Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Washington Supreme Court
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The Supreme Court of Washington State reviewed two cases involving individuals, Kimonti Dennis Carter and Shawn Dee Reite, who were originally sentenced to mandatory life without parole (LWOP) for aggravated first-degree murders they committed between the ages of 18 and 20. Both Carter and Reite had served decades in prison and had demonstrated significant personal transformation and rehabilitation. They appealed to the court to affirm their determinate sentences, which had been granted by the superior courts at resentencing.The superior courts had resentenced Carter and Reite to determinate sentences after a previous ruling by the Supreme Court of Washington State (In re Personal Restraint of Monschke) held that mandatory LWOP sentences were unconstitutional for individuals in their age group. The State appealed these resentencing decisions, arguing that the superior courts did not have the statutory authority to impose determinate sentences for aggravated first-degree murder.The Supreme Court of Washington State affirmed the determinate sentences for both Carter and Reite. The court held that the superior courts had the statutory authority to impose determinate sentences for aggravated first-degree murder for Carter and Reite. The court also held that the superior court had the authority to resentence Carter on his other convictions. However, the court found that the superior court improperly imposed three years of community custody on Reite because this was unauthorized by statute for the crime of conviction. Therefore, the court affirmed the superior court that sentenced Carter and affirmed the superior court that sentenced Reite for all but the imposition of community custody. The court reversed and remanded to the superior court only for purposes of striking the community custody term for Reite. View "State v. Carter" on Justia Law

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The case involves Andrew Bertrand, who was convicted of two counts of first-degree child molestation. Bertrand argued that his counsel was ineffective for failing to propose lesser included offense instructions on fourth-degree assault. The trial court denied Bertrand's motion, ruling that although counsel was deficient for purposes of Strickland’s first prong, Bertrand could not show prejudice as required by Strickland’s second prong. The trial court ruled that because the State had met its burden of proving each element of first-degree child molestation and the jury convicted Bertrand of those charges, he could not show prejudice.The Supreme Court of the State of Washington clarified that a defendant can show ineffective assistance based on counsel’s failure to propose a lesser included offense instruction, even if there is sufficient evidence to support the jury’s verdict. However, the court affirmed the trial court's decision, stating that Bertrand was not prejudiced by his counsel’s failure to propose the fourth-degree assault instructions. The court remanded the remaining issues to the Court of Appeals for further proceedings. View "State v. Bertrand" on Justia Law

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The case involves an action filed by Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney Lawrence Haskell against Jilma Meneses, the secretary of the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). The Prosecutor sought a writ of mandamus directing Meneses to comply with statutory duties under chapter 10.77 RCW and timely provide competency services in criminal proceedings. The case specifically concerned three categories of Spokane County defendants in felony criminal proceedings ordered to receive competency services from DSHS.Previously, a class action was filed in federal court, challenging DSHS's delays in providing competency services to criminal defendants in pretrial custody. The United States District Court for the Western District of Washington held these delays violated the class members’ due process rights and issued a permanent injunction against DSHS. The injunction set strict time limits for providing competency services to defendants in pretrial custody, appointed a special court monitor, and began oversight of DSHS’s efforts to comply with the injunction.In the Supreme Court of the State of Washington, DSHS argued that the court must dismiss the petition for lack of original jurisdiction because the secretary is not a state officer within the meaning of the state constitution. The court agreed with DSHS, concluding that the secretary is not a state officer. The court reasoned that a state officer must be elected, subject to impeachment, and granted a State sovereign power, none of which applied to the secretary. Therefore, the court dismissed the petition for writ of mandamus. View "Spokane County v. Meneses" on Justia Law

