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Recent Washington Case Again Shows: Don’t Make a Statement to Police Without Counsel When You’re a Suspect

On Behalf of | Nov 18, 2016 | Assault

A famous song from the 1960s, borrowing from Jewish and Christian scriptures, states that there is a “time to every purpose under heaven.” Encounters with police can be like that. Which is to say, when interacting with the police, there is a time to be very forthcoming, and there is a time to refrain from speaking. Suffice it to say, whatever the specifics of your situation may be, the first thing you say when you encounter a law enforcement officer should probably not be, “I did it.” One man from southwestern Washington made that mistake in his case, a case in which the Washington Court of Appeals upheld his conviction.

James Applegate and his sister lived with their mother. One night, a dispute between the siblings arose, and that dispute escalated into a physical altercation. Police were summoned to the mother’s residence, and, when they arrived, they were met by the brother. Their very first interaction with the man saw him with his hands up in a surrender pose. “I did it. Take me in,” the brother told the police. The sister appeared to have bruises, cuts, red marks, and blood on her. The sister accused her brother of hitting her in the face and then strangling her until she very nearly lost consciousness. The sister later gave a sworn written statement to the police, reiterating the things she told the officer.

There are plenty of reasons why the brother’s reaction was not a wise move. For one thing, when you say, “I did it,” you may not even realize what the “it” is that police will decide that you did and that you admitted to doing. In this case, the “it” that the state decided the man did was second-degree assault — domestic violence. At the man’s trial, the defendant accused his sister of being the aggressor in the fight. The sister was unable to recall what happened on the night in question, since she was drunk when the fight took place. One of the officers who responded to the home, however, testified as to what the sister told him. The court also allowed the prosecution to bring in the sister’s written statement as evidence.

After the trial court convicted the man, he appealed. In his appeal, he argued that the trial court should not have allowed the officer to testify regarding what the sister said. The officer’s statements, he asserted, were inadmissible hearsay. In criminal trials, most hearsay (testimony in court about out-of-court statements made by another person that is offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted) is not admissible as evidence. The rules do allow, however, for hearsay testimony to be admitted as evidence in some circumstances. One of those exceptions is a statement made as an “excited utterance.” To qualify as an excited utterance, the law requires that an excitement-worthy event have taken place, that the original speaker have spoken while still under the stress or emotion of the event, and that the statement was connected to the event.

In Applegate’s case, the sister’s statement met these conditions. Sometimes, when a person makes a statement in response to an officer’s question, it may be harder for the state to prove that the comment was an excited utterance. However, in this case, given the officer’s credible descriptions of the sister as “extremely agitated,” “really emotional,” and hysterical, the trial court was allowed to admit the statement.

Another exception to the rule against admitting hearsay into evidence relates to statements that are against your “pecuniary, proprietary, or penal interest.” This is another good reason why blurting out “I did it” before consulting counsel is a bad idea. The prosecution can get that statement into evidence simply by calling to testify the person to whom you made the statement and getting that person to tell the court that you admitted that you “did it.”

When you or a loved one are facing the possibility of criminal charges, it is important to have legal counsel on your side. Your attorney can advise you of your rights and prevent you from making some unwise choices. The skilled Pierce County and Tacoma domestic violence attorneys at Smith & White, PLLC have been defending the accused in this state for many years and are ready to help you. Call us today at 253-363-8662 to schedule your initial consultation. The first consultation is free.