Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Washington Supreme Court
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Petitioner Bisir Muhammad was convicted by jury of first-degree felony murder and first degree rape. His victim, 69 years old at the time of her death; the jury found Muhammad knew or should have known his victim was particularly vulnerable. He received an exceptional sentence of two terms totaling 866 months to be served consecutively. The main issue this case presented for the Washington Supreme Court's review was whether the trial court erred in denying Muhammad's motion to suppress physical evidence collected from his vehicle after police located it via a warrantless cell phone "ping." Muhammad contended the location information provided by the cell phone ping was protected from warrantless searches under both the Washington and federal Constitutions. The majority of a divided Supreme Court agreed the ping was a search, permissible, and Muhammad's convictions for both felony murder predicated on rape and first degree rape violated double jeopardy. The Court of Appeals was affirmed in part, and reversed in part. By a vote of six to three, the Supreme Court agreed with ping was permissible. By a vote of five to four, the Court held felony murder and rape violated double jeopardy, and the matter was remanded to the trial court to dismiss the lesser-included offense. View "Washington v. Muhammad" on Justia Law

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This case began with the theft of a backpack from a vehicle: the backpack contained cash and checks obtained for a school fundraiser. Several days after the vehicle prowl, defendant Jose Barboza-Cortes was video recorded at an ATM (automated teller machine) depositing four checks in his bank account, three of which had been in the stolen backpack. The fourth check listed "Dava Construction Company" in the top left comer. Police obtained a warrant to search defendant's residence for the backpack. During the search, police found methamphetamine in defendant's basement apartment and a shotgun under the mattress in the bedroom. There was no testimony that defendant owned the shotgun. A jury found defendant guilty of nine crimes, including second degree unlawful possession of a firearm and second degree identity theft. In this case the issue defendant’s appeal presented for the Washington Supreme Court was whether the second degree unlawful possession of a firearm statute, RCW 9.41.040(2)(a), and the second degree identity theft statute, RCW 9.35.020(1), were each alternative means statutes, and, if so, whether, under the circumstances of this case, the trial court was required to give a unanimity instruction addressing the alternative means. The Supreme Court held that neither statute was an alternative means statute. Accordingly, the absence of a specific unanimity instruction regarding counts based on these statutes did not result in error. The Court of Appeals was reversed with respect to its holding that the second degree identity theft statute was an alternative means statute. View "Washington v. Barboza-Cortes" on Justia Law

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Sergeant Paul Snyder stopped a jeep driven by defendant Joel Villela for speeding late one night in January 2018. The officer smelled alcohol on defendant's breath, and after defendant declined a roadside sobriety test, he was arrested on suspicion of driving while under the influence. The officer impounded the jeep under RCW 46.55.360. Pursuant to the statute, the officer did not consider whether there was a reasonable alternative to impounding the jeep, such as releasing it to one of defendant's two passengers. After the jeep was impounded, an inventory search was conducted whereby police found sandwich bags, digital scales, black cloth, pipes and cash, all of which were believed to have been associated with drug dealing. A search incident to arrest discovered cocaine on defendant himself; a possession with intent to deliver controlled substances charge was added to the DUI charge. Defendant moved to suppress fruits of the inventory search on grounds the search was not a lawful seizure under article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution. At issue before the Washington Supreme Court was whether RCW 46.55.360 was an unconstitutional expansion of what article I, section 7 allowed in only limited circumstances. To this, the Supreme Court agreed: "[o]ur constitution cannot be amended by statute, and while the legislature can give more protection to constitutional rights through legislation, it cannot use legislation to take that protection away." View "Washington v. Villela" on Justia Law

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Matthew Schwartz pled guilty to failure to register as a sex offender. At sentencing, the State and Schwartz disputed whether two of Schwartz’s prior class C felony convictions should not have been included in his offender score under the Sentencing Reform Act of 1981 (“SRA”). Specifically, the parties disagreed as to whether time spent n jail as a sanction for failing to pay legal financial obligations ordered on a felony conviction reset the five-year washout period under the Act. The Washington Supreme Court determined the Legislature did not intend that time spent in jail as a sanction for failing to pay legal financial obligations reset the five-year washout period. Accordingly, Schwartz’s 1997 and 2001 convictions washed out under the Act, and should not have been included in his offender score. View "Washington v. Schwartz" on Justia Law

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Dean Imokawa’s truck collided with another vehicle during a lane change, propelling him into oncoming traffic and causing another collision with another vehicle. The State charged Imokawa with vehicular homicide and vehicular assault for the resultant injuries to others from the collision. The trial court denied Imokawa’s request to include a specific jury instruction that the State had to prove the absence of a superseding intervening cause beyond a reasonable doubt. A jury found Imokawa guilty of vehicular homicide and vehicular assault. The Court of Appeals reversed, reasoning the State had the burden of proving the intervening cause, the jury was not sufficiently instructed on this burden, and the error was not harmless. The Washington Supreme Court disagreed with the appellate court, finding the jury was adequately instructed. View "Washington v. Imokawa" on Justia Law

