EVERETT, Wash. (AP) — The Washington state Supreme Court this month unanimously rejected the notion that a man who skipped his court date could be presented as evidence that he felt guilty about the original crime.
State Supreme Court justices agreed that criminalizing a single missed court date could disproportionately harm people of color, poor people or people without reliable transportation or scheduling conflicts due to child care or work, The Daily Herald reported.
The ruling came less than a year after the state Legislature revised the bail jumping law, which gives people more time to respond to a warrant. Samuel Slater, 27, had one unexcused absence in his case, which predated the new law.
Records show Slater was convicted of violating no-contact orders five times in five years, multiple driving offenses and domestic violence charges. He pleaded guilty in 2016 to assault in Washington state.
A judge ordered him not to have contact with the woman, who was not identified, but he showed up within a day of being let out of jail. He was charged in 2017 with alleged felony violation of a no-contact order and felony bail jumping after missing a court date later in the year.
Slater’s attorney, Frederic Moll, asked for separate trials on the counts. Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Anita Farris, a former public defender, found that the charges could be tried together for “judicial economy reasons” and that they were cross-admissible, meaning one could be used to prove the other.
Judge Ellen Fair presided over the trial and agreed with Farris. State Court of Appeals judges also agreed.
During the trial, deputy prosecutor Adam Sturdivant repeatedly noted how the defendant missed his court date, asking: “If he didn’t do it, why didn’t he show up for trial call a year ago?”
Slater was found guilty on both counts and sentenced to more than two years in prison and a year of probation.
The Supreme Court found that the Snohomish County judges’ decision allowed Sturdivant to make “improper” comments to the jury about Slater’s propensity to violate orders. Attorney James Herr argued in February that the trial was not about the charge, but instead about the missed court hearing.
The state Supreme Court acknowledged there are other valid reasons why people might miss court dates. And judges have said there are alternatives to ensure people avoid skipping court — including warrants, higher bail or stricter release conditions.
The ACLU of Washington, the Washington Defender Association, Columbia Legal Services and the King County Department of Public Defense signed a legal brief supporting Slater’s case.
The state Supreme Court overturned Slater’s convictions and ruled that the case must be returned to Snohomish County, where prosecutors can decide whether to try the case again.
If so, there would need to be two separate trials. It is unclear if Snohomish County prosecutors will proceed again.