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When is a criminal complaint valid under the Washington Constitution?

Posted by Brian C. Zuanich | Jul 21, 2019 | 0 Comments

Every criminal prosecution is different, but every one of them starts the same: with the government filing a criminal complaint.

Under the Sixth Amendment and the Washington Constitution, a defendant has a constitutional right to be informed of the criminal charges against them to so they can adequately defend themselves. To use two overly used clichés, the government can't play hide the ball, and a defendant can't be asked to defend against a moving target. This is the essence of constitutional due process. 

Enter the criminal complaint, a written document that has to set forth the essential elements of each charge.

Phillips complains about his complaint

Earl Phillips appealed his robbery conviction in King County Superior Court. He didn't challenge the evidence—that he tried to steal beer from a Red Apple market in Seattle and fought with store employees who tried to stop him. Instead, Phillips argued that the criminal complaint was legally defective.

Because Phillips raised this issue for the first time on appeal (i.e. not during the trial), he had to prove that the complaint did not contain all the essential elements of robbery.

Following his arrest, the State charged Phillips with robbery in the second degree. The State charged Phillips with robbery in the second degree. A person commits robbery by unlawfully taking personal property from another person against their will “by the use or threatened use of immediate force, violence, or fear of injury.” (RCW 9A.56.190).

Phillips' complaint alleged that he intended to commit a theft against the two Red Apple employees who had an ownership interest in the property (i.e. the beer) by using or threatening to use immediate force or violence.

Phillips, however, argued that the State's complaint should have included the second sentence in RCW 9A.56.190, which states in part that “such force or fear must be used to obtain or retain possession of the property.” This is because “possession” is an essential element of robbery in Washington.

The Court of Appeals affirms Phillips' conviction

In State v. Phillips, the Court of Appeals disagreed. Reviewing prior court decisions, the Court reached the following conclusion: Robbery has five essential elements: (1) unlawful taking; (2) of personal property; (3) from the person of another; (4) against that person's will; (5) by the use or threatened use of immediate force.

The second sentence of the statute doesn't contain a sixth element; rather, it more specifically defines the fifth element (i.e. the manner in which force can be used to commit the underlying theft).

For these reasons, the Court ruled that Phillips' criminal complaint was constitutionally sufficient and affirmed his robbery conviction.  

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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