Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Washington Supreme Court
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In May 2017, petitioner Gregg Loughbom was charged with three counts of various drug crimes: count I, delivery of controlled substances acetaminophen and hydrocodone; count II, delivery of controlled substance methamphetamine; and count III, conspiracy to deliver a controlled substance other than marijuana. These charges stemmed from two controlled drug buys conducted by a confidential informant (CI) on December 20 and 31, 2016. The information was later amended to include school zone enhancements for all three counts pursuant to RCW 69.50.435. During jury selection, the prosecutor asked, “Are there any among you who believe that we have a drug problem in Lincoln County?” He then commented, “Wow, okay. Just about every[one],” and followed with the question, “Is there anyone who feels that we don’t?” Thereafter, the prosecutor referenced the war on drugs three times. The issue this case presented for the Washington Supreme Court's review centered on whether the prosecutor committed reversible error when he repeatedly invoked the phrase, “war on drugs” during the one-day jury trial, without objection by petitioner. The Court held that the State’s framing of Loughbom’s prosecution as representative of the war on drugs denied Loughbom a fair trial and constitutes reversible error. Therefore, the Court reversed the Court of Appeals and remanded for a new trial. View "Washington v. Loughbom" on Justia Law

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In 2018, the Washington legislature enacted Substitute House Bill 2887 (SHB 2887), requiring noncharter counties with populations of 400,000 or more to elect five county commissioners by 2022, when originally such counties were required to elect three. SHB 2887 would also require affected counties to fund a redistricting committee to create five districts, one for each commissioner. These counties had to hold individual district elections for these commissioners instead of countywide general elections. Spokane County, former and current Spokane County commissioners, and the Washington State Association of Counties argued this law violated article XI, section 4 of the Washington Constitution, mandating the legislature to establish a uniform system of county government, and article XI, section 5, requiring the legislature to provide for the election of county commissioners through general and uniform laws. The Washington Supreme Court held SHB 2887 was constitutional under article XI, sections 4 and 5: "the legislature may classify counties by population for any purpose that does not violate other constitutional provisions, and SHB 2887 is a general law that properly implements district-only elections for noncharter counties of a certain size." View "Spokane County v. Washington" on Justia Law

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The juvenile court terminated N.B.’s parental rights to his son, M.B., while N.B. was incarcerated. N.B. made clear that he strongly desired to participate in the termination trial by phone or in person. Despite this, most of the three-day trial occurred in his absence. N.B. was allowed to appear only by phone and for only a portion of the third day. Under the circumstances, the Washington Supreme Court concluded this was not fair and violated due process. The Court therefore reversed termination and remanded for a new trial. View "In re Welfare of M.B." on Justia Law

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This matter came before the Washington Supreme Court on a petition for a writ of mandamus from five inmates serving criminal sentences at different Washington Department of Corrections (Department) facilities. The Supreme Court retained jurisdiction because of the extraordinary nature of the relief petitioners sought, and because of the extraordinary danger COVID-19 (coronavirus disease) posed to inmates in Washington’s prisons. Rather, the parties agreed on a record that mainly included descriptions of the prison conditions, expert opinions on the risks that COVID-19 presented in the prison environment, and petitioners’ declarations as to their individual situations. For purposes of the Court's decision, it accepted petitioners’ factual descriptions as true. The petitioners claimed close confinement created a substantial risk of harm because of the current public health emergency caused by COVID-19. "These concerns are legitimate and well founded:" the current widely reported medical evidence suggested COVID-19 risks of serious complications or death are highest for offenders over age 50 and those with certain preexisting medical conditions, but it could also be serious for younger people and those in good health. And serious outbreaks have occurred at other prisons and jails nationwide. "But mandamus is not the answer for every emergency, and it cannot deliver the relief petitioners seek here." The Washington Supreme Court concluded that without a showing an official in the executive branch failed to perform a mandatory nondiscretionary duty, courts had no authority under law to issue a writ of mandamus, no matter how dire the emergency. Petitioners alternatively sought leave to amend their petition by filing a personal restraint petition. But on the record before the Court, they did not show respondents acted with deliberate indifference to the extreme risk that COVID-19 created for the incarcerated. "Amending their mandamus petition would therefore be futile." For these reasons, the Supreme Court dismissed the mandamus action and denied the motion to amend. View "Colvin v. Inslee" on Justia Law

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In 2017, John Jackson Sr. was charged with assault in the second degree, domestic violence, for strangling his fiancee. At every court appearance, Jackson was forced to wear some form of restraints pursuant to jail policy. The trial court did not engage in any individualized determination of whether restraints were necessary for courtroom safety but, instead, filed a consolidated opinion adopting the jail policy for all superior court appearances for all incarcerated defendants. After a jury found Jackson guilty, he appealed, arguing that his constitutional right to due process was violated for being forced to wear restraints without an individualized inquiry into their necessity. The Court of Appeals concurred with this argument, but held the violation was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. With respect to the latter portion of the appellate court's holding, the Washington Supreme Court revered, finding the State did not prove the harmlessness of the shackling, and did not show the error to be harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The matter was remanded for a new trial with instructions that at all stages of the proceedings, the trial court make an individualized inquiry into whether shackels or restraints were necessary. View "Washington v. Jackson" on Justia Law

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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