Hit and Run in Washington – A Criminal Lawyer’s Perspective

Hit and Run laws in Washington are hard even for lawyers to understand.  Lately, I have had the opportunity to defend many hit and run cases, both in the Spokane area and elsewhere.  The laws are complex, and there is a lot of confusion about the laws on this subject so I figured it might make a good blog post.

Different Levels of Hit and Run

Like many crimes in Washington State, Hit and Run has different levels. But unlike most other crimes (assault, for example) the levels of hit and run are not broken up into 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th degree.  Rather, Hit and Run is broken into the four different levels:

Hit and Run – Unattended

Hit and Run – Unattended is the lowest level of Hit and Run, and is a misdemeanor under Washington law.Image of Hit and Run  The crime occurs when a driver collides with an “unattended” parked car or other property of value on the side of the road, and then leaves without notify the owner or leaving a note.

Hit and Run – Attended

Hit and Run -Attended is committed when a driver strikes another vehicle that is occupied, and flees the scene.  This offense is a gross misdemeanor. The law imposes a duty on the driver to stop and provide his or her name and address, and his or her insurance information.

Hit and Run – Injury

Hit and Run – Injury applies when a driver strikes another vehicle and injures an occupant of that vehicle and flees the scene.  This offense is a class C felony. The law imposes a duty on the driver to render assistance to the injured party, including making arrangements for transportation to the hospital.  This last requirement doesn’t apply in circumstances when the driver himself is unable to do so due to his or her own injuries.

Hit and Run – Fatality

Hit and Run – Injury applies when a driver strikes another vehicle, injures an occupant of that vehicle, and flees the scene.  This offense is a class C felony. A Hit and Run involving any occupied vehicle will result in a 1 year license suspension.

Occasionally, a driver or defendant will explain to the police that he or she was not aware that they collided into another vehicle.  This does not arise too often, and is obviously more plausible when the damage to the vehicles is minimal and in circumstances, perhaps, where the driver is elderly or distracted.  Usually Hit and Run charges are proven by eyewitness testimony, or by a forensic analysis of paint scrapes.  Under Locard’s theory of “transfer and exchange” a close examination of each vehicle would leave trace evidence on the other in the form of paint scrapes or metal scrapings.  The height of the markings on each vehicle would also be considered.  In practice, busy police departments don’t always closely examine the damage done.  Photographs are usually taken, and it is common for paint chips to be collected but not immediately tested.

A conviction for Hit and Run on a person’s criminal record sometimes creates confusion.  When employers are doing a background check, they don’t often know what to make of a Hit and Run charge, and they are apt to assume that the conviction involves the most serious type.  Background checks often yield inaccurate results, and even FBI or Washington State criminal records are spotty or incomplete.  It is not uncommon for a criminal record to refer to a “Hit and Run” conviction without spelling out the level, type, or nature of the offense.  Criminal defense lawyers typically file public records requests for the police reports that underlie the offense for more information.

Hit and Run charges can stand on their own, or they can be coupled with other offenses such as DUI, Negligent Driving, Reckless Driving, or even Vehicular Homicide.  When a person flees the scene of an accident, it is sometimes just a panic reaction, but sometimes a person makes a more deliberate decision to leave because they have no insurance, are intoxicated, or have pre-existing warrants for their arrest.


For more information on Hit and Run, and the penalties, visit our website.

Eyes in the Sky: The Impact of Predator Drones on Your Privacy

Back on June 3, 2010, I warned about the possible (mis)uses of inexpensive drone technology and how such gadgets might eventually be harnessed for civilian law enforcement purposes, possibly spying on a pot dealer’s back yard. Turns out I was right. Well, not about the pot, at least not yet.

A scary report in the Los Angeles Times told of how local police in North Dakota used a Predator B drone to apprehend three men; the first known arrests of U.S. citizens with help from a Predator. The incident occurred when the suspects refused to turn over several cows that had wandered on to their property. Police showed up, the suspects brandished some shotguns and a pretty tense standoff ensued. marijuana droneThe police left and got themselves a warrant and then called in a Predator drone to fly over the suspect’s land, hovering for four hours, transmitting video and thermal imaging all the while. The next day, police called the drone back for more spying and finally made their move when the drone determined the men were unarmed.

The Predator drones used in this incident are based at the Grand Forks Air Force Base, located in Emerado, North Dakota, and are owned and operated by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency. Though the FBI, DEA and a plethora of other federal agencies have used Predator drones on U.S. soil for years for surveillance purposes, this is the first reported incident where local police forces have made use of a Predator drone to watch and then apprehend suspects.

The Los Angeles Times quotes a retired U.S. General who acknowledges that drones are being used “in many areas around the country, not only for federal operators, but also for state and local law enforcement.” The Customs and Border Protection agency responsible for the apprehension in the North Dakota incident claim they have a legal authorization to use the drones in such a way. Officials insist that they indicated in their budget requests to Congress that one purpose of purchasing the Predators was for “interior law enforcement support.”

Jane Harman – former Chair of the House Homeland Security Sub-Committee – insists that “no one ever discussed using Predators to help local police serve warrants or do other basic work.” The argument from Customs is that the drones can be used on U.S. soil for law enforcement purposes not because of a new law or regulation, nor because of any Congressional mandate or Executive Order, simply because they inserted the phrase “interior law enforcement support” into their purchase order.

