May 20, 2014

Washington Supreme Court Rules on Domestic Violence Case

by The Law Office of Timothy L. Healy

A prosecutor's failure in a domestic violence case to fully define the word "restrain" in charging documents, or adequately explain "recklessly" in jury instructions, resulted in an appeal that made it all the way to the Washington Supreme Court. The court overturned conviction on one of the defendant's five felony charges.
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The decision in Washington v. Johnson is especially relevant in light of a new report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, indicating that 21 percent of all violent crime victims between 2003 and 2012 were harmed as a result of domestic violence. The majority - 15 percent - involved intimate partner violence.

Tacoma domestic violence defense lawyers know these cases can be complex because they tend to rely a great deal on pitting one person's word against that of another. Often, the two are involved in a contentious split or sometimes a bitter child custody battle. The incentive for false accusations and exaggeration is great. Defendants find themselves battling a serious stigma long before the case ever goes to trial. Proving a client not guilty requires a legal team with extensive experience.

The Johnson case is proof that domestic violence claims can result in serious penalties, and should be carefully considered.

According to court records, the defendant in this case held his wife against her will inside the apartment. He refused to allow her to wear clothes while inside, used his Rottweiler to control her movements and kept a knife and ice pick near the bed to intimidate her. She said during this time, she did not feel free to leave and he threatened to harm her children. During this time, he reportedly choked her on several occasions, hit her with rocks and directed his dog to bite her. He also threw her to the ground at one point, causing her to suffer a severe blow to the head and neck. He allegedly threatened to suffocate her with duct tape. After that, she was reportedly able to escape and seek help from a neighbor.

The defendant was charged with five felony crimes, including unlawful imprisonment under RCW 9A.40.040 and second-degree assault for intentional assault on another thereby recklessly inflicting substantial bodily harm.

He was convicted on all counts.

Upon appeal, the appellate court held that the unlawful imprisonment charge should be vacated because the information in the charging document left out the definition of the term "restrain." Further, the jury instruction that defined "reckless" as it pertained to the assault charge improperly lowered the state's burden of proof.

The Washington Supreme Court granted review at the state's request.

On the "restraint" issue, the court reversed, finding that charging documents must only contain essential elements of a crime, and not necessarily all related definitions. On the issue of the jury instructions with regard to the term "reckless," the court found that while it wasn't erroneous to instruct the jury on a generic definition of the term, the jury should have been given a "to convict" instruction that would have outlined every element of the crime necessary for the state to prove its case. Here, that did not happen, and so the court upheld the vacated conviction on that count.

That could reduce his sentence by as much as 10 years, as second-degree assault per RCW 9A.36.021 is a Class B felony.

If you have been arrested for domestic violence in Tacoma, contact Timothy L. Healy at 888-312-3093 - a 24-hour hotline.

Additional Resources:
Washington v. Johnson, May 1, 2014, Washington Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:
False Rape Allegations in Tacoma Result in Felony Charges, April 24, 2014, Tacoma Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog