The Seattle Times had an article today outlining a case that was the impetus for the Washington Supreme Court’s new evidence rule making a person’s immigration status inadmissible at trial regardless of whether it is a criminal or civil trial. You can read the new rule here. The person’s immigration status is generally inadmissible unless the party trying to introduce this evidence can show that it is essential to prove party’s cause of action, an element of the criminal offense (or defense to the charge), or to show bias or prejudice of a witness. The new rule is listed as ER 413.
King v. Olympic Pipeline stands for the position that if there is both a civil and criminal case stemming from the same incident, the defendant may request that the civil matter be stayed until the criminal case is resolved. This can occur in a domestic violence incident where criminal charges are filed, and there may also be a civil protection order or personal injury law suit pending that was filed by the victim. In a criminal case, a defendant has a 5th amendment right to not testify and incriminate themselves, so the logic being resolve the criminal case first, and then turn to the civil case second. However, in the recent decision of Smith v. Smith, the court ruled that this is not always the case. In the decision, the court denied the Defendant’s request to stay the civil case until the criminal case was resolved because the court found that the Olympic Pipeline factors weighed against the defendant.
While generally, a prior criminal conviction or prior bad act cannot be used against a witness in trial, there are some exceptions. One is detailed in Evidence Rule (ER) 609, which allows a witness to be impeached by convictions of certain crimes. ER 609 states:
“For the purpose of attacking the credibility of a witness in a criminal or civil case, evidence that the witness has been convicted of a crime shall be admitted . . . but only if the crime (1) was punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of 1 year under the law under which the witness was convicted, and the court determines that the probative value of admitting this evidence outweighs the prejudice to the party against whom the evidence is offered, or (2) involved dishonesty or false statement, regardless of the punishment.”
Whether a crime “involved dishonesty or false statement” is not always obvious on its face. For instance, the crime of Burglary in the Second Degree can be a dishonest crime if the offender enters a building to steal something. But if the offender enters a building to commit an assault, the crime is still a felony, and still a burglary, but it is not a crime of dishonesty under ER 609.
ER 609 also lays out other requirements, including time limits, effect of a pardon, and whether juvenile convictions can be used against a witness. This rule applies to both criminal and civil trials. This means that a crime of dishonesty conviction years ago could potentially factor in a totally unrelated civil case years down the road. The crime of dishonesty could be enough to convince a jury to believe one witness over another. Before pleading guilty to any crime, make sure your attorney adequately advises you on whether the crime is a ER 609 crime of dishonesty, and how that conviction will be used in future legal proceedings.
A good attorney will know all the judges in a particular jurisdiction and what judges are good for each particular kind of case and issue. But how can an attorney get a particular case set in front of the ideal judge? In Washington State, we have an affidavit of prejudice statute, RCW 4.12.050, Superior Court Criminal Rule 8.9, and CrRLJ 8.9 (for District Court). If a criminal case was a game of cards, the affidavit of prejudice rule is a playing card that says if an attorney or defendant thinks that a particular judge cannot be fair and impartial, they can play a card against that judge and a replacement judge must be brought in. But you can only play this card once. Also, there are limits as to when you can play this card. So while you cannot pick the best judge for your particular case, you can get rid of the worst judge.
Under the Constitution and the landmark Supreme Court case, Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), anyone charged with a criminal offense has a right to an attorney, and if they cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to them by the court (at taxpayers expense). This is true regardless of whether the person is accused of stealing $18 million or accused of stealing a candy bar from 7 eleven.
Qualifying for a public defender. Under Washington law, to receive a public defender, you must qualify as indigent under RCW 10.101.010, which defines “indigent” as:
- Receiving one of the following types of public assistance: Temporary assistance for needy families, aged, blind, or disabled assistance benefits, medical care services under RCW 74.09.035, pregnant women assistance benefits, poverty-related veterans’ benefits, food stamps or food stamp benefits transferred electronically, refugee resettlement benefits, medicaid, or supplemental security income; or
- Involuntarily committed to a public mental health facility; or
- Receiving an annual income, after taxes, of one hundred twenty-five percent or less of the current federally established poverty level; or
- Unable to pay the anticipated cost of counsel for the matter before the court because his or her available funds are insufficient to pay any amount for the retention of counsel.
