Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Washington Supreme Court
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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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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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Between January 25 and July 26, 2017, members of the news media submitted 163 ublic Records Act ("PRA") requests to the Washington senate, house of representatives and the Washington legislature as a whole as well as to offices of individual state senators and representatives. In response to some requests, senate and house counsel stated that the legislature did not possess responsive records; in response to other requests, senate and house counsel and some individual legislators voluntarily provided limited records. Some records that were provided contained redactions, though no exemptions were identified. The issue this case presented for the Washington Supreme Court's review centered on whether the state legislative branch was subject to the general public records disclosure mandate of the PRA. The Court determined that under the plain meaning of the PRA, individual legislators were "agencies" subject in full to the PRA's general public records disclosure mandate because they were expressly included in the definitional chain of "agency" in a related statute. Furthermore, the Court held the institutional legislative bodies were not "agencies" because they were not included in that definitional chain, but they were, instead, subject to the PRA's narrower public records disclosure mandate by and through each chambers' respective administrative officer. View "Assoc. Press v. Wash. State Legislature" 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

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Brandon Cate was found guilty by jury of burglary, theft and malicious mischief. At sentencing, the State calculated Cate's offender score as 9+, the highest category, based on numerous alleged prior convictions. In proving the alleged prior convictions, the State failed to provide copies of the relevant judgment and sentence forms, relying instead on a prosecutor's summary of Cate's criminal history. Cate did not object, the 9+ score was thus used to calculate his present sentence. On appeal, Cate challenged the sentence as erroneous because the State failed to meet its burden of proving his criminal history at sentencing. The Court of Appeals affirmed the sentence, but the Washington Supreme Court reversed: relying on a portion of RCW 9.94A.530(2) risked shifting the burden to prove criminal history from the State to the defendant. Thus, the matter was remanded for a new sentencing hearing. View "Washington v. Cate" on Justia Law

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Shelly Arndt was convicted by jury for first degree aggravated murder and first degree arson. She received a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Arndt appealed, arguing her Sixth Amendment right to present a defense and her right to be free from double jeopardy were violated. After a careful review of the record, the Washington Supreme Court concluded the trial court's rulings limiting the testimony of Arndt's expert witness did not violate Arndt's Sixth Amendment right to present a defense and were well within the court's discretion. Furthermore, the Court concluded Arndt's convictions for both first degree aggravated murder and first degree arson did not offend double jeopardy as the two crimes had separate purposes and effects, thus multiple punishments were allowed. View "Washington v. Arndt" on Justia Law

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In late 2015, two men severely beat and killed 89-year-old Robert Hood. The two men, respondents Robert Pry and Robert Davis, forced their way into Hood's home, tied him up, and beat and robbed him. Pry and Davis contacted respondent Arnold Cruz for assistance. Cruz was not involved in the murder or robbery of Hood's home. Sometime later, Hood's caretaker visited Hood's home and, after noticing that. Hood was gone and someone had rifled through the house, alerted the police. Hood's body was eventually discovered stuffed in a blue plastic barrel. The police released Cruz's name to the press as a person of interest, and Cruz surrendered himself to law enforcement. At issue in this case was whether the information charging Cruz with rendering criminal assistance was constitutionally sufficient. Specifically, he contended the charging document had to include additional statutory elements from RCW 9A.76.050. The Washington Supreme Court held that because section .050 provided essential elements for rendering criminal assistance and Cruz's information lacked those elements, the information was constitutionally deficient. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the Court of Appeals, dismissed the charge of rendering criminal assistance without prejudice, and remanded Cruz's case to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Washington v. Pry" on Justia Law