This “interior law enforcement support” hasn’t been limited to North Dakota. A recent article out of Houston discussed the local law enforcement excitement following their acquisition of several drones: “It’s an exciting piece of equipment for us,” Chief Deputy of Montgomery County Sherriff’s Office said. The Sherriff’s Office recently used $300,000 from a federal homeland security grant to purchase a ShadowHawk drone which they hope to take to the air in the coming months. “We envision a lot of its uses primarily in the realm of public safety – looking at recovery of lost individuals and being able to utilize it for fire issues.” However, the police aren’t willing to say the drones might not do more in the future. McDaniel said that one day they may decide to equip the drones to carry nonlethal weapons such as Tasers or a bean-bag gun.

Kirsten Bokenkamp, spokeswoman for the Houston-based American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, warned of the danger the drones pose. She sensibly pointed out that there are not enough safeguards currently in place to protect citizens from unreasonable search and seizure. The complaint has so far fallen on deaf ears.

The manufacturers of these unmanned aircraft aren’t stopping to worry about such issues; instead they’re pushing forward and aggressively courting local law enforcement. In their 2011 Annual Report, AeroVironment, Inc. (AV), the nation’s leading manufacturer of small drones, hammers home the message that future growth lies in non-military applications of their product:

As we explore opportunities to develop new markets for our small UAS, such as border surveillance, law enforcement, first response and infrastructure monitoring, we expect further growth through the introduction of UAS technology to non-military applications once rules are established for their safe and effective operation in each country’s national airspace.

The company manufactures drones so small they can be transported in the trunk of a car and launched within minutes. A single police officer could deploy and monitor such a drone. These small drones could help usher in an “Era of Surveillance,” cheap and easy access to drones capable of hovering without detection for far longer than police helicopters.

The drones are vastly different and more powerful than standard police helicopters, the current method of choice for police surveillance from above. A great example is one new type of drone already in use by the U.S. military in Afghanistan – the Gorgon Stare, named after the Greek creature of legend whose unblinking eyes turned those who looked at it to stone. According to the Washington Post, it’s “able to scan an area the size of a small town” and is able to “use artificial intelligence [to] seek out and record certain kinds of suspicious activity.” One proud U.S. General went on to declare that the “Gorgon Stare will be looking at a whole city, so there will be no way for the adversary to know what we’re looking at, and we can see everything.” No police helicopter that I’ve ever run across has such capabilities and the prospect of the Gorgon Stare making its way to America should give everyone cause for concern.

Beyond such domestic law enforcement missions, the drones are being used everywhere, silent eyes in the sky. According to a recent report, a group dedicated to the abolition of whale hunting, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, used an unmanned aircraft to follow suspected Japanese whalers. Drones are everywhere and apparently have unlimited potential uses. Monitoring by law enforcement, border patrol, whale watching, what’s next? Given new technology whole cities can be kept under surveillance by one tiny drone. Where does this end? Likely with your civil liberties being violated. It’s only a matter of time before a civilian law enforcement agency realizes that the contraptions would be great for checking up on marijuana growing operations. Launch a Predator and have it spend hours noiselessly circling farms, searching for telltale signs of pot production. Police can watch the stream from the comfort of their desk and swoop in after the drone has done the leg work.

The increasing use of drones for an ever-growing list of activities on U.S. soil is troubling and potentially dangerous. This is the definition of a slippery slope and little exists to stop the creep of this surveillance into every facet of law enforcement. Small marijuana growers will have to fear a silent watchman in the sky. Jane Harman, a military hawk by any definition, told the Los Angeles Times that she’s worried, saying “There is no question that this could become something that people will regret.” The use of drones by civilian law enforcement is important and the issue warrants some real attention by legislators and the public alike.

What do you think about this issue?  How long before these drones are out looking for local marijuana gardens?   As the wars wind down in Iraq and Afghanistan, will the defense contractors focus more on marketing these drones to your local police department?  Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Initiative I-502 to Legalize Marijuana, by New Approach Washington

When Proposition 19 was rejected by the voters of California in 2010, I figured that would pretty much mean the end of any legalization initiatives in Washington.  However, a group called New Approach Washington was created, and they are now gathering signatures for a legalization initiative for the November ballot in 2012.  The group is challenging the assumption that California is the only testing ground for such proposals.  How can this possibly pass in Washington?  The groups campaign director, attorney Alison Holcomb pretty much explained her thinking recently at Hempfest in Seattle.  (See video below) She explains that there is polling data that supports the idea that such an initiative could win.  “We are in this amazing moment of opportunity and also precariousness – there is no state (other than Washington) in the country that has a 55% …percent majority support for legalizing marijuana.”  The problem that happened in California, Holcomb explains, is that right before the election, voters started to get scared by concerns like “stoned drivers”, and that moderate voters like centrist democrats, independents, and college-educated women, got nervous and abandoned their support.  Holcomb explains:  “With I-502 we spent a lot of time figuring out the most conservative, safe, secure sounding, marijuana legalization initiative that we can draft, and that will get us closest to what our public opinion data tells us people will hang on to and pass.”  Her vision is that once we get such an initiative passed, that voters nationwide will “see that the sky doesn’t fall” and it will snowball to broader legalization and reforms throughout the U.S.   Alison Holcomb explained:

We have to be as disciplined as possible, and pulling together, for example, the sponsers that signed on to it.  Seattle city attorney Pete Holmes, former US Attorney John McKay, Rick Steeves, two medical doctors, two former Washington state bar presidents, a Washington state legislator.  We need all the main stream messengers possible, because I think a legalization initiative  that looks like it is coming from the choir, that looks like it is coming from the usual suspects, has a much harder row to hoe then one that is coming from a former US attorney, for example.

Is it ironic that she explains the need to gather “mainstream messengers” when she is speaking at Hempfest?  I guess a little.  I did note that you can hear the psychedelic rock of the festival playing in the background as she speaks.

