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Washington Court Affirms Trial Judge’s Refusal to Issue Self-Defense Instruction in Assault-on-Cop Charge

On Behalf of | Dec 13, 2016 | Assault


In criminal law, there are certain issues in which the defendant’s state of mind or knowledge are vitally important matters to determining his level of guilt. In other areas, the defendant’s mental state is completely irrelevant. This distinction is what unraveled one Navy seaman’s defense against a charge of assault on a police officer. The seaman sought a self-defense jury instruction, based upon his alleged lack of knowledge that the man detaining him was a police officer. The Washington Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s ruling because, in the seaman’s case, it didn’t matter what he did or didn’t know about the officer. It only mattered that the officer’s detainment of him was lawful, which the seaman did not contest.

The facts underlying this case began with a night of partying in downtown Bellingham. Travis Lile, a seaman in the Navy, was out with two Navy friends and one civilian. While walking along a downtown sidewalk at around midnight, the four men crossed paths with a group of two women and two men. Amanda Millman bumped Lile with her purse or elbow. This triggered a verbal response from Lile. The confrontation escalated into a physical brawl. By the time Officer Jeremy Woodward noticed the fight, Lile had punched Millman’s boyfriend. As Woodward exited his cruiser, Lile punched Millman. Woodward approached Lile, yelling, “Stop! Police! You’re under arrest.” Lile was able to brush off Woodward’s hand and run away. Woodward and another officer eventually subdued Lile, but not before he punched Woodward so hard that it knocked the officer’s glasses off his face.

The state charged Lile with multiple offenses, including third-degree assault for his attack on Woodward. Lile argued that he was entitled to seek a self-defense instruction to the jury on this charge. The state argued that the standard self-defense charge is not available when the defendant faces a charge of third-degree assault if the victim was a police officer. Lile contended that he did not know Woodward was a police officer, so he should still be allowed to pursue the self-defense instruction. The judge refused to issue the jury instruction, and the jury ultimately found Lile guilty on all charges.

Lile appealed, arguing that the judge should have given the jury the self-defense instruction he sought, and the failure to do so meant that he was entitled to a new trial. The appellate court was not persuaded and upheld the verdict. The court explained that the reason Lile lost was that his argument focused on the wrong issue. Lile based his argument on the notion that he did not know that Woodward was a law enforcement officer. The appeals court explained that this fact, whether true or not, was irrelevant. In addition to a charge of third-degree assault for assaulting a police officer, Washington law also allows the state to charge an individual with third-degree assault if the defendant assaults a non-police officer who is in the process of lawfully apprehending the defendant. The key to this charge wasn’t whether Lile knew the person apprehending him was a police officer. It was whether the person doing the apprehending was acting lawfully in doing so, regardless of what the person’s job was and what the defendant’s knowledge was. In this case, Lile never argued that his arrest was not lawful. He argued only that he was unaware that Woodward was an officer. Under these circumstances, Lile was not entitled to the self-defense instruction he sought. A more experienced attorney, like those at Smith & White, PLLC, would have known the proper argument to make. In fact, we’ve made this very argument, that the arrest was not lawful, as a basis to get and argue self-defense, resulting in a not guilty verdict before.

If you or a loved one are facing assault charges in Washington, it helps to have experienced criminal counsel on your side to present your case in an effective manner. For a defense upon which you can rely, contact the Pierce County assault attorneys at Smith & White, PLLC. Our attorneys have fought for the rights of the accused for many years and are ready to help you too. They will analyze your case for free.