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In May 2020, Austin River Keller drove his car into a ditch and subsequently failed a breath alcohol test. The Kitsap County District Court suppressed the breath alcohol test results produced from the Dräger Alcotest 9510 machines in Keller’s case and in all other DUI cases in Kitsap County District Court. The district court concluded that the breath test results violated state statutes and regulations. The district court found that state law places strict limits on the admission of breath test results into evidence. The court also found that the Dräger machine had never rounded the mean before calculating the plus or minus 10 percent range, as required by state regulations. Instead, the Dräger was programmed to truncate the mean before performing that calculation. The district court ruled that the machine’s failure to do those necessary mathematical calculations itself rendered the results invalid and inadmissible under state law and court precedent.The Supreme Court of the State of Washington reversed the district court's decision. The Supreme Court held that the relevant statutes and regulations do not require the Dräger machine itself to perform the mean and the plus or minus 10 percent range calculation at the time of the test. The court found that the State could establish those required pieces of the foundation for admission of breath test results by doing the math discussed above in a different manner. The court reversed the district court’s evidentiary rulings and suppression order and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. View "State v. Keller" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court of the State of Washington considered whether the State's 12-year delay in bringing charges against John Ray Stearns, despite having matched his DNA to a murder victim in 2004, violated his due process rights. Stearns contended that this delay prejudiced his defense as a key witness who could have testified that she saw the victim with someone other than Stearns in the hours preceding her death had died before the trial. The trial court denied Stearn's motion to dismiss on these grounds, and he was subsequently convicted of first-degree murder. However, the Court of Appeals reversed this conviction, concluding that the State's negligent delay in charging and the loss of key witness testimony violated Stearns' due process rights.The Supreme Court of the State of Washington disagreed and reversed the Court of Appeals' decision. Although the Court acknowledged that the State was negligent in failing to bring charges sooner, it held that the loss of the witness's testimony did not amount to a denial of due process. The Court reasoned that the due process inquiry is fact-intensive and that Stearns had not sufficiently demonstrated that the prejudice he suffered from the loss of the witness's potential testimony justified the dismissal of a serious murder case. View "State v. Stearns" on Justia Law

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In 2016 and 2021, Steven Buck was convicted of felony failure to register as a sex offender and sentenced to prison terms followed by mandatory 36 months of community custody. The trial court ran Buck’s 2021 community custody term consecutively to the 2016 community custody term, requiring Buck to serve 72 months of community custody in total. Buck argued on appeal that the court exceeded its authority under RCW 9.94A.589(5), which limits nonexceptional consecutive terms of community supervision to 24 months in total.The Supreme Court of the State of Washington held that the terms "community supervision" and "community custody" are synonymous within RCW 9.94A.589(5) for offenses that occurred after July 1, 2000. Thus, the statute prohibits consecutive terms of community custody exceeding 24 months in total for nonexceptional sentences.The court found that the trial court erred in imposing a total of 72 months of community custody for Buck's 2016 and 2021 sentences. Therefore, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals, vacated the community custody portion of Buck's sentence, and remanded the case to the trial court for resentencing in compliance with this interpretation of RCW 9.94A.589(5). View "State v. Buck" on Justia Law

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The petitioner, Ricky Arntsen, was convicted of several crimes including second degree assault with a deadly weapon following a road rage incident where he forced another driver, Kim Koenig, to stop her car and then circled her vehicle while carrying an AK-47 assault rifle. Arntsen filed a personal restraint petition (PRP) challenging the sufficiency of the evidence for the second degree assault charge. He argued that the State failed to prove that he had the specific intent required for second degree assault, given that the testimony showed he did not point the gun at another person, nor did it establish that Koenig actually experienced apprehension and imminent fear of bodily injury.The Supreme Court of the State of Washington rejected Arntsen's arguments, ruling that the evidence was sufficient to support the conviction. The court noted that while Arntsen did not point the rifle directly at Koenig, the totality of his conduct, including his aggressive driving and approaching Koenig's car with the rifle after angrily forcing her to stop, provided sufficient basis for a rational trier of fact to infer that he intended to make her fear he might harm her. The court also held that Koenig's testimony that at times during the incident she thought Arntsen was going to shoot or harm her, demonstrated that she experienced actual apprehension and fear of injury. The Supreme Court of the State of Washington therefore reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals and remanded the case back to the Court of Appeals to address the other issues raised in Arntsen’s PRP. View "In re Pers. Restraint of Arntsen" on Justia Law