I-502 has some detractors.  Some question the proposed law’s provision that drivers (even medical patients) cannot driver a motor vehicle with a THC level over 5 nanograms per milliliter in their blood.  Others question why drivers under 21 would be defined as committing DUI if they have THC in their system in any amount over .000.  One such critic is Edward Agazarm, who started a Facebook page entitled Patients Against I-502.  He sent a press release out last week excoriating the sponsors of I-502.”  See article.  But Alison Holcomb fired back in the comment section of that article accusing Edward Agazarm of being disingenuous in his criticisms of I-502.  Agazarm is a professional signature-gatherer, and president of Citizen Solutions, Inc.   Holcomb explained that Agazarm called her and pitched his company (to collect signatures) after she held a press conference in June.  Holcomb writes: “When I told him we had already contracted with PCI Consultants, Inc., he insulted them and hung up on me. Now, Eddie’s spamming people with emails equating I-502 to rape.”  Agazarm isn’t the only critic.  Steve Elliot, a writer for Tokeofthetown.com also is very critical of the proposed law.

I guess the million-dollar question is whether the initiative will pass.  Can New Approach Washington gather enough moderate voters to off-set the critics?  We will have to see.

One of my disappointments in observing the marijuana reform movement over the last 10 years is how egos and dollar signs seem to damage any real chance of reform.  If I had the energy to collect 100,000 signatures, I would first seek a simple initiative removing the mandatory 24-hour jail time for all marijuana.  I blogged about this here last year. As a practicing criminal defense lawyer, I do have concerns about I-502.  I do worry that a driver under 21 could be convicted for DUI even for trace amounts of marijuana in his or her system.  I also don’t believe that all drivers would necessarily be impaired at .05 nanograms per milliliter, as I addressed here.   I do believe that the law would likely contribute to patient harassment, and an increase in unwarranted marijuana DUI charges.  The “probable cause” that an officer would have to establish an arrest for marijuana DUI is often based on subjective and spurious observations, such as the “green tongue” phenomenon.  I am already seeing an increase in marijuana DUI charges in my practice.  The problem with enforcement with these new laws isn’t going to be in King County; the problem will be greatest in the hick towns of eastern Washington (where I live and practice law).  In these towns the judges are often hostile to even medical marijuana, and the jury pools are conservative.  The prosecutors are less susceptible to public pressure and bad publicity, and  the defense lawyers often lack the specialized training and resources to defend such charges.

What do you think?  Will you be signing the petition for I-502?  Is it worth the restrictions on driving to get a marijuana reform law passed?  Does I-502 ask for too much of a sacrifice from medical cannabis patients?  Leave your thoughts in the comment section below.


Laws on Drug Dog Vehicle Searches – Eastern Washington Lawyer

What are your rights with respect to canine searches of your car?

One minute you are driving down the road without a care in the world, and the next minute you have been pulled over for a broken tail light.  Well, if the police officers have a drug dog with them, the next minute they could be tearing your car up while you wait on the side of the road.   Doesn’t sound like too much fun, especially if there are people you know driving by.

Image of Drug DogEven for people who know their rights, the laws on drug dog searches can get a little tricky.  When I think about drug dog searches, I think of the song “99 Problems” by Jay-Z describing an incident in 1994 when he was pulled over for speeding when he had drugs in his trunk.  The police ask Jay-Z to consent to a search of his car.

“Well, do you mind if I look round the car a little bit?”
Well my glove compartment is locked so are the trunk in the back
And I know my rights so you’re going to need a warrant for that
“Aren’t you sharp as a tack, you some type of lawyer or something’?”
Nah, I ain’t pass the bar but i know a little bit
Enough that you won’t illegally search my shit
“We’ll see how smart you are when the K9 come”

I got 99 problems….

What stumped Jay-Z is that he didn’t know his rights on the subject of a canine search, and this became one of his “problems.”    O.k. so here is how canine searches work.  First the bad news, and then the good news.

The bad news is that generally, a canine sniffing the outside of your car is NOT a search.  The U.S. Supreme Court reasons that the little molecules of marijuana (or whatever) that are wafting away from your car are in the public space, and the police are free to have their dogs everywhere the police are free to be.  It used to be that the police needed an “articulable suspicion” in order to bring their canine up to your car.  This was the rule in New York State in 1994 when Jay-Z was stopped.  However, in 2005, in Illinois v. Cabelles, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the police needed no such articulable suspicion to bring a police dog up to your car at a traffic stop.  So if the police officer is writing you a ticket for broken tail light, he or she can have the drug dog right up beside the car (but not inside).  If the dog indicates that it smells drugs, the police may then search your vehicle.

The good news is that there are ways to fight drug dog searches.  While the law does allow a canine to accompany an officer on a routine traffic stop, the officer is not allowed to delay the traffic stop unnecessarily while the dog searches.  In many rural areas such as Lincoln County, Grant County, or Okanogan County, the delay in a drug dog arriving can be substantial.  In urban areas such as Spokane, the dog can arrive in a matter of minutes.  If your ticket has been written, the officer cannot require you to keep your vehicle on the side of the road while they wait for the dog to arrive without just cause.  Additionally, it does not seem permissible for the officer to put the writing of the infraction “on hold” while a canine search is done.   For an officer working alone, this may pose a problem.   Also, it may be that the Washington State Supreme Court might rule differently than the U.S. Supreme Court.  The Caballes issue has never been squarely before our Washington supreme court, and are justices in Washington could construe the right of privacy in our state constitution more broadly.

