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Without Proof of Fear of Harm, Eastern Washington Woman Not Entitled to Demand Self-Defense Jury Instruction in Assault Case

On Behalf of | Apr 13, 2016 | Assault

A car trip involving two sisters led to a physical fight and police involvement. The subsequent assault trial of one of the sisters led to a nearly-one-year jail sentence and an appeal to the Washington Court of Appeals. That decision, handed down in February of this year, offers some useful knowledge about when a criminal defendant is, or is not, entitled to demand that the trial judge instruct the jury on the law of self-defense.

The events that led up to the arrest started seemingly innocuously enough. Emily Dalhaug was riding in a car driven by her sister, Tomi Maine, traveling through the eastern Washington town of Warden. Dalhaug complained to Maine about Maine’s texting while driving. Maine, in response, swatted her sister, hitting Dalhaug in the shoulder with the back of her hand. Dalhaug responded to getting backhanded by punching Maine in the head. Maine stopped the car, and the battle spilled out onto the street. Another driver, who saw the two fighting and who happened to be the stepson of a local police sergeant, phoned his stepfather.

The officer arrived on the scene and arrested Dalhaug for, in addition to various drug charges, fourth-degree assault/domestic violence. What happened next is an instructive illustration about the benefits of consulting counsel before giving a statement to police, which Dalhaug didn’t do. Officers spoke to both sisters at the scene of the incident, and both affirmatively told the police that Maine swatted Dalhaug, and Dalhaug punched Maine in the head. The police sergeant typed up Dalhaug’s statement, and she signed it. At trial, the prosecution entered that statement into evidence against Dalhaug. Dalhuag did not testify on her own behalf.

Dalhaug asked the trial judge to give the jury an instruction laying out the specifics of the law of self-defense in Washington. The law says that a person is entitled to act to defend herself if she reasonably has a good-faith belief that she is in danger of physical harm. The person is entitled to act in self-defense even if it later becomes clear “that the person was mistaken as to the extent of the danger.” The trial judge rejected the woman’s request, and she was convicted, receiving a sentence of 364 days in jail on the assault charge.

The woman appealed her conviction, arguing that the trial court committed an error by not giving the jury the instruction on self-defense. The appeals court was not persuaded and upheld the conviction and sentence. The key problem with Dalhaug’s case was that she never established that she either subjectively or objectively feared for her physical safety. She needed to offer the court something from which it could deduce that a “reasonably prudent person” would have been in apprehension of imminent danger or great bodily harm. In Dalhaug’s case, all she had was her (and her sister’s) statements that Maine swatted her on the shoulder with the back of her hand while she was driving. A reasonably prudent person could not possibly have developed a fear of imminent danger or great bodily harm just from a backhanded swat. Based on the evidence, the court decided that “Dalhaug punched her sister in anger, not in fear.”

Here with the facts provided, a attorneys of Smith & White, PLLC may have succeeded at getting the self-defense instruction. After all, the fight started when the primary aggressor, Tomi Maine, put her sister in imminent danger AND in apprehension of great bodily harm by texting while driving. Texting while driving is one of the top five causes of accidents in the country. However, the attorney in question, by focusing on the “swat,” missedthe greater danger that was presented against Ms. Dalhaug. Thus, that attorney missed the better opportunity to receive the self-defense instruction.

An assault charge can carry serious consequences. If the police are questioning you regarding your role in a physical altercation with another person, it is in your best interest to consult with experienced defense counsel right away. The Pierce County/Tacoma assault attorneys at Smith & White, PLLC have the knowledge and skills needed to help you protect your rights and build the best possible defense. Call us today at 253-363-8662 or email [email protected] to schedule your free Case Analysis.