Justia Washington Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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In 2012, when Washington voters approved Initiative 502 legalizing recreational cannabis, it modified the driving under the influence (DUI) law and created a prong under which a person can be convicted of DUI depending on the level of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) found in one’s blood. Douglas Fraser III was convicted of DUI under the per se THC prong of RCW 46.61.502(1)(b) for driving with a THC blood level of 9.4 +/- 2.5 ng/mL within two hours of driving. On appeal, Fraser challenged the constitutionality of this prong of the DUI statute, claiming that the statute was not a legitimate exercise of the legislature’s police power, that it was unconstitutionally vague, and that it was “facially unconstitutionally overbroad because no scientific evidence supports the conclusion that there is a per-se concentration of active THC at which all or most drivers would be impaired.” The Washington Supreme Court disagreed with all of Fraser’s contentions raised on appeal and affirmed his conviction. View "Washington v. Fraser" on Justia Law

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Ronald Snider, who was convicted of third degree rape in 2003, failed to update his registration when he moved out of a residential treatment facility in mid-2017. This was at least the fifth time Snider had failed to register since 2003. Snider pleaded guilty to failure to register. Snider sought to withdraw his plea, arguing the plea was not knowing, voluntary, and intelligent because the trial court misinformed him about the knowledge element of failure to register. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument, concluding the trial court’s descriptions of the knowledge element were accurate and Snider’s plea was constitutionally valid. The Washington Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Appeals and affirmed Snider’s conviction. View "Washington v. Snider" on Justia Law

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The question this case presented for the Washington Supreme Court’s review centered on whether the prosecution was required, under Brady v. Maryland, to turn over to the defense the jail and mental health records of the victims’ mother, who was a codefendant and a State’s witness. Additionally, this case involved whether a Petrich jury unanimity instruction was required for charges of assault of a child. At trial, a jury found Reuben Mulamba guilty of first degree assault of a child, second degree assault of a child, first degree criminal mistreatment of a child, and third degree criminal mistreatment of a child. Mulamba filed a timely personal restraint petition (PRP) arguing multiple grounds for relief, based in part on the newly obtained jail records of a trial witness. The Court of Appeals, in an unpublished, split decision, granted Mulamba’s petition with respect to his claims of a Brady violation and a Petrich jury unanimity violation. After review, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals on both the Brady violation and the jury unanimity claims, and remanded to the Court of Appeals for further consideration of any unresolved issues. View "In re Pers. Restraint of Mulamba" on Justia Law

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Respondent Douglas Arbogast was charged with two counts of attempted child rape as a result of a Washington State Patrol sting operation. Police officers posted an advertisement online and posed as a mother seeking a person to teach her two children about sex. Arbogast answered the ad, exchanged messages with undercover officers, and was later arrested. At trial, Arbogast sought to present the affirmative defense of entrapment and his lack of criminal convictions as evidence that he was not predisposed to commit the charged crimes of attempted child rape. The trial court declined to allow evidence of his lack of criminal record or instruct the jury on entrapment. Arbogast was convicted. A divided panel of the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case for a new trial. The Washington Supreme Court held that to obtain an entrapment instruction, defendants must make a prima facie showing: (1) the crime originated in the mind of the police or an informant; and (2) the defendant was induced to commit a crime that he or she was not predisposed to commit. "The measure of a prima facie showing is whether the evidence offered, considered in a light most favorable to the defendant, is sufficient to permit a reasonable juror to find entrapment by a preponderance of the evidence. Here, Arbogast offered sufficient evidence to justify an instruction. Whether he can establish the defense is ultimately a decision for the jury." Accordingly, the Court affirmed the Court of Appeals. View "Washington v. Arbogast" on Justia Law

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At trial, a jury found Daviel Canela guilty of attempted first degree murder and of second degree unlawful possession of a firearm. Canela appealed his conviction on multiple grounds. The Court of Appeals vacated the conviction for attempted first degree murder, finding that premeditation was an essential element in a charge of attempted first degree murder. This was the only issue before the Washington Supreme Court: Canela challenged the sufficiency of the information charging him of first degree murder, and whether premeditation had to be alleged in the charging document. The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, finding premeditation was not an essential element that had to be included in the charging document for attempted first degree murder. View "Washington v. Canela" on Justia Law

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In August 2016, R.G.M. disclosed to her mother that her father, Patrick Crossguns Sr., had sexually abused her. R.G.M. said he had been abusing her for over a year, beginning when she was 12 years old. Crossguns was charged with one count of second degree rape of a child and one count of second degree child molestation. Before trial, the State sought to admit evidence of uncharged sexual abuse of R.G.M. by Crossguns from July 2015 to August 2016. Crossguns opposed admission of the evidence, arguing that it was improper propensity evidence. The trial court concluded the probative value outweighed any risk of unfair prejudice and ruled the evidence was admissible. The court also concluded the evidence was admissible to prove the aggravators but stated “the main factor” for admitting the evidence was to prove Crossguns’s “lustful disposition toward[] [R.G.M.]” At issue before the Washington Supreme Court in this case was the term "lustful disposition," and whether the prosecutor’s statements in closing, asking the jury to decide if the witnesses were telling the truth, constituted misconduct that absent an objection, was so prejudicial that reversal was warranted. The Supreme Court concluded “lustful disposition” was archaic, reinforced outdated rape myths and misconceptions of sexual violence, and was not a proper purpose for admitting evidence. Rejection of the label “lustful disposition” did not modify the established doctrine of allowing “[e]vidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts” to be admitted as “proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident” pursuant to ER 404(b). In this case, the Supreme Court concluded evidence of Crossguns’s uncharged acts of sexual assault was properly admitted for permissible ER 404(b) purposes. Therefore, the trial court’s reference to lustful disposition in its decision admitting the evidence was harmless. Further, the Court concluded the prosecutor’s statements constituted misconduct, but the prejudice could have been corrected by an instruction. The Court of Appeals was affirmed in part and reversed in part, and remanded to the Court of Appeals for further proceedings. View "Washington v. Crossguns" on Justia 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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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