The federally established poverty level depends on the size of the household. But in 2015, for a one person household, if the person is making less than $11,770 a year it means the person is living in poverty. So in Washington State, if a person lives by themselves and make less than $14,713 a year, the person will get a free public defender.
However, even if the person makes more than $14,713, they may still qualify for a public defender if the person is “[u]nable to pay the anticipated cost of counsel for the matter before the court because his or her available funds are insufficient to pay any amount for the retention of counsel.” In other words, it is up to the public defense agency to decide how much an attorney would cost for that person’s particular case and whether the person can afford an attorney. If the public defense agency finds that the person is not indigent, but that the person does not make enough to afford an attorney, then the person will still qualify for the public defender. The public defender in this case is not completely free. Instead, the public defense agency will make the person sign a promissory note agreeing to make payments towards the cost of their public defender. The total fee imposed is a sliding scale based on the person’s income and the person normally has at least 12 months to pay back the costs.
What documents are reviewed to determine if the person qualifies for a public defender? In King County, the public defense agency requires the person attend a financial interview, where the screener will ask the person questions about their financial situation. The person is asked to submit pay stubs from the last three months, the most recent bank statement, a copy of last year’s income tax return, and any items that shows the person is receiving public assistance or unemployment compensation. RCW 10.101.020 also requires the person to sign an affidavit under penalty of perjury that the answers and documents provided are accurate. RCW 10.101.020 also states the appointment of counsel shall not be denied “because the person’s friends or relatives, other than a spouse who was not the victim of any offense or offenses allegedly committed by the person, have resources adequate to retain counsel, or because the person has posted or is capable of posting bond.” So even if the person has rich parents, they may still qualify for the public defender.
A public defender is only available to those facing criminal charges, involuntary commitment to a mental health facility, contempt of court for failure to pay child support, or if the State is trying to take the person’s child away from them. A public defender is not available for infractions (like speeding tickets) or the DOL Administrative Hearing on a DUI case.
Everyone knows that if a person is charged with a criminal offense, he or she has a right to a jury trial. But what if the person does not want a jury trial and instead wants the judge to decide if he or she is innocent or guilty? A judge trial is referred to as a bench trial, so a single person (the judge) decides the defendant’s fate rather than the jury (six or twelve random people depending on whether the offense is a misdemeanor or felony). Most people would rather have a jury trial, than bench, because the jury must be unanimous in order to convict. So all the jurors must agree that the defendant is guilty rather than just one (the judge). Jurors might feel more sympathy for a defendant than some cranky, jaded, judge. But depending on the circumstances, there are some situations where a bench trial might be advantageous. This could be true if there is a particularly complicated legal defense, and the defendant believes the judge is more likely to understand the defense. Also, a bench trial is much shorter than a jury trial because picking a jury takes time (multiple days for complex cases), and the trial itself goes much faster if a jury is not involved. If the defendant is paying a private attorney for trial, it could be cheaper for the defendant do a bench trial rather than a jury trial. Moreover, if the defendant wants to appeal the trial court’s legal decision to the next level, a bench trial can give the defendant the record needed to appeal, without the cost and time of a jury trial.
So a person has decided that for whatever reason, a bench trial makes more sense. Does the person have a right to a bench trial? If the charge is DUI, the answer is most likely no! The reason is that for misdemeanor offenses filed in District Court, there is a court rule that allows a prosecutor to demand a jury trial. That rule is CrRLJ 6.1.1(b). For whatever reasons, prosecutors in King County and other jurisdictions routinely demand a jury trial on a DUI charge, and sometimes, on all charges. I have never quite understood why the prosecutors demand a jury trial on DUI charges, or any charge for that matter. A bench trial is shorter and therefore costs the taxpayers less money. I would think the government would be excited that a defendant wants a less costly trial? It is possible that prosecutors believe defense attorneys will get the trial set with a particularly sympathetic judge. Ironically, on more serious felony charges, the prosecutor does not have the ability to demand a jury trial on the case. CrR 6.1, the Superior Court equivalent of CrRLJ 6.1.1, requires the defendant to file a written waiver of the right to a jury trial, and leaves it up to the trial court whether to allow a bench trial on a particular case.