How to Challenge a Drug Dog Case

Training a dog to recognize the smell of marijuana or other drugs is relatively easy.  One simple way is to stuff a toy with the substance and to use the dog’s “fetch instincts” to learn how to find the toy. Image of Drugs Canine However, to have a judge accept the dog as reliable in court is very difficult.  Dog handlers have extensive training for their dogs and must keep extensive records.  If the dog “alerted” to a car, and no drugs were found, the dog handler will record this error.  Because of the prevalence of cocaine and marijuana in our society, trace amounts of these drugs can be found all over, particularly on paper currency.  It is not unusual for a drug dog to “alert” on a car only to find money.  Some studies, such as one cited in the Cabelles case, show that dogs in artificial testing situations return false positives anywhere from 12 to 60% of the time, depending on the length of the search.  In my practice as a criminal defense lawyer, I often use the publication A Guide To Canine Interdiction as a reference.  This DEA manual recommends that the canine and the handler both be trained at the same time, and that the two be paired for life.   The dog should be certified by an independent agency with no financial stake in the outcome.   The manual recommends that every use of the dog to screen luggage, vehicles or houses be documented.  Courts generally require that all these records be turned over to the criminal defense lawyer if he or she makes the request.

Hiding the Odor of Marijuana

It is next to impossible to hide the odor of marijuana or other drugs.  People have sealed marijuana in ziplock bags, inside tupperware, inside coffee grounds, and wrapped it with animal fat, and the canines have still detected the drug.  People have also attempted to hide the drugs by submerging them in a fuel tank.

For more information on marijuana laws in Washington State, see here.

What do you think?  Should the police be able to approach your vehicle at a traffic stop with a drug dog?  What are some of the ways you have heard that people attempt to hide the odor of drugs?  Are drug dogs sufficiently reliable to justify searches of our personal belongings?





Lauren Spierer – The Search Goes Social

The search for Indiana University college student Lauren Spierer has involved social media in a way that we have never seen before.  Lauren Spierer, the Indiana University fashion major, went missing after a night out with friends on June 3rd of this year.  Her family has launched a nation-wide effort to keep the case in front of the largest possible audience. Their efforts have included the traditional “missing” flyers, but they have also used YouTube, QR codes, Twitter, Facebook, RSS feeds, and e-bay auctions.  Some of their efforts seem to be born out of frustration – the case largely took a back seat to the Casey Anthony trial last summer.  But some of their efforts are surely motivated by a belief that no effort is ever enough.

Their efforts at distributing “missing” posters even lead to one anonymous letter sent to her parents that there were “too many” posters to the point of “littering”.  If other missing-person campaigns are looking for a benchmark of success, there you have it: hate mail from the callous and selfish.  It makes me think of Grant Cardone’s goal of marketing: omnipresence.

Some of Lauren Spierer’s parents’ efforts seemed to be aimed at keeping pressure on witnesses who might not have come forward, or who might not be telling the truth.  So far some of the witnesses have told inconsistent stories, claimed memory loss, or hired celebrity attorneys.  In some states prosecuting attorneys have procedures available to compel these reluctant witnesses to either tell what they know, or to take the fifth.  Such processes, such as grand juries or special inquiry proceedings, can help narrow down lists of suspects. And no one wants to be nationally known as the person who “took the fifth” in a case such as this.  Defense lawyers can assist the investigatory process by brokering deals where witnesses gain immunity for secondary concerns like underage drinking that occurred that night.

We will hope for some leads for Lauren Spierer’s family, and in the meantime, keep checking out this story on Twitter @NewsonLaurenS, and @FindLaurenS, and in Facebook here.

For some of my past blog posts on missing persons, see here and here.

Lastly, check out this awesome youtube video of a song her supporters wrote.

Minor Possession of Alcohol? Advice from Spokane, Washington Lawyer

Minor in Possession of Alcohol

They say it is a rite of passage for young adults to try alcohol.  So I suppose parents shouldn’t be surprised when their kids get caught, and they receive “the phone call” from police or school officials. Our society sends kids mixed messages on the subject of alcohol.  Our justice system makes it a criminal offense to consume alcohol until someone is 21 years of age. Image of Minor in Possession However, it is almost as if no one expects literal compliance with this law.  Most parents seem to accept some level of occasional “social drinking” when the child is 19 or 20 years old, and sometimes even when the child is still in high school.  This is usually no different for parents in law enforcement; it is just not discussed openly.  Despite the prevalence of underage drinking, many parents are still caught off guard and baffled as to how to react when their child comes home at night accompanied by a police officer.  It helps to know what to expect from the criminal justice system.

Courts and Minor in Possession of Alcohol

What occurs when your child is caught with alcohol depends largely on the child’s age.

For youths under 18

Children under 18 go to juvenile court, but if they have no prior offenses, they are sent to pre-trial diversion.  When the police detain your child for Minor in Possession (MIP), they rarely are taken to jail and booked.  Rather the police usually give the child a ride home or more likely will call you to come pick up the child. Image of Underage Drinking The police can’t cite a juvenile with a “ticket,” rather the officer will inform you that paperwork will be coming in the mail.  This can often take several weeks, leaving parents confused about the delay.  The notice in the mail often comes from the juvenile court probation officer who will invite you and your child in for a meeting.  At that point, your child will be invited to sign a “diversion agreement.”  Rather than go to court the charge will be “diverted” away from the court system and over to the local community diversion board.  The diversion board will meet with the child and parent and decide on a punishment.  The punishment could be an essay to write or community service hours.  The diversion board will sometime refer your child for an evaluation for chemical dependency.  Accepting a diversion agreement will suspend your child’s driver’s license or learner’s permit (or ability to obtain one) for 12 months.  However, early re-instatement is possible after 3 months.  A child has a right to confer with a criminal defense lawyer prior to accepting the diversion agreement, but this usually means finding a private attorney.

