Posts Tagged ‘lawyer’

Washington Residents Struggle to Expunge Criminal History Data

Under certain circumstances a person convicted of a crime can take steps to get the conviction off his or her record.   When this is achieved, the court orders police agencies and court clerks to change their records.   A problem arises in that private data collection companies are gathering conviction data through public records requests and maintaining and selling such records long after the conviction is vacated.  This is not fair to the individual who attempted to vacate, or expunge, or seal the record.

Private data collections, many of which advertise online, continue to sell criminal conviction data on records that courts of vacated or expunged.

Private data collections, many of which advertise online, continue to sell criminal conviction data on records that courts have vacated or expunged.

Most court records on criminal cases are public.  Even juvenile court case files are typically open to public inspection.  The items in a criminal file that are not open to the public are such things as psychological evaluation, applications for appointed counsel, etc.  Typically, if a person has stayed out of trouble for a certain number of years, then they can apply to have their conviction vacated.  This is true of most misdemeanors (except DUI) and most low-level felonies.  A site that provides some guidance on how to seal and vacate convictions is www.courts.wa.gov.  The site also explains the process of a juvenile court expungement.  As you can see from the standard misdemeanor form provided, the court will order that: “For all purposes, the defendant may state that he or she has never been convicted of the offense listed….” Reading this, a person feels free to deny the existence of ever having such a conviction when they apply for a job.  Employers will often try to get applicants to list convictions that have been vacated or expunged.  Often an application will read as follows: “Have you ever been charged, convicted or admitted committing, or are you awaiting trial for any crime? You must answer “yes”, even if the matter was later dismissed, deferred vacated or expunged.”  A potential employer will often use public records searches to check for criminal convictions.  Searching an individual’s criminal history is not always very difficult.  Earlier this year, I wrote an article for Helium.com about criminal history searches.  A person need not be an attorney or lawyer to conduct such searches.  Searches through these traditional means will not typically turn up convictions that have been vacated or expunged.  The problem arises when criminal history searches are conducted through private data collection services.  The other thing that I  have found is that many times the criminal records that these private companies provide are inaccurate.  I worked as a defense lawyer on a court case in Stevens County last year and used an online service to run criminal history checks.  It turned out that when we checked the same individuals through the FBI, that the online service only had about half of the conviction data correct.

In my opinion, new legislation is needed to require that private data collection companies provide accurate records.  If an individual succeeds in vacating, sealing, or expunging his record, the online services should have an obligation to update their records as well.

Since I mentioned Helium.com, let me tell you a little more about that.  Helium is an online writers cooperative that also provides services for writers who also blog.  Visit that site or email Barbara Whitlock at  bwhitlock@helium.com for more information.  Helium is always looking for attorneys and other professionals with expertise to share to join their writer’s community.

Feasibility Study of New Colville Airport Causes Concerns for Aquifer and Pollution.

The Colville City Council recently voted unanimously to go forward with a feasibility study for a new airport that would be constructed in the area of Aladdin Road in Colville. Many members of the public in Stevens County are up in arms over this due to environmental concerns. Judging by the letters to the editor and discussions with a few of the locals, the city may have a fight on their hands.

The Statesmen-Examiner reported that people living near the planned airport expressed concerns at the public meeting about the noise of a new airport. In addition the public expressed concerns about air pollution and the threat to the city aquifer. Although I have dealt with issues of ground water contamination before, I have never dealt with the subject of contamination from an airport. A lot of the letters to the editor in the Statesmen-Examiner raised some pretty serious environmental fears. One letter wrote:

The airport would be built directly over the Colville aquifer, the source of Colville’s water. Concerns were expressed that the building on this land will compromise the integrity of the aquifer. Former pilots gave personal accounts of fuel leakage and ground contamination at other airports, stating, “over time, jet fuels will even seep through concrete.”

This seemed a little far fetched to me. It seemed to me that the leakage of jet fuels would be pretty minimal, and it seemed that such fuel would be quite light, and would not permeate concrete. So I called an independent source that I know on the East Coast who works as an expert witness on the subject of ground water contamination. He is pretty sensible in his assessments of environmental threats. He told me that airports are in fact significant sources of groundwater contamination from jet fuels and solvents, and that all airports have some level of contamination associated with them. He explained that contamination comes from broken fuel lines, fueling accidents, painting stations, repair shops etc. He explained that concrete is in fact permeable. He said that the permeability of concrete is low, but even if just a small bit of contaminant permeates into the water it will violate standards.

