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Washington v. Perez-Arellano

as corrected.: April 8, 1991.

THE STATE OF WASHINGTON, RESPONDENT,
v.
RAMON PEREZ-ARELLANO, APPELLANT



Agid, J. Forrest and Baker, JJ., concur.

Author: Agid

Ramon Perez-Arellano appeals a judgment and sentence for delivering heroin in violation of RCW 69.50.401(a). He contends that evidentiary error and prosecutorial misconduct deprived him of a fair trial. We affirm.

During the afternoon of August 30, 1989, three Seattle police officers used telescopic equipment to watch activities in Victor Steinbrueck Park in the Pike Place Market area. The officers were on the 10th floor of a nearby building. Two of these officers observed a transaction which they recognized as a probable narcotics sale. They contacted plainclothes officers in the park and, with their assistance, apprehended and arrested both the suspected purchaser and seller.

Perez-Arellano was charged with one count of unlawful delivery of a controlled substance. Before trial, he moved to exclude any testimony describing Steinbrueck Park as an area of high crime or high narcotics sales. Perez-Arellano argued that such testimony was irrelevant. The State responded that testimony about the character of the neighborhood was relevant because it explained why the officers had been observing Steinbrueck Park in the first place. The trial judge agreed with the State and ruled that "[t]he officer[s] may testify that they believe this to be a high crime area. That is the reason they are in that area." Three officers then testified that the park is "a high narcotic area".*fn1

Perez-Arellano did not testify at his jury trial and presented no evidence in his own behalf. The jury entered a guilty verdict. This appeal followed.

I

Perez-Arellano first contends that the trial court erred in admitting the officers' testimony describing Steinbrueck Park as a high narcotics area. Relying on Wilkins v. State, 561 So. 2d 1339 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1990), he argues that what little relevance the evidence had was outweighed by its prejudicial effect.

Wilkins is the latest in a line of Florida cases holding that testimony describing an arrest scene as a high crime or high narcotics area is improper "guilt by association" evidence. The Florida courts reason that an officer's knowledge that a particular place is a narcotics area does "not prove anything in issue and serve[s] only to unduly prejudice the jury'", Wilkins, 561 So. 2d at 1340 (quoting Cabral v. State, 550 So. 2d 46, 47 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1989)); and

that such testimony impugns the character of the neighborhood and creates an "indelible impression that [defendant] was there for no other purpose than to deal in drugs." 561 So. 2d at 1340.

[1] We decline to follow the Florida rule which, we note, has not been adopted elsewhere. Instead, we hold that the officers' testimony was relevant, not unduly prejudicial, and was properly admitted. While evidence about the character of a neighborhood does not prove or disprove a defendant's guilt,*fn2 it does explain to the jury the reason why police were observing a particular area. The average juror has little or no knowledge or understanding of police drug operations and may well wonder whether it is appropriate, or even legal, for police to hide in tall buildings, watch people, and then arrest them when they engage in illegal conduct. Testimony explaining why a particular area was chosen for observation is therefore relevant to explain the circumstances of an arrest.

State v. Aaron, 57 Wash. App. 277, 280-81, 787 P.2d 949 (1990), another case upon which Perez-Arellano relies, does not compel a different result. At issue in Aaron was an officer's testimony about why he searched a jacket found in the car in which defendant was riding when arrested. The officer found incriminating evidence in the jacket. He testified that he searched the jacket because a police dispatcher told him the defendant had been seen with the jacket near the scene of the crime. This court held that testimony about why the officer searched the jacket was inadmissible hearsay because it was admitted to prove the truth of the matter asserted. The evidence could not have been offered for ...


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