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February 7, 2015

Split Washington Supreme Court decides accomplices must receive distinct sentencing treatment

As reported in this local article, headlined "Washington Supreme Court alters sentencing structure for accomplices," the top court in the Evergreen State earlier this week issued an interest opinion concerning how the state's sentencing structure should be applied to those found guilty as accomplices. Here is a summary from the press report:

In a 5-4 opinion released Thursday, the state’s high court ruled that convicted identity thief Larry Hayes should have received a standard-range sentence after being convicted of a host of felonies in 2009.  Instead, he got a 15-year term under a provision that allows prosecutors to seek extra punishment for egregious offenders. The majority ordered the case back to Pierce County for re-sentencing.

At issue is how people charged as accomplices should be treated under the law at sentencing. For years, Washington law has prescribed that accomplices and principle actors in a crime be exposed to the same culpability, a concept Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist on Thursday called “in for a penny, in for a pound.”

In an opinion written by Justice Charles Johnson and signed by Justices Charles Wiggins, Susan Owens, Mary Fairhurst and Sheryl Gordon McCloud, the majority ruled that should not always be the case, especially where sentencing is concerned.

Until Thursday, when a prosecutor sought an exceptional sentence for a criminal defendant, he or she had to prove to a jury that certain aggravating factors made the crime worse than usual. The requirement applied to principle actors and accomplices alike. Thursday’s majority opinion said the blanket application to accomplices is improper.

Accomplices should be judged for their specific role in the crime and not just on the crime itself, the majority ruled. An accomplice, to qualify for an exceptional sentence, must have knowledge that the crime he or she is involved in is worse than usual, Johnson wrote, and prosecutors now must prove that knowledge to a jury. “...this finding of knowledge ensures that the defendant’s own conduct formed the basis of the sentence,” Johnson wrote....

Justice Debra Stephens authored the dissent, which was signed by Chief Justice Barbara Madsen and Justices Mary Yu and Steven Gonzalez. Stephens argued that the majority was turning decades of case law on its head for no good reason. “It makes no sense that a principal should be punished regardless of whether he or she knew the crime was a major economic offense but an accomplice, who committed the same crime, should not be,” she wrote.

She went on to say the ruling would have far-reaching impacts. “It is no exaggeration to say that the way co-participants have long been tried in this state will need to change in order to accommodate the knowledge finding the majority superimposes on the enhancement statute,” Stephens wrote.

Lindquist agreed with Stephens’ assessment and said he would consider asking state lawmakers to pass legislation clarifying what they want to happen to accomplices. “They could say, ‘We meant what we wrote: Principals and accomplices are equally culpable,’” Lindquist said.

Appellate attorney Nancy Collins, who worked on Hayes’ appeal, said she thinks the majority got it right and that the application of the ruling would not be onerous. “I don’t see it as a change in the law at all,” Collins said. “The majority said the jury needs to consider the defendant’s individual conduct.”

The full opinion in Washington v. Hayes, No. 89742-5 (Wash. Feb. 5, 2015), is available at this link.

February 7, 2015 at 09:51 AM | Permalink

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Comments

One implication of "case law" or, I'm assuming, "precedence," is that new data which disproves the existing case law is harder, if not impossible, to eliminate. Obviously, there are mitigating circumstances in crimes that have to be considered, but case law prevents such circumstances from affecting the actual adjudication...it's either all or nothing.

This is why we have a prisoner serving life because he lent his car to a buddy to go buy drugs. His "buddy" ended up killing the drug dealer; hence, the car lending buddy was an accomplice.

In addition, sex offender constraint laws which have no basis in reality are set in stone precisely because the laws were enacted in the early days when no data was present to disprove the intended reason laws were passed: community safety. Even though those reassons are now routinely debunked, precedence and the continual societal insistence to maintain the myth makes it difficult, if not impossible, to reverse.

Posted by: Eric Knight | Feb 8, 2015 10:47:27 AM

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