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Charging Documents and Statutory Ambiguity

Posted by Steve Karimi | Feb 19, 2015 | 0 Comments

One of the keystones of our judicial system is our long-standing tradition that a criminal defendant receives complete notice of the accusations against them. In Washington, those charged with crimes receive what is known as charging information, or a charging document, so that they know what charges they face and what elements they require so that they can defend themselves. If this charging information does not list the essential elements of the crime, it is constitutionally defective under the U.S. Constitution.

Division Two of the Court of Appeals of Washington recently released an opinion that offers insight into what charging information needs to include.

The facts of the case are straightforward. After a dispute with his parents, the defendant left his house. After he left, his mother called 911 to report the dispute. She gave a description of his car. An officer soon saw the defendant's car driving erratically. As the officer initiated a traffic stop, the defendant sped away. He led officers, sirens ablaze, on a chase at speeds between 30 and 80 miles per hour. The chase ended when the defendant crashed into a tree and he attempted to flee. He was subdued with a Taser.

The defendant was charged with DUI as well as attempting to elude a police vehicle. After his conviction, he appealed his conviction for attempting to elude, arguing that the charging document did not include all essential elements of the crime. Notably, the “charging document omitted any mention that police signaled by hand, voice, emergency light, or siren that he should stop.”

Before speaking too much about the court's legal analysis, you should note that the defendant did not challenge the information at trial. This means that the appellate court will view the information in a light that favors its validity.

The defendant was charged under RCW 46.61.024(1). The appellate court stated that the essential elements of the crime were stated in each sentence of the statute. The driver must willfully refuse to stop after being given a visual or audible signal to do so by a uniformed police officer in a vehicle equipped with lights and sirens.

The statute then mentions how the signal may be given, rather than mandating ways that the signal must be given. The appellate court admitted that there were two ways to read this. It could be an exclusive list of all of the ways that the signal may be given or it could be a non-exclusive list that allows for other methods of signal. The former would mean this was an essential element; the latter would mean that it was not.

The court concluded that there were other methods that police officers may use, such as whistle, flares, or written signs, that are also used to signal a traffic stop. Because of this, they determined that the listed methods were simply examples, and thus non-essential elements. The conviction was upheld.

This case once again demonstrates that discerning the law can be somewhat tedious. Statutes are written by people and, like people, they are often imperfect.  This case also reinforces the need to have an experienced attorney at your side. If the defendant's attorney had objected to the charging document at trial, perhaps things would have turned out differently. Steve Karimi has decades of experience both prosecuting and defending those charged with crimes in and around Seattle. If you are charged with a crime, contact him today for a free consultation.

About the Author

Steve Karimi

Steve Karimi attended Pepperdine University School of Law. After graduation he worked as a prosecutor in Seattle where he gained valuable insight to the criminal justice system. Attorney Karimi uses his experiences as a prosecutor everyday only now he fights for the justice of those accused.

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