If diversion is rejected

If your child rejects diversion, he or she will be charged and sent through the juvenile court system.  If your teen is innocent or denies having possessed or consumed alcohol, he or she can reject the diversion agreement and have the case sent to court.  Once the case is sent to juvenile court, the prosecutor will have to prove the crime beyond a reasonable doubt to the satisfaction of a juvenile court judge.  Your child can apply for a public defender. Parents may obtain a private lawyer for their child as well. There are no juries in a juvenile court, so the judge will decide the case based on the testimony of the officer.  Occasionally the prosecutor will call other witnesses such as school officials or other juveniles, but the trials are usually pretty brief. Parents can be called as witnesses against their own children, but this is less common.  If the judge finds your child guilty of MIP, the judge will impose a sentence requiring your child to do community service hours and maybe have your child do an alcohol evaluation to make sure he or she is not chemically dependent.  The conviction will cause your child’s license to be suspended for 1 year as with a diversion agreement, but your child may be eligible for early reinstatement.

In juvenile court, the terminology is different than adult court.  In juvenile court a defendant is called a “respondent”, a trial is called a “fact finding” or “adjudicatory hearing”, and a sentencing is called a “disposition hearing.”  In the juvenile court system the parents or guardians are also summoned in and required to appear for court hearings.

For defendants over 18

A young adult (age 18-20) charged with MIP goes through adult court.  The adult courts that handle such offenses are the district courts of Washington or local municipal courts.  There is no formal diversion program in Washington State for these sort of MIPs, however prosecutors will sometimes make offers to resolve a case where it is dismissed after one year if the defendant stays out of trouble. Image of MIP Lawyer A defendant is sometimes asked to obtain an alcohol / drug evaluation or asked to attend an 8-hour Alcohol Drug Information School.  Unlike juvenile court, parents are not involved when a MIP defendant is over 18.  This is true even when the 18 year old is still in high school and living at home.  An 18 year old is entitled to a jury trial, and unlike a defendant under 18, he or she will not face a license suspension.  However, an adult defendant convicted of MIP will have a criminal conviction that is public record.

Sometimes the lines between 17 and 18 year olds are blurred.  When a 17 year old is caught with alcohol, he or she still may end up in adult court.  To avoid adult court, the 17 year old must accept a diversion agreement or be formally charged prior to his or her 18th birthday.  So 17 year olds who offend just before their 18th birthday often find themselves sucked into adult court simply due to administrative delay.  Once the matter is in juvenile court, the judge can extend the jurisdiction of the juvenile court for a year or more.  However, the department of licensing (in deciding whether to suspend the child’s license) will only look at how old the child was on the date of the offense.

Repeat offenders

As one would imagine, repeat offenders of MIP usually face a tougher time with the court system.  If a child or young adult is on probation and re-offends, he or she may face jail time, or could be ordered to be evaluated for possible chemical dependency.

Selective prosecution

Parents are often concerned that the MIP laws are not being evenly enforced.  Just as parents have differing views on teens and alcohol, so do police officers.  It is not uncommon at all for the police to overlook or ignore cases of MIP.  This is particularly true in instances where the suspect is a bit older or has smaller quantities of alcohol in his or her possession, and does not pose a threat of driving.  However, police can also play favorites, or single out children for arrest due to personal bias.  In my experience as a criminal defense lawyer (and former prosecuting attorney), in small towns the police seem to overlook certain cases where the parents are influential.  In rural counties such as Okanogan or Stevens County, the police officers are more likely to know the kids compared to urban areas like Spokane.

Getting into the military

Many parents of high school kids are worried that an MIP could prevent their son or daughter from getting into the military.  Generally speaking, such a conviction would not prevent a child from entering the Navy, Army, Air Force, Marines, etc.  However, if your child is planning on entering the military, you should certainly mention this to the juvenile probation officer or criminal defense lawyer that your child is working with.  The military won’t accept your son or daughter if he or she still has obligations to the court.  Sometimes it is possible to terminate a diversion or probationary period early to make a child eligible.


The courts do not make use of urinalysis or UA tests as much as most parents would think.  These sort of tests are more common in cases of marijuana use, or when a juvenile is on his or her second or third Minor in Possession of Alcohol charge.

Criminal defense attorneys and parents

It is important for parents to understand the job of a criminal defense attorney. Image of Teen Drinking  The lawyer’s job is to represent the child.  Even if the parents are the ones to pay for the lawyer, this does not change the relationship.  Usually, a criminal defense lawyer will ask the parents to sign a fee agreement explaining that they will not have any control over the representation of the child.  In my experience, parents are often of two minds when their son or daughter has been charged.  On one hand they hope that their child learns their lesson, but they don’t want their child to have a criminal record.  Sometimes a parent thinks it is in the child’s best interest to be held accountable.  However, it is the job of the defense attorney to give the defendant “zealous representation” including researching ways to have the case dismissed on a technicality.  As odd as it may sound, it is not the defense lawyer’s job to do “what is best” for the child.  Rather a defense lawyer is ethically bound to listen to the client and to respect the client’s decision as to whether the case should resolve by plea or be taken to trial.  In my practice as a criminal defense lawyer, I do usually explain the seriousness of the problem of underage drinking to my clients.  If the parents take the incident very seriously, it is certainly not very helpful for the defense lawyer to treat the matter lightheartedly.  Any criminal defense lawyer would admit that 80% of their caseload is related to alcohol and drug abuse.  None of us ever want our teen clients to turn into “repeat customers.”

