Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Washington Supreme Court
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Four defendants’ cases were consolidated for review by the Washington Supreme Court. In each case, the defendant had been labeled a “persistent offender” under RCW 9.94A.570 and was sentenced. Under the Washington Persistent Offender Accountability Act (POAA), the third time a person is convicted of a “most serious offense,” they were sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (the so-called “three strikes and you’re out” law). The question presented to the Supreme Court was whether it was constitutional to apply the POAA to people who were in their 30 or 40s when they committed their third strike, but were young adults when they committed their first strike. The Supreme Court held it was constitutional: Article I, section14 of the Washington Constitution did not require a categorical bar on sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole for fully developed adult offenders who committed one of their prison strikes as young adults. Furthermore, the Court did not find the sentences each defendant received was grossly disproportionate to their respective crimes. View "Washington v. Moretti" on Justia Law

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In 2014, Matthew McCarthy approached a stranger's home under a mistaken belief that he would find his ex-wife inside. He forced his way in and pushed the occupant against the wall. He returned twice the next evening: the first time once again looking for his ex-wife and the second time looking for his cell phone. Out of these events, the State charged McCarthy with first-degree burglary predicated on assault.The State notified him that this was a most serious offense and that he was facing life in prison without parole due to his criminal history. Prior to McCarthy's arraignment, his public defender expressed her concerns to the court that regarding McCarthy's competency to stand trial. The trial court ordered a competency evaluation and stayed the proceedings. McCarthy objected to the initiation of competency proceedings against his will because he believed himself to be competent. McCarthy was diagnosed with bipolar disorder with nonbizarre delusions, and various substance abuse disorders. While the physician-evaluator initially found McCarthy had a detailed understanding of the legal proceedings, on second review McCarthy was deemed incompetent, and a 90-day restoration was ordered. At issue before the Washington Supreme Court was: (1) whether under RCW 10.77.060(1)(a), the trial court erred during trial, in not ordering a third competency hearing after a jury had previously found McCarthy competent; and (2) what deference, if any, is given to a trial court when it does not sua sponte order a competency hearing. The Washington Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, finding the proper standard of review was abuse of discretion, and the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it did not sua sponte order a competency evaluation based on the evidence presented during the criminal proceedings. The matter was remanded for the appellate court to decide the remaining issues raised in McCarthy's personal restraint petition. View "Washington v. McCarthy" on Justia Law

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Widower, 82-year-old Leroy Bagnell met 57-year-old defendant Theresa Scanlan in a bar. At first she was introduced to Bagnell's adult children as a friend, later he began referring to her as his girlfriend. In 2014, police responded to a 911 hang-up call made from Bagnell's house. Scanlan answered the door. Police saw Bagnell at the top of the stairs in his underwear, head and forearm bleeding, and a "big, bloody, and bruised lump" on his leg. As a result of that contact, a domestic violence no contact order was issued prohibiting Scanlan from coming within 1,000 feet of Bagnell's house. Bagnell did not seek medical care for his injuries. Months after the no contact order, Bagnell's children checked on their father at the house: they found blood in the entryway, along the walls, and found shattered glass and ceramic on the kitchen floor. They discovered Bagnell in the family room severely bruised from head to toe. The children called 911. Scanlan was found in the garage underneath a blanket in her car with the doors locked. Scanlan was taken into custody; Bagnell was taken to the emergency room, where providers determined in addition to the extensive bruising, Bagnell had two broken fingers, and several skin tears on his legs and arms. Scanlan was charged with second degree assault, felony violation of a no contact order, unlawful imprisonment, and fourth degree assault. Neither Bagnell nor Scanlan testified at trial, but the court admitted several statements Bagnell made to his medical providers. The issue this case presented for the Washington Supreme Court's review centered on whether a crime victim's statements to his medical providers were testimonial, and if so, whether their admission at trial violated the defendant's right of confrontation under the Sixth Amendment. The Supreme Court held the victim's statements were nontestimonial in this case, because they were not made with the primary purpose of creating an out-of-court substitute for testimony. View "Washington v. Scanlan" on Justia Law

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Brendan Taylor was charged with felony violation of a no-contact order. Before trial, Taylor offered to stipulate to the fact that a domestic violence no-contact order was in place, and that he knew of the order. The trial court rejected the stipulation, and admitted the no-contact order into evidence. The trial court reasoned that Old Chief v. United States, 519 U.S. 172 (1997) did not apply to the admission of a domestic violence no-contact order. The jury convicted Taylor, but the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that Old Chief applied, and required the trial court exclude the no-contact order from evidence. In an issue of first impression, the Washington Supreme Court concluded Old Chief did not apply, and reversed the Court of Appeals. View "Washington v. Taylor" on Justia Law

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A jury convicted petitioner Tomas Berhe of murder and assault. After the trial, juror 6 came forward, alleging that racial bias during jury deliberations influenced the verdict. The trial court denied Berhe's motion for a new trial without an evidentiary hearing, instead relying solely on written declarations prepared with the aid of counsel. The Washington Supreme Court recognized that when allegations of juror misconduct arise after the verdict, trial courts have discretion to determine whether an evidentiary hearing is necessary. “However, there are limits to that discretion, particularly in cases of alleged racial bias that deprives a defendant of his or her constitutional right to a. fair trial by an impartial jury.” In this case, the Supreme Court determined the trial court: (1) did not exercise sufficient oversight of the process, allowing counsel to taint several jurors with inappropriate questions about their deliberations; and (2) the court did not conduct a sufficient inquiry before determining that an evidentiary hearing was unnecessary. The Supreme Court therefore vacated the trial court's order denying Berhe's motion for a new trial and remanded for further inquiry and other proceedings as necessary. View "Washington v. Berhe" on Justia Law

