Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Washington Supreme Court
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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

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Defendant Kenneth Brooks was a friend of fifteen-year-old C.H.’s brother. On the evening of August 16 2014, C.H., her sister, and Brooks played games while drinking beer and vodka into the morning of August 17. C.H. became intoxicated and passed in and out of consciousness. Brooks raped C.H. and then left her to sleep. C.H. was still intoxicated and was vomiting until the afternoon of August 17. C.H. told her sister what happened, and police were notified. Police came to C.H.’s home and gathered evidence regarding the rape allegation. Brooks was ultimately charged with third-degree rape of a child, and third-degree child molestation. The issue this case presented for the Washington Supreme Court’s review centered on whether the trial court abused its discretion in granting the State’s motion to expand the time period noted in the information after both the State and defense rested. The Court held that under the circumstances of this case, the trial court did not err, and this affirmed the Court of Appeals, which affirmed defendant’s conviction. View "Washington v. Brooks" on Justia Law

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Michael Biehoff and Karl Pierce were tried by jury and convicted of first degree murder. Before the Washington Supreme Court, they both contended (among other things) that their jury was not fairly selected because the State improperly elicited a conversation about the death penalty during voir dire and improperly used a peremptory strike to dismiss an African-American juror. The Court of Appeals found the prosecutor committed misconduct by eliciting a conversation about the death penalty in a noncapital case, and that the trial court abused its discretion in not curtailing that conversation. Since that conversation led to the dismissal of at least two jurors, the Court of Appeals reversed both men's convictions. The Washington Supreme Court found that while the prosecutor did not explicitly raise the death penalty during voir dire, as a direct result of his questions, ten jurors all expressed concerns about sitting on a possible death penalty case. As a result of the questions, all of the potential jurors' minds were drawn to the possible sentence, which could have had an "unfair influence on a jury's deliberations" sufficient to violate Washington v. Townsend, 142 Wn.2d 838 (2001). The Washington Supreme Court found the jurisprudential landscape had changed in two relevant ways since Townsend was tried: (1) it was error to tell potential jurors during selection that they were not being asked to sit on a death penalty case; and (2) in the wake of "increasing evidence" that the Batson rule did not adequately protect Washington's jury selection process from racial bias, the Supreme Court promulgated GR 37. The Supreme Court held that Townsend was incorrect and harmful because it "artificially prohibits informing jurors whether they are being asked to sit on a death penalty case," and overruled it. And because an "objective observer could conclude that race was a factor" in the State's peremptory challenge to juror 6, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals in result and remanded to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Washington v. Pierce" on Justia Law

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Because respondent David Brown did not signal continuously while his vehicle turned left through an intersection, he violated RCW 46.61.305. State patrol officers observed Brown turn right onto a four-lane street. While turning, the left side tires of Brown’s truck briefly crossed the white dashed divider line before moving back to the correct lane. Eventually, Brown activated his turn signal and moved his truck left while the signal blinked a few times before shutting off. Officers driving behind Brown initiated a traffic stop; a breath test was administered, and Brown was found to have had a 0.26 breath alcohol content. In court, Brown moved to suppress the evidence gathered during the traffic stop. The State argued violation of RCW 46.61.305 was grounds for the stop. The trial court concluded a driver was not required to reactivate his turn signal when he entered a turn-only lane, thus officers had no cause to stop Brown. The Washington Supreme Court disagreed, reversed the Court of Appeals, which upheld the trial court, and remanded for further proceedings. View "Washington v. Brown" on Justia Law

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The clerk of DivisionTwo of the Washington Court of Appeals imposed a $200 fine on attorney Travis Stearns for seeking an extension of time to file an opening brief in an indigent criminal appeal. Stearns' client, Randolph Graham, was convicted of first degree murder and other crimes and sentenced to 800 months' confinement, about 300 months above the standard range. Graham appealed, and counsel from the Washington Appellate Project was appointed to represent Graham when his original attorney left the practice to join the judiciary. The opening brief in Graham's case was originally due on January 17,2019, but the first attorney the Washington Appellate Project assigned to Graham's case asked for an extension of time to file the opening brief after discovering that the record was incomplete and that more transcripts had to be ordered. In requesting a second extension of time, Stearns explained that the record was voluminous: 1300 pages of transcripts, which he received 63 days previous to the second request; coupled with the other demands o his time, Stearns anticipated filing the brief as soon as possible, working quickly as he could within his constitutional obligations and the Standards for Indigent Defense. The clerk of the Court of Appeals granted the extension, but also sanction Stearns $200 for not filing the opening brief by April 17. Because Stearns was fulfilling his duty of effective representation in asking for an extension, the Washington Supreme Court granted discretionary review and reversed the Court of Appeals with regard to Stearns' motion and sanction. View "Washington v. Graham" on Justia Law

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Washington charged Ken Wu with "felony DUI," violating an ignition interlock requirement, and first-degree driving with a suspended license. The felony DUI charge was based on Wu having, within 10 years of his present arrest, four "prior offenses" as defined by the applicable statute. By this case, the Washington Supreme Court clarified the required elements for felony DUI, and who must determine whether such required elements are med: a judge or a jury. The Court held that the essential elements of felony DUI were set forth in RCW 46.61.5055(14)(a), and following a trial court's determination of admissibility, a jury should determine whether the essential elements of felony DUI have been met based on proof beyond a reasonable doubt provided by the State. The Supreme Court affirmed defendant's conviction. View "Washington v. Wu" on Justia Law