Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Washington Supreme Court
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The plaintiff class in this case sued the State of Washington and the Office of Public Defense (OPD), alleging ongoing violations of the right to counsel in Grays Harbor County Juvenile Court. They premised state liability not only on alleged systemic, structural deficiencies in the state system, but also on the State and OPD’s alleged knowledge of Grays Harbor County’s specific failures to safeguard the constitutional right to counsel. The Washington Supreme Court determined that while the State bears responsibility to enact a statutory scheme under which local governments can adequately fund and administer a system of indigent public defense, it was not directly answerable for aggregated claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. Rather, to prevail on their claims against the State, the plaintiff class had to show that the current statutory scheme systemically failed to provide local governments, across Washington, with the authority and means necessary to furnish constitutionally adequate indigent public defense services. Given that standard, the Supreme Court rejected plaintiffs’ claims premised on the State and OPD’s alleged knowledge or awareness of Grays Harbor County’s failure to provide adequate public defense services. “Such an allegation cannot support state liability even if we could fairly impute knowledge or awareness or awareness of a particular county’s failings to the State. Plaintiffs’ claims alleging systemic, structural deficiencies in the public defense system remained viable. Therefore, the Court affirmed the superior court’s denial of the State’s motion for summary judgment in part, and remanded the matter for further proceedings. View "Davison v. Washington" on Justia Law

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Julia Tucker stole a snowmobile and was convicted of theft of a motor vehicle. On appeal, she argued a snowmobile was not a motor vehicle under the relevant statute, RCW 9A.56.065. The Washington Supreme Court found snowmobiles were unambiguously included as motor vehicles under the statute. Therefore, Tucker’s conviction was affirmed. View "Washington v. Van Wolvelaere" on Justia Law

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In 2014, Keith Davis was arrested for possession of a stolen vehicle. A month later, he was arrested again for possession of a different stolen vehicle; crack cocaine was discovered on Davis' person in a search incident to that arrest. In March 2014, the State charged Davis with two counts of possessing a stolen vehicle and one count of possession of a controlled substance. On February 6, 2015, Davis waived his right to counsel. During his colloquy with the trial judge, Davis asked how he could request standby counsel. The judge informed Davis he could move for standby counsel but the motions were unlikely to be granted. The court then found Davis knowingly and voluntarily waived his right to counsel, and he proceeded pro se. During pretrial and case setting hearings, Davis continually asked for standby counsel and repeated his frustrations about preparing to defend himself while incarcerated. Trial was held in 2017, and after unsuccessful attempts at continuing proceedings, Davis again asked for standby counsel. The court attempted to clarify if Davis meant he was withdrawing as his own counsel and requesting new counsel. Davis stated that he would not go to trial and that the court could “go to trial without [him]”; he said he was “not coming to trial” and “you guys can hold trial without me. Right? You do that? . . . Because I’m not coming.” Frustrated that his requests were denied, the trial court warned Davis outbursts and disruptions would lead to his removal. In response, Davis stated, "You can remove me now... I don't even want to be here. So remove me. I don't care. ...you can hold your trial without me." Davis did return to court and represent himself without significant incident until the State commenced its case in chief. After a break in proceedings, Davis returned to court to find the water on his table had been removed; the court noted Davis was taking frequent breaks. Davis then began a “tirade of expletives, pounding on the table with his fists, and yelling at an extremely loud volume, . . . at one point scream[ing]" at the trial judge. The judge made rulings on record (but outside of the jury's presence), and Davis was removed. He appealed his ultimate conviction, arguing his right to be present was violated when the trial court found he voluntarily absented himself from his trial. Finding no abuse of discretion, the Washington Supreme Court affirmed Davis' conviction. View "Washington v. Davis" on Justia Law

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A class C felony "washes out" and is omitted from a defendant’s offender score as long as he or she is not convicted of any crime within five years of the last date of release from confinement. David Haggard was convicted of a misdemeanor offense within this five-year period, which was dismissed pursuant to RCW 3.66.067. When Haggard later pleaded guilty to burglary and arson, the trial court included prior class C felonies in his criminal history, finding that the dismissed misdemeanor conviction interrupted the washout period for those offenses. Haggard contended on appeal this was error. The Washington Supreme Court determined that because a dismissed conviction constituted a “conviction” under the Sentencing Reform Act of 1981 (SRA), and misdemeanor dismissal and vacation were distinct processes, so Haggard's offender score was properly calculated. View "Washington v. Haggard" on Justia Law

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Alejandro Escalante was detained for hours in a secured area at a border crossing and, the State conceded, interrogated by federal agents without Miranda warnings. Statements he made during that interrogation were used by the State to convict him of drug possession. While a traveler briefly detained and questioned at the border was typically not "in custody" for Miranda purposes, "the government’s power to detain and question people at the border without implicating Miranda has limits." Here, the Washington Supreme Court determined those limits were reached. "This border detention created the type of inherently coercive environment that demands Miranda warnings to ensure an individual’s choice to speak is the product of free will." The Supreme Court held that Escalante was in custody when he was interrogated and reversed. View "Washington v. Escalante" on Justia Law

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In November 2013, Washington voters rejected Initiative 522 (I-522), which would have required labels on packaged foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) opposed state-level GMO labeling laws, including I-522. Over the course of the 2013 election cycle, GMA solicited over $14 million in optional contributions from its member companies, $11 million of which went to support the “No on 522” political committee. The payments to No on 522 were attributed solely to GMA itself, with no indication of which companies had provided the funds. Prior to the initiation of this lawsuit, GMA was not registered as a political committee and did not make any reports to the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC). The State filed a complaint alleging that GMA intentionally violated the Fair Campaign Practices Act (FCPA)'s registration and disclosure requirements and the FCPA’s prohibition on concealing the sources of election-related spending. GMA countered that it cannot be subject to the FCPA’s registration and disclosure requirements because those requirements violate the First Amendment as applied. U.S. CONST. amend. I. The trial court agreed with the State, imposed a $6 million base penalty on GMA, and trebled the penalty to $18 million after determining GMA;s violations were intentional. The Court of Appeals largely affirmed, but revered the treble penalty, holding that one had to "subjectively intend to violate the law in order to be subject to treble damages." After review, the Washington Supreme Court affirmed the conclusion that the FCPA, and that the FCPA was constitutional as applied. The Court reversed the appellate court on the treble penalty, holding that the trial court applied the proper legal standard to determine GMA intentionally violated the FCPA. The matter was remanded to the Court of Appeals for consideration of GMA's claim that the penalty imposed violated the excessive fines clauses of the federal and Washington constitutions. View "Washington v. Grocery Mfrs. Ass'n" on Justia Law

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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 judges of Benton and Franklin Counties (Washington) superior court issued local rules ordering the county clerk to maintain paper files of court documents. Believing electronic files were preferable, Michael Killian, the clerk of Franklin County, refused, and the judges sought a writ of mandamus to compel him to comply. The superior court issued the writ. After review, the Washington Supreme Court vacated the writ. The judges responded with an alternative plan, asking for a declaratory judgment. The Washington Supreme Court determined the writ of mandamus should have never been issued because the judges had an adequate alternative remedy available to them. Regardless, the Supreme Court determined the county clerk, not the judges, got to select the open, accessible format in which court documents were safely and accessibly maintained. View "Judges of Benton and Franklin Counties v. Killian" 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