New Supreme Court Decisions That Protect a Defendant’s Right to Present a Defense

Posted by Ryan Robertson on Sep 20, 2013 | 0 Comments

Yesterday, September 19, 2013, the Washington State Supreme Court issued two important decisions affecting the trial rights of criminal defendants.

First, in State v. Kurtz (#87078-1) the Court upheld the common law “medical necessity” defense to the possession of marijuana charges. First recognized in the 1979 case State v. Diana, the medical necessity defense states that a criminal defendant may argue to the jury for acquittal by establishing: (1) a reasonable belief that marijuana is reasonably necessary to treat a medical condition; (2) the benefits of use outweigh the harm from use; and (3) no other drug is effective at minimizing the effects of the condition.

The State argued that the 1998 passage of Initiative 692, known as the “medical marijuana law,” eliminated the common law medical necessity defense. The Supreme Court disagreed. Under the medical marijuana law, a defendant may seek acquittal of charges by proving they suffer from a qualifying condition and have received authorization for marijuana use from a qualifying physician. The Court ruled that the “medical necessity defense” was separate and distinct from the “medical marijuana law,” and thus the medical necessity defense was never eliminated.

It remains to be seen how the newly enacted Washington Law legalizing marijuana will affect the medical marijuana laws. The Kurtz decision means that should possessory crimes be prosecuted in the future, a defendant will retain all defenses to fight such a charge.

The second case was State v. Lynch (#87882-0). There, the Court re-affirmed the constitutional right of criminal defendants to control their presentation of a defense. In any trial the prosecutor must prove a defendant guilty of committing every element of a crime with evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In certain cases a defendant may raise what is called an “affirmative defense,” which means that despite the prosecutor proving the defendant committed the crime the defendant may argue a legally recognized excuse. But the burden to do this falls on the defendant.

In Lynch, the defendant argued that a victim in a rape charge consented to the sexual activity. He raised this argument to challenge whether the prosecutor could prove the crime of rape beyond a reasonable doubt; specifically whether lynch acted with “forcible compulsion.”. The trial judge however, over the objection of the defendant, told the jury the defendant was raising an affirmative defense, meaning the jury could only consider the defense after it decided whether the defendant was guilty of the crime.  He was convicted.

The Supreme Court reversed the conviction. By dictating to the jury how it was to evaluate the defendant's defense, the judge violated Lunch's United States Constitution 6th Amendment right to control his defense. Therefore, within reason, a defendant and not a judge gets to decide how to present a defense to a criminal charge to a jury. The Court ordered that Lynch should receive a new trial.

If you are facing a criminal charge in King County, Snohomish County, or Pierce County, and you are in need of aggressive representation, contact us today.

About the Author

Ryan Robertson

Ryan is a creative and articulate advocate who limits his practice to criminal appeals and post-conviction relief including vacation, expungement, and sealing of records. He has worked exclusively in the criminal defense field since passing the Washington State bar exam in 1998. Ryan has been recognized as a Rising Star lawyer by Law & Politics Magazine.

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Andy Robertson has a proven track record of creative and effective advocacy for clients facing criminal charges throughout the state of Washington. Ryan Robertson's practice focuses exclusively on high-quality creative appellate representation in criminal and administrative matters, as well as expungements, vacation of records, and petitions to seal.