Judges: Missed court date does not imply guilty spirit
EVERETT – A state Supreme Court ruling this month cited a judge, citing the Bible.
“The wicked flee when no one pursues them, but the innocent are as bold as a lion.”
Unanimously decision, the state’s highest court dismissed idea that a Lynnwood man skipping his court date – fleeing, “when no man sues” – could be presented as conclusive evidence he felt guilty of the initial crime.
State Supreme Court justices have agreed that criminalizing a single missed court date can disproportionately harm people of color, as well as the poor, those without reliable transportation, and those with disabilities. scheduling conflicts due to childcare or work, citing a 2020 law review article by Alek Johnson, an attorney with the Snohomish County Public Defender Association.
The new decision came less than a year after the state legislature revised Washington’s bail jump law, giving people more leeway to respond to a warrant if they miss court once.
Samuel Slater, 27, had an unwarranted absence in his case. It predates the new law.
According to family letters on file, Slater suffered severe abuse as a child until he was adopted at the age of 5. He was diagnosed with attachment disorder in elementary school, his family wrote.
As an adult, records show Slater was convicted of violating no-contact orders five times in five years, among a dozen other offenses for driving offenses and domestic violence. Slater pleaded guilty in 2016 to minor assault on a Snohomish County woman. A judge ordered him not to have contact with her. According to the prosecution documents, he showed up at her home within a day of being released from prison, as she was packing her bags to move somewhere he could not find her. He called her and she closed the window, turned off the lights and dialed 911, police said.
Slater was indicted in 2017 for alleged violation of a no-contact order. He missed a hearing date in September 2017, but showed up for a hearing a month later to have it canceled. Prosecutors added felony bail to his charges.
In at least three separate motions, Slater’s defense attorney Frederic Moll has called for separate trials on the two counts. Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Anita Farris concluded at a preliminary hearing that the charges could be tried together for “reasons of judicial economy.”
“More importantly,” reads a handwritten note in a margin of another legal document signed by Farris, “even if the two counts were tried separately, the other count or the other alleged crime would enter into evidence in each separate case. ”
Justice Ellen Fair presided over the trial, and Fair agreed with Farris. The question was not just about prejudice, but about “unfair prejudice,” Fair noted. And the charges appeared to be admissible, meaning that one count could be used in part to prove the other.
Justice Farris is a former public defender. Justice Fair is a former prosecutor.
A panel of three other judges at the State Court of Appeal came to the same conclusion: The trial judge had made an adequate analysis showing (1) the reason why the bail could be admitted; (2) that the evidence was relevant; and (3) that the value of this evidence outweighed any unjust prejudice.
The Supreme Court ruled that the Superior Court justices considered the evidence by virtue of this flawed conclusion.
The Slater case went to 12 jurors in November 2018. In closing arguments, Deputy Prosecutor Adam Sturdivant repeatedly pointed out how the accused had missed court, and he explained to the jury what that meant.
“If he didn’t,” Sturdivant asked, “why didn’t he show up for the test call a year ago? ”
“If he didn’t,” the prosecutor continued, “why didn’t he show up? He just didn’t show up on the day that mattered, because he’s guilty.
“Dude, if (the) case was that weak I think I would show up for the test call.” I think I would be there if there were all these contradictions. I think I would eliminate this thing and move on with my life. I would introduce myself. He did not do it. He didn’t show up because he didn’t want to face the facts.
It took the jury two hours to convict Slater on both counts. The judge ordered him to serve two years and one month in prison, plus a year of probation. This was an exceptional sentence well below the five years in prison required by the prosecutor, who requested a prison sentence in line with state standards.
The Supreme Court ruled that the decision of the Snohomish County judges allowed Sturdivant to make “improper” comments to the jury about Slater’s propensity to violate court orders.
“Mr. Slater’s trial was ultimately not about the underlying charge, but about the missed hearing,” lawyer James Herr argued in February in the state Supreme Court on behalf of Slater.
The state Supreme Court has recognized that there are other valid reasons a person can miss court, besides being guilty.
In fact, while Slater awaited trial, he showed up at the Snohomish County Courthouse in Everett on May 31, 2018. He asked a probation officer to help him find his hearing. The officer told him he had to go to a courthouse in Monroe. He was wrong. The hearing was in Everett after all. The probation officer wrote a letter to the court explaining that it was his mistake, not Slater’s. In the meantime, a judge has issued another warrant. It was overturned within days, and a second bail charge was never filed.
“The Supreme Court of the United States … has warned for over a century that the flight is not limited to the culprits, it also includes certain innocent people,” wrote State Supreme Court Justice G. Helen Whitener in the notice. “… Therefore, while evidence of flight may be considered by the jury, the court should not tell the jury that evidence of flight is conclusive evidence of guilt. “
Slater had never been convicted of jumping on bail before. The judges wrote that they were faced with “what may be the most tenuous and speculative form of alleged theft evidence: the only one (missed court date) accompanied by a motion to quash a little over ‘a month later”.
“If this is an ongoing thing and there was no real reason for a person not to show up, it is a thing,” Slater’s attorney general said, Moll, in an interview last week. “When there is a mistake in the schedule, or a car breaks down, that’s another thing.”
Slater hasn’t quite avoided trouble while awaiting trial. Another woman accused him of harassment. No felony charges were filed, but she applied for an anti-harassment order in 2017. She wrote that she dated Slater for a few weeks and he didn’t seem to understand that she broke up with him. .
“After that, I had to break up with him three more times because he didn’t understand,” she wrote. “He kept calling and texting. ”
Around the same time, Slater was working in a pizza place when he was fortunate enough to meet a religious brother from a Lynnwood church. Slater’s foster father, who was not religious, wrote in a letter to a judge that it was “the closest thing to fate and / or divine intervention that I have seen in my lifetime.” .
Slater started going to church four times a week, in a suit and tie, according to the letter. He got his GED, became a carpenter, and moved into his own home, “with the faith and guidance of his church,” his father wrote in 2018.
“The Sam of today is not the Sam I knew a few years ago,” his father wrote. “… I am now proud to be able to call my Sam my son.
The Washington ACLU, the Washington Defender Association, Columbia Legal Services, and the King County Department of Public Defense signed a legal brief in support of the defendant’s case.
In reviewing the Snohomish County Public Defender’s Law item, cited three times in Slater’s opinion, Johnson argued that it is ineffective to keep a bail law as a separate felony. Studies have shown that failure to appear convictions increased over time, while rates of people not actually appearing in court have “remained constant,” she wrote.
Judges have other ways to compel a person to avoid skipping court: a warrant, a higher bond, or stricter release conditions. And missed court dates are factored into future bail hearings.
Johnson has argued for the complete abolition of the state bail law, in part because fear of being convicted of a new crime “puts unfair pressure” on a defendant to do so. pleads guilty to the original charge.
“It’s a tool used to get convictions rather than justice,” Johnson wrote.
Usually, a guilty plea makes the appeal much more difficult for a defendant. Slater was able to do it because he took his case to court.
The defendant appealed for state costs because a judge ruled he could not afford to hire his own lawyers. He posted a $ 25,000 appeal bond which allowed him to stay out of jail as the case progressed through the court system.
The state Supreme Court overturned Slater’s convictions and ruled the case should be remitted to Snohomish County, where prosecutors can decide to retry the case. If so, it would require two separate trials.