I learned not to take drinking water for granted earlier this year. In my town, residents were forced to boil our water for three weeks when it was determined that E. coli had been found in the water. This was a little bit of an eye opener for me. But boiling water contaminated with fuels or solvents won’t help. When our water was contaminated, I wondered what small cities can do to fix the problem when they are financially unable solve the problem.

So, as to the proposed new airport in Colville, when is the proper time to consider the impact on the aquifer? Right now the city is just doing a feasibility study. Yet Stevens County residents complained about the cost of that study. Should a threshold determination be made to determine whether the airport location would be even environmentally possible? Or would the subject wait years later until an environmental impact statement is done? One question that I have is whether or not the area is an aquifer recharge area. If so, it is customary for a lot of airport functions and activities to be banned out right.

The other subject that came up in the letters to the editor was the subject of air pollution. It would be interesting to hear what an expert would say about this. Some comments by members of the public were about the severe winds in the area of the airport. Other members of the public mentioned that the area was prone to stagnant air that would allow air pollution to accumulate. Maybe the weather varies.

In the last two weeks, all the letters to the editor in the Statesman Examiner have been opposed to the new airport and the feasibility study. The Statesman Examiner typically has a policy of limiting letters to the editor to 300 words, but allowed one letter that was close to 2000 words and took about nearly ½ a page. It will be interesting to see if supporters of the airport or of the feasibility study will submit any letters to the editor this week.

Aside from any environmental concerns, some members of the public did not want the airport because it would involve the condemning of private lands. Although people tend to forget this sometimes, cities have similar powers to condemn private land for a public purpose and pay the land owner just compensation, just the state and federal governments can do. It is one thing when you are a farmer and you lose part of your land because of Interstate 90. It is another thing when your land is taken by a local city council on a project that you and the community do not think is worthwhile in the first place. In the past, city governments could vote to authorize land to be taken without any special notice to the landowner in advance. But under a new law enacted in 2007 (RCW 8.25.290) a city must send a certified letter to each landowner who might face the condemnation of his land. The notice must contain a description of the property to be taken, and must notify the land owner of the date and time of the public hearing at which time the condemner (the city) will decide whether or not to authorize the condemnation of the private land. In cases that I have defended in the past, it seems as if sometimes governments go out of their way to find an appraiser that is particularly conservative. As an attorney, I have found that hard feelings are common in these small-town condemnations because oftentimes the city council members are the friends and neighbors of the landowners. If a condemnation is fought in court, a judge decides whether the condemnation is for a public purpose, and a jury decides the amount the landowner should receive.  The lawyer for the landowner commonly seeks his or her own expert to testify as to the value.

It will be interesting to see what the feasibility study comes up with. If the study encourages the City of Colville to go forward with the airport as planned, it will more be interesting to see what comes of this issue.

Spending the day with Justice Korsmo and 40 teens

Let’s face it, I live in a pretty small town.   To have Justice Korsmo drive up three hours from the court of appeals to judge our Mock Trial Competition is a pretty big deal.    I wondered how it would be to have an appellate judge sitting in a trial court, but Kevin Korsmo is a natural.   He is also pretty good working with kids, and the teachers agreed.

Justice Korsmo accepts his certificate of appreciation

Justice Korsmo accepts his certificate of appreciation

Justice Korsmo presided over the battle between the senior classes of Republic High School and Curlew High School.   Each side had the chance to present the prosecution case, and the defense case in a hypothetical case of People v. Terry Bell.   Terry Bell was charged with arson and incitement, but was acquitted each time by a jury of grade schoolers.  I coached the Republic High School team, and our elected prosecutor Mike Sandona coached the Curlew High School team.

Mike Sandona works the crowd.  These highschool seniors wll be the voters ini his 2010 re-election bid.

Mike Sandona works the crowd. These high school seniors will be eligible voters when he faces re-election next year.

Coaching a mock trial team is just about the only volunteer activity I do, and I have done it since 1997.    In a good year you can get the kids as competitively charged as they would be in a basketball game against their rival.   This year, both schools had their fair share of over-achievers, and I am always impressed at the number of local graduates who go off to top schools, many with scholarships.   But in addition sometimes the competition makes stars of kids who are not academically inclined.   In the end, what often prevails is a combative spirit.   I usually end up getting to know some of these mock trial champs pretty well.   Every so often there will be a kid who already wants to be a lawyer.   Occasionally there will be a kid of such precocity, that I will already imagine them kicking my butt in court in seven short years.

(Note: I will be posting some pictures of a couple of the student lawyers as soon as I can get their permission.)

