Justia Washington Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Criminal 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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As cell phones made text messaging a ubiquitous form of communication, the Washington Supreme Court recognized that text message conversations constituted “a private affair protected by the state constitution from warrantless intrusion.” The Court in Washington v. Hinton, 319 P.3d 9 (2014), held that an individual whose text messages was unlawfully searched on an associate’s cell phone could challenge that search in a subsequent prosecution—rejecting the view in other states that any privacy interest in a text message was lost once the message was sent. In this case, the Supreme Court was asked to extend Hinton to prohibit law enforcement from using information obtained from the lawful, consensual search of a third party’s cell phone to set up a separate text message exchange on a different cell phone between Respondent Reece Bowman and an undercover agent posing as Bowman’s associate. Specifically, Bowman argued that both the search and the ruse violated his rights under article I, section 7 of the Washington State Constitution, as well as the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, by intruding on a private affair without authority of law. The Supreme Court rejected these arguments, holding that a cell phone owner’s voluntary consent to search text messages on their phone provides law enforcement with the authority of law necessary to justify intruding on an otherwise private affair. Further, the Court held that a subsequent police ruse using lawfully obtained information did not constitute a privacy invasion or trespass in violation of either our state constitution or the United States Constitution. The Court of Appeals’ judgment was reversed and Bowman’s conviction reinstated. View "Washington v. Bowman" on Justia Law

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This case concerned Laszlo Molnar’s postjudgment motion for resentencing on one count of second degree rape based on the State’s alleged breach of the plea agreement. The sentencing court denied Molnar’s motion, and the Court of Appeals reversed. Molnar agreed to a contested sentencing hearing, at which he and the State agreed to make different sentencing recommendations to the court. The Washington Supreme Court determined the State did not breach the plea agreement by filing a memorandum advocating for its own recommendation, a sentence at the middle of the standard range. "The State’s short memorandum made this recommendation explicitly and repeatedly, and it did not cross the line into improperly advocating for a longer sentence." The Supreme Court therefore reversed the Court of Appeals and reinstated the sentencing court's ruling denying Molnar's postjudgment motion for resentencing. View "Washington v. Molnar" on Justia 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