Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Washington Supreme Court
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In 2017, petitioner Johnny Ray Cyr pleaded guilty to three counts of sale of a controlled substance (heroin) for profit. Cyr stipulated to his prior convictions and to his offender score of 5. Based on his convictions and offender score, the standard sentence range provided by the SRA is 68+ to 100 months. The issue his case presented for the Washington Supreme Court's review centered on the statutory maximum sentence Cyr could receive for those three convictions. The Court held that if Cyr had a prior conviction for violating the Uniform Controlled Substances At, " “or under any statute of the United States or of any state relating to narcotic drugs, marihuana, depressant, stimulant, or hallucinogenic drugs,” then his statutory maximum sentence is 120 months. In that case, he must be sentenced within the standard range provided by the Sentencing Reform Act of 1981 (SRA), ch. 9.94A RCW. However, the Court could not determine from the record whether Cyr had such a prior qualifying conviction. The matter was therefore remanded to the trial court to address that question and, depending on the answer, to conduct further proceedings. View "Washington v. Cyr" on Justia Law

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John Whitaker was convicted of aggravated first degree murder based on the aggravating circumstance that the murder was committed in the course of a kidnapping. He unsuccessfully sought to argue to the jury that he committed the kidnapping under duress. "Faced with such grave danger, a person may be excused for choosing the lesser evil. But because killing an innocent person is never the lesser of two evils, a duress defense is not available when a person is charged with murder." Because Whitaker was charged with murder and not kidnapping, the Court of Appeals held he was not entitled to assert a duress defense. Finding no reversible error in that judgment, the Washington Supreme Court affirmed. View "Washington v. Whitaker" on Justia Law

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The district court dismissed the criminal case against Mikhail Karpov on the ground that the State had failed to prove jurisdiction. Karpov was tried in the district court of Spokane County, Washington for five counts of indecent exposure. After the State rested, Karpov moved to dismiss the case on the ground that the State had provided insufficient evidence of jurisdiction. The court granted the motion because no witness had expressly stated that the alleged crimes took place in Spokane County, to which the district court's jurisdiction was statutorily limited. The question this case presented for the Washington Supreme Court’s review was whether the State could appeal that dismissal and retry Karpov upon reversal. Karpov argued that jurisdiction was an essential element of every crime and thus that the dismissal for the State's failure to prove jurisdiction resulted in an acquittal, meaning double jeopardy barred the State's initial appeal and prohibited retrial. The State countered that jurisdiction was not an essential element of every crime and thus that double jeopardy did not apply here. The Supreme Court held that jurisdiction was not an essential element of every crime but, rather, was the power of the court to hear and determine a case. However, the Court reversed the superior court and remanded for the reinstatement of the trial court's dismissal with prejudice. “When the trial court substantively treated jurisdiction as an essential element of the crime, the dismissal for failure to prove jurisdiction was no different than if jurisdiction were actually an essential element. The trial court therefore judicially acquitted Karpov when it dismissed the case against him, and double jeopardy barred the State's appeal from the district court and prohibits retrial of Karpov on these charges.” View "Washington v. Karpov" on Justia Law

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In January 2017, petitioner Jamie Hugdahl was the target of two controlled drug buys executed by a confidential informant in the vicinity of a Safeway parking lot in Ellensburg, Washington. Hugdahl was subsequently charged by an information in 2017, which was amended twice. All three versions of the information alleged four counts of delivery of a controlled substance in violation of RCW 69.50.401(1). Count I was based on the first delivery of heroin. Counts II, III, and IV arose out of the second delivery involving methamphetamine, alprazolam, and ecstasy. The issue this case presented for the Washington Supreme Court’s review concerned the adequacy of the charging document in alleging statutory sentence enhancements for delivering controlled substances within a protected zone under RCW 69.50.435(l)(c). The statutory sentence enhancement applied where a delivery of a controlled substance occurred within 1,000 feet of a school bus route stop. Hugdahl's information alleged that she delivered controlled substances "within one thousand feet of a school bus route.'" Hugdahl first challenged the adequacy of the information on appeal, and a divided Court of Appeals affirmed finding that the information provided constitutionally adequate notice of the enhancement. The Supreme Court, however, reversed, finding that the charging document omitted the facts necessary to charge the statutory enhancement. The sentencing enhancement was vacated and the matter remanded for resentencing. View "Washington v. Hugdahl" on Justia Law