You’ve been charged with a crime, hire an attorney, and make an appointment to go over the police reports with that attorney. At the conclusion of the meeting, you ask the attorney if you can have a copy of the police report to share with your friends, family, employer, or whoever else you think should have an opportunity to read the police reports. The answer your attorney is ethically required to give to you is, “due to court rule CrRLJ 4.7(g)(3), I am prohibited from giving you a copy of the discovery, i.e. the police report in this case.” Huh? Yes, there is a court rule that says your attorney cannot give you a copy of the police reports, assuming they received the police reports from the prosecutor as discovery in the case. The rule makes sense for serious felony cases like murder and sex offenses. In a murder case, the discovery may contain the address and phone numbers for the witnesses and the court doesn’t want the defendant to go whack all the witnesses. In a sex offense, the discovery may contain something illegal (like child porn) and the court doesn’t want the defendant to have a further opportunity to exploit the victim. But in more simple criminal cases, like a DUI, this rule makes no sense. The good news is there are some easy ways to get around this rule. First off, the rule itself says your attorney can give you a copy of the discovery if the prosecutor and court agree to it. So you can always make the request to the judge. Also, the defendant (or any person for that matter) can make a public records request to the law enforcement agency requesting the police report. If your attorney obtained the report via a public records request or a DOL hearing on a DUI case, your attorney can provide the report to you without violating the court rule, since the court rule only applies to “discovery” provided by the prosecutor. And finally, while the rule says the attorney must maintain “exclusive custody” of the material, you can always read the police report in your attorney’s office, and take very detailed notes about the police report.
Most have heard of “good time” off for keeping out of trouble in jail, but do you know how much off people normally get? For the majority of jail sentences, the inmate will get one-third off in good time. That means that when you read in the paper that a person received a sentence of 20 months, in reality, that person may only be doing about 14 months or so. This is true on essentially all misdemeanor offenses and on a good portion of felony offenses. Some felonies, like murder, get less than a third off for good time (10-15% depending on what charge the person was convicted of). And then there are felony enhancements, like the firearm enhancement, where a person does straight time (no good time) on the enhancement portion of the sentence (which can be 5 years). Pretty much all misdemeanor sentences are eligible for work release in King County. And even on felonies, the Department of Corrections (DOC) often kicks the prisoner out for the last six months of the sentence to serve that portion of his or her sentence as work release. So, a felon looking at 20 months on a felony DUI will actually only serve 8 months in jail, then serve 6 months on work release (for a total sentence of 14 months, with the good time off). And a portion of that 8 months of jail may include electronic home detention that the person served pre-trial, prior to sentencing. This is not nearly as bad as the 20 month sentence that you may see quoted in the paper.
RCW 9.94A.729, the good time statute, leaves it up to the county jail to determine the good time amount. Jails are constantly looking for creative ways to get people out of jail in order to save money, so most jails set the good time amount as high as possible. Another quirk in the system is the good time off only kicks in after a specific minimum number of days (set by each individual jail). This number can vary from jail to jail but 5 is a typical number. So, for instance, on a sentence of 4 days, a person actually serves 4 days. But for a sentence of 6 days, the person actually serves 4 days (because of the one third off for good time). Figuring out how much good time a person is likely to receive is easy enough for misdemeanor sentences, and for felonies that do not involve prison time. But for a person heading to the DOC, the calculation can become much more complicated. So contact an attorney to find out how much good time should be given on a particular sentence.
In the recent decision of State v. Barnes, the defendant attempted to steal a riding lawnmower. The defendant drove his truck onto the victim’s property, and started to load the lawnmower into his truck when he was caught in the act. Rather than charge the defendant with Theft in the First or Second Degree, the prosecutor chose to charge the defendant with Theft of Motor Vehicle, presumably because it would carry a longer sentence than regular theft, which all depends on the value of the lawnmower. The trial court dismissed the charge ruling that a lawnmower was not “motor vehicle” under the Theft of Motor Vehicle statute. Undeterred, the prosecutor appealed the dismissal. On appeal, the Washington Supreme Court stated:
“RCW 9A.56.065 prohibits theft of a motor vehicle. However, neither the statute nor the criminal code explicitly defines the term ‘motor vehicle.’ Though a plain reading of the term could conceivably include a riding lawn mower, the legislature intended otherwise. Because the act itself denotes a restrained definition, we find that as a matter of law, a riding lawn mower is not a ‘motor vehicle’ for purposes of the theft of a motor vehicle statute.”