A Washington state appeals court, in a major ruling on the “stand your ground” debate over personal safety, said Thursday that a defendant who successfully uses a self-defense claim is entitled to reimbursement for lost wages and other costs, as well as legal fees.
“The cost of a criminal defense often starts at arrest,” the court wrote in its decision, affirming a lower court’s award of nearly $49,000, including $10,000 in lost wages, to Tommy J. Villanueva.
Villanueva, 53, was fired from his job as an assembler in a manufacturing plant in Spokane after being arrested in 2010 and charged with assault, accused of stabbing two people in the neck at a party. He was acquitted in 2012 by a jury that agreed with his claim that he had acted in self-defense.
In a separate decision, the jury also agreed that under the law, Villanueva was entitled to reimbursement for the cost of bringing that defense.
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Prosecutors asserted that the law allowed reimbursement only for legal expenses.
Villanueva’s lawyer, however, argued that his client would not have lost his job but for an arrest that kept him from going to work.
Many states in the past decade have adopted so-called Stand Your Ground laws, which codified the right of a person to use deadly force in self-defense even outside their homes. Washington’s self-defense law is much older, and has been interpreted by the courts — in cases dating back at least to the 1930s — as saying that a person has no obligation to retreat if he or she reasonably perceives a dire threat.
The three-judge Court of Appeals panel said that state law, in promising reimbursement for “all reasonable costs,” in a successful self-defense claim, was vaguely worded.
“There’s not a lot of case law on this issue,” said Villanueva’s lawyer, Timothy S. Note.
In its ruling, the appeals court leaned on an earlier Washington state Supreme Court case that said the reimbursement law was broadly meant to ensure that no “costs of defense” are borne by a person acting legally to protect his or her life. Thus, in Villanueva’s case, the Court of Appeals said, the lost wages “constituted lawful earnings he would have received but for being prosecuted.”
The court went on to rule that because Villanueva was also defending himself legally after the trial, through the appeals process on the monetary reimbursement question, he had piled up additional reimbursable defense costs since the verdict, the judges said.
“Therefore, we award him reasonable appellate costs,” the order said, in sending the case back to the trial court to determine what a reasonable added amount should be.