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The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals certified a question of law to the Washington Supreme Court. In 2011, Phonsavanh Phongmanivan was convicted of two counts of first degree assault with two firearm enhancements, and he was sentenced to 306 months' imprisonment. Phongmanivan appealed, and the Washington Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction and denied his motion for reconsideration. Phongmanivan's judgment and sentence becamse final on March 11, 2014 when his window to file a petition for certiorari review by the Washington Supreme Court expired. This marked the beginning of Phongmanivan’s one-year statute of limitations to file a federal habeas petition under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). On February 4, 2015, 329 days later, Phongmanivan filed a PRP with the Washington Court of Appeals, thereby tolling AEDPA's statute of limitations for the pendency of that proceeding. The acting chief judge dismissed Phongmanivan s PRP as frivolous; the Washington Supreme Court’s commissioner denied further review. Phongmanivan then filed a timely motion to modify the commissioner's decision, which the Supreme Court denied on February 10, 2016. On April 1, 2016, the clerk of the Court of Appeals issued Phongmanivan's certificate of finality. Acting pro se, Phongmanivan filed his federal habeas petition 8 days later. However, following the federal magistrate's recommendation, the federal district court denied Phongmanivan’s petition as untimely, holding AEDPA's one-year tolling period had ceased on February 10, 2016, when the Supreme Court denied his motion to modify. By such reasoning, 388 total untolled days had elapsed prior to Phongmanivan's filing, rendering his habeas petition untimely by 23 days. Having reviewed the certified question from the Ninth Circuit relating to the denial of the PRP and the appellate court’s clerk’s certification of finality. Adopting Phongmanivan's suggested reformulation, the Washington Supreme Court determined Phongmanivan's PRP proceeding did not become final until the date his certificate of finality was issued on April 1, 2016. View "Phongmanivan v. Haynes" on Justia Law

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Respondent Robert Grott was put on trial for a shooting incident in which he claimed he acted in self-defense. He appealed to the Washington Supreme Court contending the trial court erred in instructing his jury that Grott could not claim self-defense if the jury found "beyond a reasonable doubt that [Grott] was the aggressor, and that defendant's acts and conduct provoked or commenced the fight." Grott maintained the instruction was improperly given because it was unsupported by the evidence presented at trial. Grott's brother and cousins were friends with Julian Thomas, and Thomas would sometimes spend the night at their house. In August 2015, one of Grott's handguns went missing. Grott and his brother came to believe that Thomas had stolen the gun, but they did not confront him about it. Thomas stopped coming by their house around that time. Then on Halloween night in 2015, Grott came home intoxicated. Thomas' younger sister was at the house with some friends. Grott began yelling at the sister, accusing Thomas of stealing the gun. A man standing at the end of the driveway shot through the house's front door, nearly missing Grott's head. After the Halloween incident, Grott became "paranoid" and bought another gun. Months later, Thomas was shot while sitting in a car parked in a convenience store parking lot. Forty-eight shell casings were retrieved from the scene. The medical examiner testified that based on Thomas' wounds, he must have been directly facing Grott rather than lying on the car floor. A loaded gun with the safety off was discovered beneath Thomas' body. The Court of Appeals concurred with Grott the first-aggressor instruction was not properly given, but the Washington Supreme Court reversed the appellate court. The Supreme Court determined the jury was properly instructed, and Grott's trial counsel was not ineffective for failing to object. The matter was remanded for the Court of Appeals to address other issues raised on appeal. View "Washington v. Grott" on Justia Law

