Washington Court Reverses Conviction and Orders New Trial for Defendant Charged with Domestic Violence

In a recent opinion, the Court of Appeals of Washington decided a case in which a defendant appealed his jury trial conviction for fourth-degree assault involving domestic violence. In City of Tacoma v. Driscoll (Wash. Ct. App. Mar. 22, 2016), the defendant argued that the lower court violated his right to present a defense when it excluded his testimony regarding two prior incidents of the victim attacking him. The Court of Appeals agreed with the defendant, reversed the conviction, and remanded for a new trial.

In City of Tacoma, a witness called police officers to a bus shelter after observing the defendant kneeing the victim in the head. The defendant told officers he had acted in self-defense. At the time, the defendant had a no-contact order against the victim. The defendant was subsequently charged with one count of fourth-degree assault involving domestic violence. At trial, the defendant asserted the act was in self-defense, and he offered evidence of three prior incidents in which he alleged the victim had attacked him. One of the attacks resulted in a charge of second-degree assault against the victim, and the other two attacks could not be corroborated by documentation or evidence other than the defendant’s testimony. The trial court allowed the defendant to present evidence of the first attack because it was documented, but not the others. On appeal, the defendant argued that his constitutional right to present a defense was denied when the trial court excluded his testimony regarding the two incidents.

In Washington, a defense of self-defense requires proof that the defendant had a subjective fear of imminent danger of bodily harm, that this belief was objectively reasonable, and that the defendant exercised no more force than was reasonably necessary. Evidence of a victim’s prior acts of violence known to the defendant is relevant to a claim of self-defense because it can reveal the state of mind of the defendant, and in addition, it can indicate whether, at that time, the defendant had reason to fear bodily harm. Whether evidence of a prior act of violence was corroborated goes to the weight of the evidence, not its admissibility.

In City of Tacoma, the appeals court concluded that the evidence of prior attacks on the defendant was relevant because it had a tendency to make the fact that the defendant subjectively feared the victim more likely. In addition, excluding such evidence because it was uncorroborated was improper. The court also found that the prior attacks were not offered as character evidence against the victim, but for the permissible purpose of showing the defendant’s state of mind at the time of the event giving rise to the charge of assault.

A constitutional error is harmless only if the court is convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that a reasonable jury would have reached the same result without the error. The Court of Appeals held that, since the evidence of the prior attacks may have made the jury more likely to find the defendant’s fear more credible, the jury may not have decided differently. As a result, the court reversed the conviction and remanded for a new trial.

Domestic violence charges are serious, often the result of complicated relationships. At the Washington firm of Blair & Kim, PLLC, our experienced criminal defense lawyers understand that every individual has a right to an aggressive and well-prepared legal defense. If you have been charged with a criminal offense, you may discuss your options with one of our attorneys by contacting our office at (206) 622-6562 or online.

More Blog Posts:

Washington Court Considers Admissibility of Prior Acts of Domestic Violence in Criminal Jury Trial, Seattle Attorneys Blog, published November 24, 2015

Washington Court of Appeals Reviews Conviction of No-Contact Order Violation, Seattle Attorneys Blog, published December 17, 2015

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