State Must Prove Intent Element in Washington Domestic Violence Case

In any criminal case, the prosecution must prove all elements of the crime, including the mens rea, or intent.  Depending on the facts of the case and the crime charged, the intent element can sometimes be difficult for the prosecution to prove.  This can be especially true in Washington domestic violence cases, where witnesses may be reluctant to testify.

A defendant recently challenged his convictions of assault in the second degree and misdemeanor violation of a no-contact order.  He appealed, arguing there was insufficient evidence to support the convictions.  He argued alternatively that there was insufficient evidence he met the “reckless” element of the assault charge.  He further argued the information failed to include an essential element of the misdemeanor violation charge.

In April of 2016, a judge granted a domestic violence no-contact order to the woman the defendant had lived with.

In June, an officer responded to a 911 call.  According to the officer, the woman’s fingers were discolored and bruised. He took photos of her hands and verified there was a valid no-contact order.

The woman went to the emergency room for issues related to her alcohol use on June 26.  An x-ray of her hand showed a nondisplaced facture of her right pinky finger.  A detective interviewed her and took photos of her hand. A social worker met with her before she was discharged to discuss domestic violence concerns.

She returned to the emergency room on July 14 and was admitted for alcohol withdrawal.  Another social worker met with her to discuss her history of domestic violence and ensure she had somewhere safe to go.  She expressed concerns about her safety and told the social worker her ex-boyfriend was violating a protection order.

The trial court allowed the statements the woman made to her health care providers for diagnosis or treatment to be admitted into evidence.  Other statements in the records and the no-contact order, however, were redacted.

Neither the woman nor the defendant testified.  The police officer, the detective, and some of the medical providers testified.

The court dismissed the interfering with domestic violence reporting charge, finding insufficient evidence for a reasonable juror to conclude that there was interference with reporting. There was no evidence the woman was trying to call for help at the time.

The jury found the defendant guilty of assault in the second degree and misdemeanor violation of a no-contact order.

The defendant appealed, arguing there was insufficient evidence supporting the convictions.  He also argued, alternatively, that the prosecutor had not proved the “reckless” element of misdemeanor violation of a no-contact order.

The no-contact order identified both the woman and the defendant.  The defendant had signed it and acknowledged receipt.  The police confirmed it was in effect on the date of the incident.  There was testimony that the information on the order matched the information on the defendant’s driver’s license.

There was evidence the officer interviewed the woman on June 11 following a 911 call regarding domestic violence.  He photographed her injuries and verified the no-contact order was in effect.

A doctor testified that the woman arrived at the hospital on June 26 wearing a nonmedical splint.  He testified she said her boyfriend previously abused her and broke her finger.  He also stated she had “been drinking to deal with the stress of a long-term abusive relationship.” He testified the condition of her finger was consistent with the 15 days that had allegedly passed since the injury.

A social worker testified that the woman told her in July that her ex-boyfriend was violating a protection order.

The appeals court found sufficient evidence to support the finding that the defendant was the boyfriend who committed the charged crimes.

The defendant argued in the alternative that the prosecution did not prove the mens rea element of the assault charge. Assault in the second degree requires the defendant to intentionally assault someone and “recklessly inflict[] substantial bodily harm.” RCW 0A.36.021.  A person acts recklessly if he or she  knows of a substantial risk of wrongful conduct and disregards it in a way that is a gross deviation from what a reasonable person would do in those circumstances. RCW 9A.08.010. A finding of recklessness depends on the subjective standard of the defendant’s knowledge and the objective standard of how a reasonable person would act with that knowledge.

The appeals court found the prosecution showed the defendant caused the injury, but there was nothing in the record showing the defendant’s knowledge or that he disregarded a substantial risk.  The prosecution argued the severity of the injury showed the defendant acted recklessly, but severity of the injury alone did not support the finding of recklessness.  The appeals court found that a reasonable trier of fact could not find the defendant disregarded a substantial risk of a wrongful act and recklessly inflicted substantial bodily harm.  Because there was insufficient evidence to support the assault in the second degree conviction, the appeals court reversed and remanded to the trial court to dismiss the charge.  The appeals court noted that reversal for insufficient evidence is equivalent to an acquittal, so the defendant may not be retried for this offense.

However, the appeals court rejected the defendant’s challenge to the misdemeanor violation of a no-contact order charge.  He argued the information did not contain the essential elements of the charge, but the appeals court found that it “unequivocally” did.  The appeals court affirmed the conviction for that charge.

If you are facing a situation involving a no-contact order, an experienced Washington civil protection order attorney can help.  Call Blair & Kim, PLLC, at (206) 622-6562 to discuss your case.