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Naziyr Yishmael, who was not an attorney, advised clients that they could "homestead" in apparently abandoned properties and, after a period of time, acquire title through adverse possession. After some of his clients were arrested for taking up residence in other people's houses, he was charged with and convicted of misdemeanor unlawful practice of law. On appeal, he contended: (1) the jury was improperly instructed that the unlawful practice of law was a strict liability offense; (2) the trial court's use of GR 24 to define the practice of law violated separation of powers was an inappropriate comment on the evidence; (3) the Statute was unconstitutionally vague; and (4) the evidence presented was insufficient to sustain his conviction. Finding no reversible error, the Washington Supreme Court affirmed Yishmael’s conviction. View "Washington v. Yishmael" on Justia Law

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The State charged David Nickels with first degree murder in 2010 in Grant County, Washington. Though represented by counsel. Nickels acquired additional legal assistance from a local criminal defense attorney, Garth Dano. The parties agreed that Dano's involvement in Nickels' defense created a conflict of interest requiring Dano's personal disqualification, but they disputed the scope of his involvement. The record established that Dano entered a notice of association of counsel and appeared on the record to receive a jury question and to receive the jury's verdict. The record further establishes that after Nickels' conviction in 2012, Dano conducted interviews with jurors and potential exonerating witnesses. Via his counsel's uncontested affidavit, Nickels claimed Dano received privileged work product through his participation in crafting the defense's strategy and theory of the case, and his meeting personally with Nickels. In 2014, while Nickels' appeal was pending, Dano was elected Grant County prosecutor. Subsequently, in 2017, the Court of Appeals reversed Nickels' conviction. On remand, the Grant County Prosecuting Attorney's Office immediately sought to screen now-Prosecutor Dano. Nickels moved to disqualify the entire office, arguing that under “Stenger,” Dano's prior involvement in his defense necessitated the blanket recusal. The trial court denied Nickels' motion; but the Court of Appeals reversed and, applying Stenger, ordered the disqualification of the entire Grant County Prosecuting Attorney's Office. The Washington Supreme Court determined Stenger’s narrowly crafted rule applied only to Washington's 39 elected county prosecutors who, despite adequate screening, retained broad discretionary and administrative powers over their offices and employees. Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that Stenger remained good law, and affirmed the Court of Appeals' decision disqualifying the Grant County Prosecuting Attorney's Office. View "Washington v. Nickels" on Justia Law

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In 1994, 17-year-old Cristian J. Delbosque was convicted of aggravated first degree murder and received a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of release. Because he was a juvenile at the time of his offense, Delbosque was resentenced in 2016 in accordance with the Miller-fix statute and received a minimum term of 48 years without the possibility of parole. The Court of Appeals concluded that Delbosque could seek review of his sentence only through a personal restraint petition (PRP), rather than direct appeal, but nevertheless reversed his sentence, holding that the trial court's factual findings were not supported by substantial evidence. The Washington Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals' holding that the sentencing court's findings were not supported by substantial evidence, thus remanding for resentencing was proper. However, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals' holding that Delbosque was not entitled to a direct appeal. View "Washington v. Delbosque" on Justia Law

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Jessica Wrigley brought a negligent investigation claim against the Washington Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) based on the placement of her son, A.A., with his biological father, Anthony Viles, during dependency hearings. Within three months of the placement, Viles killed A.A. The superior court dismissed Wrigley’s claim on summary judgment, finding the duty to investigate was never triggered. The Court of Appeals reversed, finding the “trigger” was Wrigley’s prediction that Viles would harm A.A. The Washington Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, finding a report predicting future abuse absent evidence of current or past conduct of abuse or neglect did not invoke a duty to investigate under RCW 26.44.050. View "Wrigley v. Washington" on Justia Law