When your child is called as a witness

A child cannot commit the crime of Minor in Possession of Alcohol without obtaining the alcohol from someone.  Sometimes a child will take the alcohol from a parent without the parent’s permission.  However, usually the child was given the beer or the wine by someone over 21.  If your child identified the individual to the police, it may be that he or she will be called to testify against that adult.  Occasionally, a child will receive immunity on their criminal charge if they testify against the adult.  However, this is not always the case.  I have had cases where parents have complained to authorities about the adult in question, only to have their son or daughter be subpoenaed.   If your son or daughter is subpoenaed to testify in a Furnishing Alcohol to Minor case, he or she should probably speak to an attorney as soon as possible.

Regional differences

MIP cases are often handled differently in different counties.  For example, in Spokane the court systems are more congested then in rural areas such as Stevens County, or Okanogan County.   In Spokane County District Court, the courts have a more active probation department where your son or daughter could be assigned an actual probation officer.  Additionally, it seems like the public defenders have a heavier caseload in more urban areas such as Spokane.

Minor in possession on college campuses

When kids leave for college, it seems as if part of the experience is to use or at least try alcohol.  College campuses and the different residence halls usually have different policies on the subject of involving the police.  The way such cases are handled at Washington State University may not be the way such cases are handled at Eastern Washington University or Gonzaga.  Usually, a first-offense for Minor in Possession will not lead a student to get kicked out of the dormitories.  When the minor is in college, lawyers have to try their best to work a resolution of the case that doesn’t involve a conviction.  No college student wants to hit the job market with a criminal record.

For more information, see our firm’s webpage on Minor in Possession.

Attorney Appointed Judge for Stevens County, Ferry, Pend Oreille

Judge Rebecca Baker retired recently from her position as Superior Court Judge for the Ferry, Stevens, Pend Oreille Judicial District. In her place, Chewelah lawyer Patrick Monasmith was appointed.

Image of Pat Monasmith

Pat Monasmith

The appointment was made by governor Christine Gregoire.  See story.  In Washington State, superior court judges handle such cases as personal injury lawsuits, probate matters, divorces and adoptions, real estate disputes, and all felony court cases. The change in judges probably will not result in any dramatic changes in how the court system is run or how the cases are handled in the tri-county area.  However, here are a couple of things to look out for.

Medical Marijuana

Every judge across the state has a different take on the issue of medical marijuana.  The law is vague and poorly written in some areas, and legislative attempts at clarification have sometimes raised more questions.  In my work as a criminal defense lawyer, I have noticed that Judge Baker views the medical marijuana laws from a more traditional view point, and this is true of our other local judge Allen Nielson.  But many other judges state-wide have taken a broader view of the law, interpreting the statutes more liberally.  So we will have to see how Judge Monasmith rules on issues like this.  The laws are vague on some of the following issues of law:  When can a single patient have more than 15 plants?  Can the police ever be ordered to return cannabis to a patient?  Is medical marijuana limited to patients with extraordinary health problems or can it be lawfully authorized in more routine cases of pain management? Do patients have to produce their physician in court at their own expense to use the medical marijuana defense?  Can patients use medical marijuana while on probation?  We will see how Judge Monasmith deals with these sort of legal issues when defense attorneys bring them to court.

Public Defense

Judge Baker was always a strong advocate for the public defense systems in Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties.  She helped the formation of guidelines that would make sure the public defenders were not overwhelmed by their case load, and that required the public defenders to account for their time in each case.  She also encouraged contracts with local lawyers to make sure that public defenders were available the next day after a person was arrested.  In other parts of the State it seems like some superior court judges have given in to the wishes of the county commissioners to hire the cheapest lawyers possible to do the work.  Consequently, some counties have been sued.  Judge Baker did some public defense work earlier on in her career, and this may have shaped her thinking on this subject. In these tough budgetary times, Judge Monasmith will certainly face pressures from county commissioners to cut public defense costs. The commissioners in Ferry, Stevens, and Pend Oreille counties have forced other county departments to make cuts, and this could be an issue with public defense lawyers too.

CASA and Child Protective Services

When Judge Baker came on the bench in 1996, she helped get the local CASA program started that appointed trained volunteers to serve as advocates for children in CPS cases instead of local lawyers.  I don’t do very many cases with CASA, but some lawyers are of the opinion that they are too chummy with Child Protective Services and always side with the department’s wishes.  Child Protective Services in Colville has been criticized by the State Ombudsman in the last few years in several news articles.  This subject will continue to arise in court, and Judge Monasmith will have to come to his own conclusions on the subject.



Defense Lawyers Seeing More DUI Charges Under .08 in Washington

Defense lawyers in eastern Washington are seeing more and more people charged with DUI with breath alcohol levels of under .08.   Under Washington law, a prosecutor can convict on a DUI if a person is over .08, or if the individual is “affected” by the alcohol.  This second option is referred to in court as the “affected by” prong, and defendants are usually pretty surprised to learn the law on this subject.

DUI lawyer

In rural areas such as Lincoln county, Stevens county, or Adams county, DUI arrests are in rural locations with few witnesses present.

For years this second prong was largely ignored by prosecutors, meaning if a prosecutor didn’t have a breath test or blood test result of over .08, no charges would be filed.

Legal Strategies on DUI Charges < .08

The strategy a defense lawyer uses on a DUI under .08 can be dramatically different than other DUI’s.

