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Can a Washington court refuse to accept a defendant's stipulation in a criminal trial?

Posted by Brian C. Zuanich | Jun 24, 2019 | 0 Comments

1. Can you plead guilty and go to trial in Washington? Sort of

If you're charged with a crime in Washington (as in most states), you generally have two options:

You can plead guilty, which means you give up your right to have a jury trial or a trial before a judge. Or you can exercise your right to a trial, forcing the State to prove you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

But in some cases, you can actually do both.

Well, not technically under the law, but practically, yes you can. How?

Every crime in Washington consists of different elements. To prove you guilty, the State has to prove eachelement of the crime charged beyond a reasonable doubt. Even if you go to trial, you can waive your right to challenge certain elements—that is, certain evidence against you. Legally, we call this a stipulation

Consider a simple DUI case. The State charges John Smith for DUI after police arrest him for speeding on I-5 in downtown Seattle. To prove DUI, the State has to prove two basic elements: (1) driving and (2) under the influence of alcohol or drugs. In our hypothetical, John Smith stipulates to element #1—the driving element. He is basically telling the jury: “I admit I was driving. Don't worry about that element. All you have to decide is whether I was under the influence.”

2. Taylor admits to violating a no-contact order ... but still takes his no-contact order case to trial

In this case, the State charged Brendan Taylor with felony violation of a no-contact order for allegedly assaulting Kelly (his ex-girlfriend). At the time of the alleged assault, Taylor and Kelly were living together, in clear violation of a domestic violence no-contact order. A court had imposed this no-contact order after Taylor had been found guilty of assaulting Kelly during a prior domestic incident.

Taylor requested a jury trial.

To prove felony violation of a court order in Taylor's case, the State had to prove three basic elements: (1) a valid no contact order involving Taylor and Kelly; (2) Taylor knew about the order; (3) Taylor violated the order by assaulting Kelly.  

Before the trial started, Taylor stipulated to elements #1 and #2. He knew about the order and he knew the order prohibited him from being around his ex-girlfriend. Why do this? By stipulating, he assumed, the jury wouldn't see the no-contact order—and not draw any negative inferences against him based on the contents of the order. (Typically, domestic violence no-contact orders in Washington describe why the court saw fit to issue the order).

The State objected to the stipulation. Prosecutors wanted the jury to see the no-contact order—probably for the same reason that Taylor did notwant the jury to see the no-contact order. The trial judge agreed with the State, and the jury got to see the no-contact order. The jury found Taylor guilty.

3. Court of Appeals: Trial judge should have accepted Taylor's stipulation

The Court of Appeals overturned Taylor conviction. “You got greedy,” the judges basically told the State. “You should have agreed to the stipulation.”

Here was the Court's reasoning in State v. Taylor:

  1. To prove a felony order violation, the State had to prove that valid no-contact order applied to Taylor. But Taylor was willing to stipulate to this element of the crime. The State “fails to explain how the order has any relevance beyond that which Taylor offered to stipulate.” The order didn't prove whether Taylor assaulted Kelly, and that was the main issue at trial.
  2. Of course, the no contact order itself had a lot of information about Taylor's history and his past crime of assault, but this evidence—the Court concluded—was unfairly prejudicial.

Under the Washington Rules of Evidence (ER 403), evidence is inadmissible if its relevance is substantially outweighed by the risk of “unfair prejudice” to the defendant. Evidence is unfairly prejudicial if it's likely to provoke an emotional response rather than a rational response.

Consider another DUI example. Jane Smith is charged with DUI. At trial, she claims she wasn't drinking at all. Jane Smith has 10 prior DUI convictions. No reasonable jury is going to look carefully at the facts in this case and give Jane any benefit of the doubt if the State told the jury about her DUI history.

Same with Taylor's no-contact order. The no-contact order told the jury that Taylor had previously been convicted of assaulting Kelly, and that Taylor posed such a danger to her that the court decided to take away Taylor's firearms. Given all this, the Court of Appeals basically asked, how reasonable is it that the jury didn't consider all of this when deliberating on Taylor's guilt.

For this reasons, the Court ruled that the trial judge violated ER 403 by admitting the no-contact order into evidence and refusing to accept Taylor's stipulations. Conviction overturned.

About the Author

Brian C. Zuanich

I am the managing partner at Zuanich Law. I am a former prosecutor and insurance defense attorney, and have practiced law in state and federal courts for over a decade.

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