Writings and observations

You’ve got a gun; are you armed?

Just because it sounds simple – like common sense – doesn’t mean it stands clear as law. Lawmakers in the three Northwest states (elsewhere too, for that matter) would well spend a day, as they prepare for their January sessions fast approaching, reviewing recent Supreme Court cases in their states, to consider how the law gets interpreted, or must sometimes be expanded upon to make sense.

It would be a humbling experience.

Here’s one good example from the just-released Washington v. Sheldon Dwight Easterlin, that efficiently lays out a case involving a conviction on a drug conviction “enhanced” because the arrestee was armed. But it was not a simple equation: When, exactly, did he become armed?

Here’s the Court on the question:

“Armed criminals pose an increasing and major threat to public safety and can turn any crime into serious injury or death.” “Hard Time for Armed Crime Act.” Laws of 1995, ch. 129, § 1(1)(a) (Initiative 159 (I-159)). Reducing armed crime is a laudable goal.

But neither the initiative nor the legislature has defined “armed,” and this seemingly simple question of whether a defendant was in fact armed, and more importantly how to determine whether a defendant was armed, has come before us time and time again. It presents a particularly difficult question when the defendant had only constructive possession over a weapon.

After much consideration we have developed a two pronged approach for determining whether a defendant was armed. The weapon must have been readily accessible and easily available, and there must have been some connection between the defendant, the weapon, and the crime. State v. Barnes, 153 Wn.2d 378, 383, 103 P.3d 1219 (2005); State v. Valdobinos, 122 Wn.2d 270, 282, 858 P.2d 199 (1993).

That has not been the end of the debate. Until recently, it has not been clear whether the connection itself is an essential element that the State must prove, or merely definitional. See generally Barnes, 153 Wn.2d at 383; State v. Schelin, 147 Wn.2d 562, 55 P.3d 632 (2002).

We have concluded that the connection between the weapon, the defendant, and the crime is definitional, not an essential element of the crime. E.g., Barnes, 153 Wn.2d at 383; State v. Gurske, 155 Wn.2d 134, 138-39, 118 P.3d 333 (2005). Instead, the connection is merely a component of what the State must prove to establish that a particular defendant was armed while committing a particular crime.

So far, we have been presented with these questions mostly inconstructive possession cases. In this case, Sheldon Dwight Easterlin had a gun on his lap and cocaine in his sock when he was approached by the police. He subsequently pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of a controlled substance with a firearms enhancement, among other things.

He now challenges the imposition of the firearms enhancement on the ground he did not know that the State had to prove a connection between his weapon and his crime, and thus he contends his plea was not valid. Alternatively, he argues that the State provided insufficient evidence of such a connection to sustain his plea. The Court of Appeals rejected his challenges. State v. Easterlin, 126 Wn. App. 170, 107 P.3d 773 (2005). We accepted review, State v. Easterlin, 155 Wn.2d 1021, 126 P.3d 1279 (2005),
and affirm.

Seems reasonable. But not altogether obvious up front.

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