Traditionally, a defense lawyer will fight tooth and nail to try to exclude the breath or blood test, or to try to get the test results “thrown out of court.” However, if a defendant has an alcohol level of under .08, it will often be the defense lawyer who will fight to have the results admitted.  In the perception of some jurors, a test result under .08 means the defendant “passed” the test. When a prosecutor takes a DUI to trial and the BAC (blood alcohol content) is under .08, he or she usually will attempt to prove that the defendant is “affected” by the alcohol by showing that the defendant did not do very well on the roadside filed sobriety tests.  But as you can imagine, these sort of test are highly subjective.  In my practice as a defense lawyer, I often will request a copy of any video showing the defendant on the night in question.  Usually the defendant will be shown to be in far better shape than the police officer might suggest. Many jails will have video recordings of the defendant when he or she was booked or when he or she took the breathalyzer or breath test.  It is important to have an attorney request this video right away because usually the jails will record over it within a matter of days if it is not preserved.  Even if the arrest is made by the State Patrol, it is the local county or city that keeps the video. Some police stations (such as the Grand Coulee police department in Grant county) do not have video in the BAC room.  Other sources of video evidence is any video camera the officer might have in his or her car, and sometimes officers will wear a “body cam“.  In more metropolitan areas like Spokane, security camera video footage might exist from nearby businesses.  This is less common on the rural roads of Stevens or Lincoln county, but even towns like Colville or Davenport have businesses with security systems monitoring their parking lots.  If a defendant is truly intoxicated, such evidence can be very incriminating because it will show the person staggering or loosing his or her balance. However, in cases with low alcohol levels, such video footage is crucial to the defense.

Strategies Prosecuting Attorneys Use

When a defendant has a breath test under .08, the prosecuting attorney will sometimes argue that the defendant’s alcohol level was actually higher at the time of the traffic stop.  A human body will burn off .015 alcohol per hour on average.  So if a defendant is stopped at 9 p.m. and blows .070, the prosecutor will argue that he or she was actually .085 at the time of the stop at 10 p.m.  Sometimes in DUI trials, the prosecutor will call toxicology experts from the state lab to come testify on this subject.  In large rural counties such as Lincoln County, Adams County, of Grant County a defendant might have considerable travel time to get to a breath instrument.  However, it is possible that a person got behind the wheel and was stopped prior to full absorption of any alcohol consumed.  Usually all alcohol will be absorbed between 2 and 20 minutes after drinking.  More urban counties such as Spokane might have more than one breath test instrument, but in rural counties such as Lincoln County, Adams County, or Grant County, the police have fewer options.

Washington road

The transport time from arrest to a jail-house breath test can be substantial in rural areas such as Lincoln County, Okanogan County, and Grant County.

There are breath test instruments in the county seats of Davenport, Ephrata, and Ritzville, WA, and sometimes in the smaller cities.  Some counties, such as Okanogan County, have breath instruments at the Tribal jails on the local Indian reservation.  These instrument are located on sovereign land, but are still owned and maintained by the WSP and Toxicology lab.  In Grant County, Washington, there is also a mobile BAC unit.

PBT Tests in DUI Cases

When the police stop a person for DUI or DWI, they will usually ask a suspect to blow into a portable breath test or PBT.  These PBT’s are not very accurate, and the results are not admissible at the jury trial.  When the police stop someone they will usually either arrest someone or let them drive off.  This can be a hard decision for the police.  If they improperly allow someone impaired drive off, they could face a lawsuit.  However, if they arrest improperly, they could also face a suit.  As a criminal defense lawyer, I worry that fears of false-arrest lawsuits might motivate the police to exaggerate a suspect’s intoxication.  In decades prior, police may have simply given the defendant a ride home if they were not sure of their impairment, but those days have come and gone in eastern Washington.

In DUI cases involving alcohol levels under .08, prosecuting attorneys will usually be quick to make plea offers of reduced charges down to negligent driving first degree.  However, such a plea deal will count as a prior alcohol related offense in case someone ever gets into trouble again.  Convictions for Negligent Driving First Degree can also make entry into Canada difficult, and can affect a commercial driver’s license.  Under a new law that went into action September 1st, the Department of Licensing may require ignition interlock devices for Negligent Driving or Reckless Driving under certain circumstances.

For more information about DUI, see here.

Boat Accident Expert Determines True Cause of Collision

I had a case recently where I used an out-of-state boat accident reconstructionist.  I don’t blog about my own cases too often, but the case was unusual enough that it is probably worth reflecting on.  The boat accident expert we used was Phillip Odom of H2O Investigations, and he was helpful in resolving this case.

In the U.S., boat death fatalities only number about 700 per year, so there just aren’t many experts on boat accident reconstruction.  I spent a couple of days on my hunt for an expert, and did a lot of research.  I stumbled upon one lawyer’s website  which warned: “What you don’t know about motor vehicle or boat accident reconstruction can get you into a lot of trouble in court.”

Image of Boat Accident Expert

A photo of a boat accident experiment staged by Phil Odom for the State of California

We know because we have been instrumental in getting a lot of “experts” disqualified or voluntarily withdrawn.”  The article sites a federal case from the 5th Circuit that spells out the criteria the courts use in determining whether an individual is qualified to be a boat “accident reconstructionist”.  There is a lot more than simply taking a class in accident reconstruction.  Courts will look to the training and experience, any experiments a person has conducted, and whether he or she has taught any classes on accident reconstruction.  The boat accident expert we found, Phil Odom, used to teach boat accident reconstruction for the State of California, and you can see from his website that he has conducted dozens of scientific experiments to back up his training.  Phil Odom has conducted over 70 different experiments with boat collisions, and was the operator of the vessel during the tests.  Many of these tests were conducted between 2006 and 2008, and California does not conduct such tests today.

