Washington Appeals Court Reversed Vague Community Custody Condition

A court sentencing a Washington criminal defendant to community custody generally has broad discretion in imposing conditions.  Appeal courts only overturn a community custody condition if it is “manifestly unreasonable.”  An unconstitutional condition is manifestly unreasonable.  A community custody condition must be sufficiently specific to give the defendant “fair warning” of the conduct that is prohibited in order to satisfy due process requirements.  A condition must identify the conduct that is prohibited in a way an ordinary person could understand and set clear standards so enforcement is not arbitrary.  See State v. Irwin.

A defendant recently appealed a community custody condition that prohibited “hostile contact” with law enforcement and first responders.  According to the published opinion of the appeals court, the defendant went to a hotel for a party and got into an altercation.  When a security guard attempted to intervene, the defendant lunged at him with a knife.  The guard was able to successfully disarm the defendant and confiscate his knife.

The responding officer arrived to the defendant sitting in the hotel lobby, appearing angry and intoxicated.  Although the officer and security guard intended to let him go, the defendant moved toward the security guard aggressively.  He tried to elbow a couple of the officers.   One of the officers finally subdued him by using his taser.

The state charged the defendant with second degree assault with a deadly weapon enhancement and resisting arrest.  He ultimately pleaded guilty to second degree burglary.

The court sentenced the defendant to confinement for one day with community custody for twelve months.  The community custody conditions imposed on him included “No hostile contact w[ith] law enforcement/first responders.”

The defendant appealed.  His community custody ended before his appeal was heard, but the court decided to address his appeal as a matter of continuing and substantial public interest at the request of both parties.

The defendant argued that the community custody condition was unconstitutionally vague.  He argued there was not a clear definition of “hostile” and that it could include a broad range of ordinary conduct allowing law enforcement to subjectively determine what actions constituted hostile contact.

The state argued it was not vague within the context of the defendant’s behavior.  The state argued the condition prohibited the defendant from “similar hostile interactions,” including shouting and physical aggression.  The state argued the condition was further limited by the circumstances of his arrest and the related documents.

The appeals court noted that case law has held that there will always be some ambiguity in community custody conditions.  The court may consider the underlying circumstances of the crime and related court documents as well as the dictionary definition of the term in question.

The appeals court pointed out that “hostile” has multiple definitions, suggesting it is imprecise.  The appeals court concluded that the broad range of conduct included within the term “hostile” was not sufficiently specific.   The condition failed to give the defendant “fair warning” of what conduct the condition prohibited.  The condition therefore failed the first prong of the analysis.

The appeals court then considered the second prong of the vagueness analysis, specifically whether enforcement relied on a subjective standard.  The appeals court concluded that the condition was “overly susceptible to arbitrary enforcement” even if the defendant could determine what constituted “hostile contact.”  The appeals court pointed out that interactions with police officer may often be adverse.  The appeals court suggested it would be difficult for either party to determine if an interaction had reached a level of hostility prohibited by the community custody condition.  Additionally, there are already criminal laws prohibiting assault against law enforcement and first responders.

The appeals court concluded the community custody condition prohibiting the defendant from hostile contact with law enforcement and first responders was unconstitutionally vague and reversed.

Although the sentencing court has broad discretion in imposing community custody conditions, they must still comply with constitutional requirements.  If you are facing criminal charges, an experienced Washington criminal defense attorney can help you protect your rights. Call Blair & Kim, PLLC, at (206) 622-6562 to set up a consultation.


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