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A drunk driver hit and disabled another vehicle, then fled. A Good Samaritan stopped to help the struck vehicle; while helping, the Good Samaritan was fatally injured when a second vehicle did not see the disabled vehicle in time to avoid striking it, pushing the disabled vehicle into the Good Samaritan, ultimately killing him. The issue this case presented for the Washington Supreme Court's review was whether the drunk driver's acts were too attenuated from the Good Samaritan's death for criminal liability to attach. The Supreme Court concluded the drunk driver's (Joshua Frahm) acts were the legal cause of the Good Samaritan's death, because those acts were criminal, cause direct harm as well as risk of further harm, and occurred close in time and location to the ultimate harm that befell the Good Samaritan. Furthermore, the Court concluded the issue of intervening, superseding cause was proper for the jury to determine as a matter of actual cause using a reasonable foreseeability standard, and that the vehicular homicide conviction was supported by sufficient evidence. Frahm's conviction was affirmed. View "Washington v. Frahm" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Shacon Barbee "was a pimp who made money from prostitutes working under his supervision." He was convicted of multiple crimes, including the sexual abuse of minors, leading organized crime, and theft. Barbee had two sentencing hearings: (1) an initial hearing in 2013; and (2) a resentencing on remand in 2017. The issue his case raised for the Washington Supreme Court's review was whether which sentencing hearing was to be used as the basis for restitution. RCW 9.94A.753(1) holds restitution had to be determined within 180 days of "the sentencing hearing." The Court of Appeals held in this case the operative "sentencing hearing" was the 2017 hearing. The Supreme Court concurred and affirmed the appellate court's judgment. View "Washington v. Barbee" on Justia Law

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A juvenile challenged his suspended manifest injustice disposition. The Court of Appeals dismissed his claim on ripeness grounds; the juvenile disagreed his claim was not yet ripe. Furthermore, the juvenile argued the trial court applied the wrong standard of proof during his sentencing hearing, and as a result, improperly imposed the manifest injustice disposition. The juvenile was convicted on two counts of unlawful imprisonment with sexual motivation, and one count of fourth degree assault without sexual motivation. Since he had no prior criminal history, the State recommended, and the trial court adopted, a manifest injustice disposition of 36 weeks' confinement to be suspended by a special sex offender disposition alternative (SSODA). The parties to this case agreed this case was moot, given the juvenile served his sentence by the time the matter reached the Washington Supreme Court. However, finding the issue presented was one of "continuing and substantial interest," the Washington Supreme Court considered the case, determining that the appropriate standard of proof, as found in controlling Washington case law, was "clear and convincing," or the civil equivalent of the criminal standard of beyond a reasonable doubt. The Supreme Court held manifest injustice dispositions suspended by SSODA are reviewable when imposed - juveniles do not need to wait for the disposition to be executed before challenging it. Therefore, the Court of Appeals' ruling to the contrary was overturned. The Court affirmed the juvenile's conviction and sentence. View "Washington v. T.J.S.-M." on Justia Law

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Leonel Romero-Ochoa was convicted by jury of burglary, unlawful imprisonment, assault, and multiple counts of rap all arising from an incident in which he broke into a woman's home, beat her, and raped her twice. At trial, Romero-Ochoa wanted to admit evidence that the victim was a U-visa applicant, which would grant her temporary legal resident status if she was the victim of a qualifying crime and helps law enforcement investigate or prosecute that crime. The trial court excluded the U-visa evidence. Romero-Ochoa argued that exclusion violated his constitutional rights to present a defense and confront witnesses. The Court of Appeals agreed and revered all but the unlawful imprisonment conviction, holding the constitutional error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt as to that conviction but not the others. The Washington Supreme Court granted the State's petition for review, which raised only the harmless error issue. The Supreme Court reversed, finding any error excluding the U-visa evidence was harmless as to all of Romero-Ochoa's convictions. The convictions were reinstated, and the matter remanded to the Court of Appeals to consider the claim of sentencing error that was not previously reached. View "Washington v. Romero-Ochoa" on Justia Law

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David Morgan was convicted by jury of first degree assault, attempted murder and arson. A bloodstain pattern analysis performed on his clothing revealed he was in close proximity to the victim when she suffered her injuries. The question Morgan's case presented for the Washington Supreme Court's review centered on whether the warrantless seizure of his clothing, which officers concluded contained evidence, was justified by an exception to the warrant requirement. The Court of Appeal determined the State was required to establish inadvertence as a separate element, and reversed Morgan's convictions. The Supreme Court, however, held inadvertence was not a separate element required under the plain view doctrine. The Court therefore reinstated Morgan's convictions and remanded the case back to the Court of appeals for further proceedings. View "Washington v. Morgan" on Justia Law