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In a moot case of substantial and continuing public interest, a juvenile offender challenges whether her need for treatment was an appropriate basis for imposing a manifest justice disposition. B.O.J. pled guilty to two counts of third degree theft for shoplifting from a grocery store. These offenses subjected her to a "local sanctions" standard sentencing range. In exchange for a plea, the prosecution promised to recommend 6 months of community supervision, 8 hours of community service, credit for time served, release at her sentencing disposition, and no contact with the victims. One month later, the State contended B.O.J. violated the conditions of her release by running away from placement. The State thereafter recommended a manifest justice disposition with confinement in a Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration facility. The trial court stated its findings that both B.O.J.'s need for treatment and the standard sentencing range as too lenient supported the manifest injustice disposition. The Washington Supreme Court determined the trial court's findings were not an appropriate basis for imposing a manifest injustice disposition. The Court reversed the Court of Appeals' holding that B.O.J.'s need for treatment supported the trial court's finding that a standard range disposition would effectuate a manifest injustice. View "Washington v. B.O.J." on Justia Law

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Frank Wallmuller pleaded guilty in 2014 to first degree rape of a child and sexual exploitation of a minor. He successfully appealed on grounds of sentencing error and imposition of improper community custody conditions, and the Court of Appeals remanded for correction of those errors. On remand, the trial court struck the challenged community custody conditions, which related to pornography and businesses selling liquor, but reimposed three of the original conditions relating to contact with children. The Court of Appeals held that a community custody condition barring a defendant from "places where children congregate" was inherently vague, in violation of due process, unless it was “cabined” by an exclusive list of specific prohibited places. The Washington Supreme Court held that this was error: “While an illustrative list of prohibited places serves to clarify and define such a condition, crafting an exclusive list is neither constitutionally required nor practically possible.” The Court reversed the Court of Appeals and upheld the challenged condition. View "Washington v. Wallmuller" on Justia Law

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In January 2016, Michael Peck and Clark Tellvik were seen on a security camera, burglarizing a home. The owner of the home was demonstrating her home's new surveillance system to a friend on her phone when she saw the crime in progress. She called 911, and officers arrived at the home within minutes. When officers arrived, a Dodge Dakota pickup truck was stuck in the snow in front of the house. Peck and Tellvik were outside the truck, trying to free it from the snow. The officers contacted Peck and Tellvik, frisked them, and detained them. Additional responding officers arrived within minutes, ran the registration of the vehicle, and discovered it was stolen. Officers arrested Peck and Tellvik for possession of a stolen vehicle. During the inventory search of the vehicle that was ultimately impounded, an officer discovered a "black zippered nylon case" that seemed to hold CDs (compact disks), and opened it. Inside the black zippered nylon case was packaged methamphetamine, an electronic scale, and a smoking pipe. The State charged Peck and Tellvik with several crimes, including possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver. Peck and Tellvik moved to suppress the contents of the black zippered nylon case. The trial court denied the motion to suppress, finding the inventory search to be proper and finding no evidence of pretext. Peck and Tellvik were subsequently convicted. Both appealed their controlled substance convictions. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court's denial of the motion to suppress. The issues this case presented for the Washington Supreme Court’s review centered on: (1) whether defendants had standing to challenge the scope of a warrantless inventory search of a vehicle when that vehicle was stolen; and (2) whether a proper inventory search extends to opening an innocuous, unlocked container of unknown ownership found in a stolen vehicle associated with defendants who were apprehended while burglarizing a home. The Supreme Court held that defendants had automatic standing to challenge the search and that the search of the innocuous container was lawful under these circumstances. The Court reversed the Court of Appeals and upheld the denial of the motion to suppress. View "Washington v. Peck" on Justia Law

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Police were dispatched to petitioner Michael Boisselle's home after two anonymous 911 calls reported that a man named Mike shot and possibly killed someone at the residence. While responding to the calls, officers learned the residence was related to an ongoing missing person/homicide investigation. Unable to determine whether someone was alive inside the home, officers entered the residence and conducted a warrantless search, discovering evidence of a murder therein. Boisselle moved to suppress the evidence, arguing the officers' warrantless search was unlawful under article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution. The trial court denied Boisselle's motion, concluding that the officers' search fell within the emergency aid function of the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement. Boisselle was convicted by jury of second degree murder and second degree unlawful possession of a firearm. The Court of Appeals affirmed his convictions. The Washington Supreme Court found the officers’ warrantless search of Boisselle's home was a pretext for a criminal investigation because the officers had significant suspicions of criminal activity, the officers' entry was motivated by the desire to conduct an evidentiary search, and there was no present emergency. Accordingly, the search did not fall within the emergency aid function of the community caretaking exception, and thus violated article I, section 7. Therefore, the Court held the trial court’s findings of fact did not support its conclusions of law and the trial court erred in denying Boisselle's motion to suppress. The Court of Appeals’ judgment was reversed and the case remanded back to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Washington v. Boisselle" on Justia Law

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A.M. (juvenile) appealed an unpublished Court of Appeals decision affirming her conviction for possession of a controlled substance. She argued: (1) it was manifest constitutional error for the trial court to admit a detention center inventory form where she signed a sworn statement indicating that a backpack, which was discovered to contain methamphetamine, was her property because it violated her right against self-incrimination; and (2) the affirmative defense of unwitting possession was an unconstitutional burden-shifting scheme that violated her due process rights. After review, the Washington Supreme Court held the admission of the inventory form was manifest constitutional error because it violated her right against self-incrimination and warranted reversal because it was not harmless error. Because the Court found reversible constitutional error, it declined to consider A.M.'s due process argument. The case was remanded back to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Washington v. A.M." on Justia Law