Washington Conviction Overturned Due to Insufficiency of Charging Document

To convict a defendant of possession of a stolen motor vehicle, the prosecution must show the defendant knowingly possessed the vehicle and that he acted with knowledge it was stolen. When a person is charged with a crime, the charging documents must include all of the essential elements of that offense. A Washington criminal defendant recently challenged his conviction, arguing the charging document failed to give him the required notice of the knowledge element of the offense.

According to the appeals court’s opinion, the defendant was stopped because he was not wearing a helmet.  The officer suspected the moped the defendant was driving was stolen and confirmed those suspicions with a review of the VIN.

The defendant was charged with and convicted of possession of a stolen motor vehicle. He appealed, arguing the charge violated his constitutional right to notice because it did not include the knowledge element.

When a defendant first raises the issue of insufficient notice in the charging document on appeal, the appeals court interprets charging documents liberally in favor of validity.  Thus, the information must only contain some language to provide notice of each element of the crime. If the defendant objects to the trial court, then the appeals court construes the charging documents more strictly.

The state argued that the language stating the defendant “unlawfully” possessed “a stolen motor vehicle” was sufficient to imply knowledge. The Washington Supreme Court has twice considered whether an allegation the defendant acted “unlawfully” was sufficient to imply notice of criminal intent. The Washington Supreme Court did not adopt a universal rule, but instead based its decisions on the crimes charged and circumstances of each case.  It found that the charging document in a first degree robbery case was sufficient.  In a drug trafficking case where the defendant preserved an objection to the sufficiency of the charging document, however, the Washington Supreme Court found the “unlawfully” language was insufficient to give notice of the intent element.  The appeals court noted that it had previously found that an allegation that an act was “unlawful and felonious” was sufficient to imply “guilty knowledge” in firearm and drug delivery cases.  It had not, however, held that “unlawfully” implied knowledge in a possession of stolen property case.

The appeals court concluded that “unlawfully” can imply knowledge or intent if it can be inferred by “common sense inferences.” The appeals court found that the mental state required for “simple possession” offenses was “not a matter of obvious common sense.” Some possession crimes do not include any knowledge requirement, while others require knowledge of “the corpus of the object possessed.” For other offenses, the defendant must knowingly possess the object and also know of its “illicit properties.”

The prosecution argued the defendant could have learned the knowledge element from the statutes.  The appeals court noted that the amended information did not cite the applicable statute.  Furthermore, pursuant to Washington case law, citing the applicable law is not sufficient unless the language used informs the defendant of all of the crime’s essential elements.

The appeals court found that the use of the adverb “unlawfully” was insufficient to allow an inference of knowledge. The appeals court further found that the other language in the amended information was not sufficient to give notice of the knowledge element.  The appeals court noted that possession could occur without the knowledge required for the crime.  The court also rejected the prosecution’s argument that the allegation that the moped belonged to someone else was sufficient, finding that allegation did not address the defendant’s knowledge.

The appeals court reversed the defendant’s conviction without prejudice and remanded the case.

If you have been charged with a crime, a skilled Washington criminal defense attorney can fight to protect your rights.  Schedule a consultation with Blair & Kim, PLLC, by calling our office at (206) 622-6562.


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