Possible Challenge to Jury Venire for Native-American Defendants in Washington Counties Overlapping Reservations

I have run into an interesting issue that I raised in court, only to have the matter settle. If anyone encounters this problem and seeks assistance, I would not mind the pro bono work.  Due to their locations, an Okanogan or Ferry County attorney could challenge the current method of selecting juries.

Under Washington Law, jurors must be selected evenly from the populations as a whole. A problem arises when State Courts conduct jury trials of Indian Defendants. The current method of drawing jurors does not reach Indian residents living on trust or allotted land. Such summonses are a form of state court civil process. Under the case of North Sea Products v. Clipper Seafood, such state civil matters are unenforceable on Indian Reservations. 92 Wn. 2d 236, 595 P.2d 939 (1979) (invalidating a state-court garnishment). Additionally, the punishments under RCW 2.36.170 for failing to report for jury duty do not apply to Indians on trust or allotted lands. RCW 37.12.010 provides that the “…state of Washington hereby obligates and binds itself to assume criminal . . . jurisdiction over Indians and Indian territory,… but such assumption of jurisdiction shall not apply to Indians when on their trust lands or allotted lands within an established Indian reservation…” Indians are 16.5% of the Okanogan county population according to the U.S. census. In Ferry County, the figure is 20%. The exclusion of this body invalidates the process.  Who comes to serve, and who does not come to serve, must be random. One case on point is Brady v. Fibreboard Corp., 71 Wn. App. 280, 857 P.2d 1094 (1993), review denied, 123 Wn.2d 1018, 871 P.2d 599 (1994). In Brady, the court of appeals reversed a jury verdict because of procedural irregularities. When several jurors on the list did not appear, plaintiff’s counsel asked why, and “the judge responded that they had never been called in.” Id. at 282. Other judges had excused the jurors, and the court of appeals reversed the verdict and explained: “The procedures used here abridge the statutory mandate of random selection. It is undisputed that the initial panel of 90 was randomly selected. However, the randomness of the panel was destroyed when 14 of the 90 were eliminated by the process employed here.” Id. at 283. Like the 14 missing jurors in Brady, many native jurors will have “never been called in.” Aside from the constitutional precepts violated, this is a violation of statute mandate reversal. “When statutory jury selection procedures are materially violated, the claimant need not show actual prejudice; rather, prejudice is presumed.” Id. at 283. One case I looked at is Taylor v. Louisiana, 419 U.S. 522 (1975). In that case, Louisiana’s method of drawing jurors to court was found to be unconstitutional. Louisiana summoned men to appear, but made women’s attendance optional or voluntary. The court in Taylor v. Louisiana visited earlier cases and explained:
A unanimous Court stated in Smith v. Texas, 311 U.S. 128, 130 (1940), that “[i]t is part of the established tradition in the use of juries as instruments of public justice that the jury be a body truly representative of the community.” To exclude racial groups from jury service was said to be “at war with our basic concepts of a democratic society and a representative government.”

***
We accept the fair-cross-section requirement as fundamental to the jury trial guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment and are convinced that the requirement has solid foundation. The purpose of a jury is to guard against the exercise of arbitrary power – to make available the commonsense judgment of the community as a hedge against the overzealous or mistaken prosecutor and in preference to the professional or perhaps over-conditioned or biased response of a judge. Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S., at 155 -156. This prophylactic vehicle is not provided if the jury pool is made up of only special segments of the populace or if large, distinctive groups are excluded from the pool.

The court struck down a murder conviction due to the failure to compulsorily include women in jury pools. The best solution would be to ask our Federal Courts or the Colville Tribal Court to issue jury summonses to the Tribal member for the State. This procedure would render the summonses valid. Unlike a mailed state-court jury summons, a summons of a Federal Court of Tribal Court will compel attendance. It is, of course, a crime to ignore a court order or summons under Federal and Tribal law. The Federal Court clearly can enforce, or re-issue State Court process on reservations. As to the Colville Tribal Courts, their cooperation with State Court process is largely discretionary under Section 1-1-102 of their code. The Ferry County Superior Court Judge could order the Ferry County Clerk to send all on-reservation summonses to the Colville Tribal Court for compulsory lawful services under tribal law.

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Photo of Steve Graham Steve Graham is a criminal defense lawyer who works in eastern Washington, including Spokane, Grant, Ferry, Stevens, Lincoln, and Okanogan, and Whitman counties. Visit his website by clicking: www.grahamdefense.com
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