the public, and led a protest march to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s private residence, the location of which Councilmember Sawant knew was protected under state confidentiality laws. The trial court found these charges factually and legally sufficient for recall. Councilmember Sawant challenged the ballot synopsis. The Washington Supreme Court determined petitioner’s charges that Councilmember Sawant delegated city employment decisions to a political organization outside city government and a portion of the charge that Councilmember Sawant’s actions in divulging the location of Mayor Durkan’s private residence amounted to criminal harassment in violation of RCW 9A.46.020 were legally insufficient. The Court affirmed in all other respects, and declined to address the Councilmember's challenge to the ballot synopsis, because RCW 29A.56.140 provided that “[a]ny decision regarding the ballot synopsis by the superior court is final.” View "In re Recall of Sawant" on Justia Law