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In the State of Washington, two brothers, Alejandro S. Martinez and Eduardo S. Martinez, were charged with separate counts of sexually abusing their younger stepbrothers in their shared family home. The State of Washington sought to join the two cases for trial on the grounds that the charges and evidence were virtually identical, and to minimize the number of times the victims would have to testify. Despite objections from both brothers, the trial court granted the State's motion for joinder and both brothers were found guilty as charged. On appeal, the Supreme Court of the State of Washington held that the trial court abused its discretion when it improperly joined the two cases without first meeting at least one of the two bases for joinder under CrR 4.3(b)(3) — whether the offenses were part of a common scheme or plan, or were so closely connected in respect to time, place, and occasion. The court found that the brothers acted independently, were charged with separate criminal acts occurring at separate times, and there was no evidence they acted in concert or as part of a common scheme or plan. The court also found that Alejandro, but not Eduardo, was prejudiced by the joinder. Consequently, the court reversed the Court of Appeals in part and remanded Alejandro's case to the trial court for further proceedings. The court found no violation of Eduardo's constitutional right to due process. View "State v. Martinez" on Justia Law

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In the State of Washington, a man named Mitchell Heng was charged with murder, arson, and robbery. He was brought before a judge for a preliminary hearing without counsel, during which the judge set bail among other things. Heng argued that counsel should have been present at this hearing. The Supreme Court of the State of Washington agreed, noting that a person charged with a crime has a right to counsel under the state and federal constitutions and under court rules. However, the court found that Heng did not demonstrate that the hearing was a critical stage of the prosecution, and it believed that the absence of counsel did not contribute to the verdict. Consequently, the court affirmed the decisions of the lower courts.The facts of the case reveal that Heng was implicated in a robbery at Sifton Market during which Amy Hooser was killed. Surveillance footage showed Heng at the scene with a blood-stained shirt and a lighter in his hands. He was charged the next day with first degree murder, first degree robbery, and first degree arson. Heng was held in jail for 31 months before his trial, during which time he made inconsistent statements during recorded phone calls about the events of the night of the crime. He was eventually convicted of first degree murder and first degree arson and was sentenced to 374 months in prison.Heng appealed his conviction, arguing that his right to counsel had been violated at a critical stage of the prosecution. The Supreme Court of the State of Washington held that while Heng should have had counsel present at his preliminary hearing, this did not constitute a critical stage of the prosecution. The court also noted that in order for an error to be considered structural and thus necessitate automatic reversal, it must have substantively affected the outcome of the case. The court determined that Heng’s case was not demonstrably affected by his counsel’s absence. As such, the court applied constitutional harmless error analysis, which requires the court to reverse unless it is persuaded beyond a reasonable doubt that the error did not contribute to the verdict. The court concluded that the failure to have counsel present at Heng’s preliminary hearing was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, and thus affirmed the decisions of the lower courts. View "State v. Heng" on Justia Law

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Michael Shawn Charlton was arrested and charged with third-degree child rape, third-degree child molestation, and indecent liberties. He appeared in preliminary hearings without counsel, which he argued on appeal was a denial of his constitutional right to counsel at critical stages of the prosecution. The Supreme Court of the State of Washington held that while the absence of counsel was indeed a constitutional error, it did not constitute a critical stage of litigation requiring automatic reversal. The court reasoned that nothing in the record suggested that Charlton's rights were lost, defenses were waived, privileges were claimed or waived, or that the outcome of the case was otherwise substantially affected by the absence of counsel. Furthermore, the court concluded that any error in not having counsel present was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. This is because there was no evidence to suggest that the lack of counsel affected the verdict in any way. Consequently, the court affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals. View "State v. Charlton" on Justia Law