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April 18, 2024

Washington Supreme Court: missed court dates not proof of guilt

3 min read

A Snohomish County man’s one-time failure to appear in court cannot be used as proof of guilt, the Washington State Supreme Court has ruled.

The Snohomish man, Samuel Slater, pleaded guilty to assault charges in 2016. He was further convicted on five no-contact charges, numerous traffic violations, and domestic violence charges. Slater failed to make a court date on Sept. 8, 2017 and on Oct. 16 revoke a bench warrant for his arrest. The state then added the charge of bail jumping for his failure to appear (FTA) in court.

Slater later filed a motion to sever the bail jumping charge from the no-contact and domestic violence charges. An appeals court denied his motion. In 2019, Washington lawmakers passed a bill demoting bail jumping to a gross misdemeanor and gave defendants 30 days to nullify bench warrants.

In their 27-page ruling, the state supreme court unanimously agreed that flight could not be considered as proof of guilt in itself.

“Missing one court hearing does not rise to the level of flight evidence from which one can infer consciousness of guilt on the underlying crime,” the opinion reads. “We hold that evidence of a single FTA accompanied by a prompt motion to quash the issued warrant is not sufficient evidence of flight and, therefore, cannot be used as evidence from which to infer consciousness of guilt on the underlying crime.”

The state supreme court ruled further that criminal penalties for one missed court date could do disproportionate harm to low-income and people of color who may not have reliable transportation or child care. Justices recommended higher bail and stricter release conditions as methods of preventing bail jumping.

Among the cases cited in the high court’s majority opinion was Bruton v. United States, in which Washington supreme court justices determined in 1965 that failure to appear in court was admissible as a consideration for the jury, “along with other circumstances of the case, in determining guilt or innocence.”

The Washington state supreme court’s ruling took issue with comments made by a Snohomish County deputy prosecutor, Adam Sturdivant, which justices believe led the jury to an improper and prejudicial decision.

“If he didn’t do it, why didn’t he show up for trial call a year ago?” Sturdivant said during the trial. “The day that we find out whether this case is going out or not, he’s gone. If he didn’t do it, why didn’t he show?”

According to a 2018 law review article by Professor Lauryn Gouldin of Syracruse University’s College of Law, the percentage of FTAs stemming from defendants attempting to escape punishment is historically low.

Studies suggest FTA rates can be reduced by redesigning summons notices and sending text message reminders. A 2018 University of Chicago study found FTA rates fell by 32% one month after New York City instituted such changes.

The Washington Defender Association, the ACLU of Washington, Columbia Legal Services and the King County Department of Public Defense signed a legal brief in support of the Snohomish county man’s case.

The Washington State Bar Association (WSBA) has no opinion or comment on the ruling, Jennifer Olegario, a WSBA spokesperson, wrote in an email.

In its ruling, the Washington state supreme court overturned the judgments in Slater’s case, leaving it up to the Snohomish prosecutors to pursue further.

“The law is constantly evolving and we respect the Supreme Court’s right to amend, clarify, or reverse prior precedent,” said Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Adam Cornell in a statement. “The court’s decision changes how ‘flight’ evidence may be argued in certain cases moving forward but we do not believe the ruling will have significant impact on the work we do.”

The decision to retry Slater’s case is under review, according to Cornell.

This article was originally posted on Washington Supreme Court: missed court dates not proof of guilt

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