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State v. T.C. Insufficient Evidence to Support a Conviction for Obstructing

July 2011

Charge: Obstruction

Maximum Penalty: up to 364 days incarceration, up to a maximum $5,000 fine and 2 years probation

Summary:  Officers were dispatched to a domestic disturbance at the defendant's home.  The defendant answered the door and appeared calm.  The defendant claimed that his girlfriend hit him in the back of the head with a household item.  The defendant's girlfriend, who was also at the location, denied that she hit him and began to argue.  Officer V offered to talk with the defendant upstairs while Deputy B spoke with the girlfriend in a separate area.

While upstairs in his own home, the defendant  held up a cigarette and lighter and asked Officer V  “mind if I spoke” as he began to light his cigarette. Officer V replied “not now” as the defendant continued to light his cigarette saying “it's my house and I'll smoke if I want to.”  The defendant was standing two to three feet away from Officer V when he lit his cigarette.   Officer V generally does not allow subjects to smoke near him because the lighter or cigarette can be a health hazard or used to cause injury.  Officer V grabbed the cigarette from the defendant's mouth and tossed it on the ground.  As Officer V tossed the cigarette on the ground, the defendant immediately said “no” and reached for the cigarette while still holding his lighter. Believing the defendant was not going to follow his instructions, Officer V grabbed the defendant by his right arm, spun him around to face the wall behind him.  Officer V pushed the defendant up against the wall to control his movements, and felt him push back away from the wall briefly. Officer V pushed the defendant face first onto the ground where he handcuffed him without incident.

Even though the defendant did not present any further resistance, he was arrested and charged with obstruction, under RCW 9A.76.020(1).  A person is guilty of obstructing a law enforcement officer if the person willfully hinders, delays, or obstructs any law enforcement officer in the discharge of his or her official powers or duties.

Officer V's report indicated that the defendant appeared calm and complied with Officer V's instructions to speak with him in the living room while Deputy B spoke with the other party in another area. The defendant's attempt to light his cigarette and then his instinctive response to reach for the cigarette as it was ripped from his mouth caused no delay in the ability of Officer V to speak with him.  The State had the burden to prove that the defendant's actions were 1) willful and 2) hindered, delayed, or obstructed a law enforcement officer.  The facts must be sufficient to support a prima facie finding for each element of the crime charged.  In cases where the charge of obstruction was found sufficient, defendants either provided false information, repeatedly ignored officers' commands, attempted to flee the area and/or challenged an officers authority.

Given the specific set of facts in this case, there is not sufficient evidence here to support a prima facie finding for each element of the crime charged and the case must be dismissed. The State lacked sufficient evidence to prove that the defendant's actions, specifically attempting to light a cigarette in his own home, violated the applicable statute.  As a result, Attorney Pewitt argued that there was insufficient evidence to support a conviction for Obstructing, and asked the court to dismiss the charge. The court agreed.

Legal Issue Raised:  Attorney Pewitt moved the court for an order of dismissal due to insufficiency of evidence as a matter of law to support a conviction for obstruction.  The motion was based upon the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, Article I, Section 7 of the Washington State Constitution, CrRLJ Rules 3.5 and 3.6, State v. Knapstad, 107 Wn.2d 346, 729 P.2d 48 (1986)

Result: Case Dismissed

Amendment IV

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Amendment VI

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.