The State's accident investigator wrote: "Upon further and closer inspection of the vessel I found that there was no physical damage to the two Honda motors attached to the rear of the vessel, the lower units, the propellers, or skegs." As this photo depicts, there was damage to the engine, and the damage was indicative of a foreign object being stuck in the steering.

Like a lot of boat accident experts, he got his start in the early years of his career investigating motor vehicle fatalities, which are of course much more common.  He was thorough as a vehicle accident investigator and won awards from such groups as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers.  In the case where I used him, we flew him up to examine the boat in question a couple of months prior to trial.  He noticed some damage done to the engine that was indicative of a vessel that had something caught in the steering, thus corroborating the defendant.  The damage was not immediately apparent to everyone, and even the prosecutor’s accident investigator failed to notice this crucial damage.  As with motor vehicle accident reconstruction, boat experts must be knowledge about the applicable mathematical formulas required to reconstruct what occurred.  During our trial the prosecutor’s accident investigator was asked to come down to the easel to explain to the jury how to convert feet-per-second to miles-per-hour and yet was unable to do so.

Image of Boat Accident Expert

Accident Reconstructionist Phil Odom analyzing GPS data with an attorney via Skype

The accident investigator hired by the prosecutor did not notice the damage to the engine, and wrote in his report that the motors were undamaged.  When Phil Odom explained to the jury the damage to the motor, he explained that damage to metal must be inspected closely because you can often see in what direction the metal was forced or twisted.  In the case I did, I actually printed out enlarged photographs to each juror so that they could follow along.  Phil Odom also testified on the subject of occupant kinematics, which is the study of the positioning of the bodies in the vessel at the time of the collision.  Generally speaking, the injuries to the human occupants follow the direction of force.  In this case, the vessel struck a fixed barrier in the front right-hand corner.  The prosecutor’s investigator was not permitted to testify as to the subject of occupant kinematics due to his insufficient experience.

There were other issues in the case that assisted the defense, in that the defendant was not intoxicated, but Mr. Odom’s discovery of the steering jam was important to our defense.  You might expect that a witness such as Phil Odom would be outside a defendant’s price range, but in this case our expert was actually about the same price as the state’s investigator who had never testified as an expert before on boat accident reconstruction.  We had to fly in Phil Odom from Arizona to inspect the boat and again to testify, but it was worth it.  The lawyers that I talked to prior to hiring him described Phil Odom as one of the top three boat accident experts in the country.  After my trial, I spoke to the jurors and I know they were impressed by his work.

Post by Steve Graham

In Defense of Amanda Knox – What to Expect From Her Lawyers’ Closing Argument

What will Amanda Knox’s lawyers say on her behalf when they deliver their closing argument Wednesday?  I am predicting that they play it fairly conservatively, and that they don’t try to oversell the defense. They will tailor their arguments to the judge and jurors and not the world stage.  We will have to wait and see, but here are a couple of themes that I am predicting they focus on.

No Motive (Women don’t commit rape)

We are accustomed to the outlandish sort of crimes that occur on T.V. shows, but in reality but the fact remains that women don’t commit rape. There are many technical rules that apply in a court of law, but that doesn’t mean that you have to check your common sense at the door.  Women don’t rape.  Italian women don’t commit rape.  American women don’t commit rape.  Women aren’t committing the rapes that are happening in the Sudan right now.  It is not in their nature.  It is usually committed by men – acting alone.

What a “Not Guilty” Verdict Means

All a “not guilty” verdict means is that the government, for whatever reason, hasn’t proved their case.   It doesn’t mean the police did a bad job.  It doesn’t mean that Amanda is “innocent”, and it doesn’t mean she is a perfect person.  A “not guilty” verdict doesn’t amount to putting a halo over Amanda’s head.  It just means that there is a doubt.  And if there is ever a doubt in any case, it is this one.  We don’t send people to prison for life unless we are absolutely sure.

I am not expecting that the defense team will attack the police and prosecutors too aggressively.  It is a trial lawyer’s job to attack the thoroughness, the fairness, and sometimes the professionalism of the police during a trial if need be.  But during the closing argument it is best to tone it down and be a little more magnanimous.   It is sometimes best to credit the police for the things that they did do correctly.  Jurors generally feel loyal to to the police on many levels, and are dependent on them for public safety.  They are slow to buy off on a world view where the police are dysfunctional to the level outsiders have seen.  I am sure that many of Knox’s supporters would love to see a blistering attack on the police, and to see them called out on their misdeeds.  However, if Knox’s lawyers push that too hard, then it becomes an issue of national pride, and the next thing you know we are at the supreme court in Rome.

It is sometime acceptable to try a riskier strategy to try to shake things up, but this is when you feel you are not succeeding and you have nothing to lose.    I guess you saw that with Giuliano Mignini last week.  But to be honest, that man is so erratic, it is hard to say what he is thinking.  The closing argument of Patrick Lumumba’s lawyer Carlo Pacelli was just plain odd.  Not to be upstaged by Mignini, Pacelli called Amanda Knox a “witch of deception”.  I am not sure if he is just trying to get some publicity, or if he thinks that is good lawyering.  Doesn’t he know that we sometime refer to this case as a “witch trial” already?  Isn’t he just proving our point?

What do you think?  What arguments do you think Amanda’s defense team should advance?

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Photo of Steve Graham Steve Graham is a criminal defense lawyer, and he splits his time between Spokane and Seattle, Washington. Visit his website by clicking: www.grahamdefense.com
Law Office of Steve Graham
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