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State v. Rivers

August 8, 1996


Appeal from Superior Court, King (93-1-06019-6) County; Honorable Richard Ishikawa, Judge. Judgment Date: 9-2-94.

Guy, J., Durham, C.j., Dolliver, Smith, Alexander, Talmadge, J.j., Madsen, J. (concurring in result by separate opinion), Johnson, J., Sanders, J. (dissenting separately)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Guy


GUY, J.--Defendant Paul Rivers challenges both his underlying conviction for second degree robbery and the constitutionality of the Persistent Offender Accountability Act, the statute under which he was sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole. We affirm the conviction and the sentence.


On December 20, 1993, less than three weeks after Washington's Persistent Offender Accountability Act went into effect, Defendant Paul Rivers was arrested for the robbery of an espresso bar employee in the University District of Seattle.

The victim of the robbery, Josef Slobodzian, testified that in December 1993, he worked at a walk-up espresso bar in Seattle's University District. On the evening of December 20, 1993, Mr. Slobodzian closed the espresso bar about 9 p.m. He counted the cash and put it and a bank deposit slip into a bank bag. Mr. Slobodzian set the bank bag on the outside counter of the espresso bar while he brought the tables and chairs inside. He testified that he saw a man wearing a tan trench coat walk by and that he looked out to make sure the bank bag was still on the counter.

Mr. Slobodzian then took the bank bag, containing approximately $340, and began walking toward the bank. While he was stopped for a traffic light at an intersection, the man in the tan trench coat approached him, chatted for a moment and then said, "I have a gun, give me the bank bag." The two men struggled over the bag for a short time before the robber grabbed the bag and ran. Mr. Slobodzian chased the robber until he turned into an alley where the robber then turned and said, "I'll blow your head off. It is not worth your life." The man had his hand in his left pocket and was pointing something at him that Mr. Slobodzian believed to be a gun. Mr. Slobodzian abandoned his chase and called the police.

A description of the robber was broadcast over the police radio and was heard by two officers who had talked with Defendant Rivers and his girlfriend earlier that day about a different matter. The officers stated that at the time of the earlier contact Defendant Rivers had been wearing a tan trench coat and that he otherwise matched the description of the robber. The officers drove near the house where the Defendant had been staying. They saw the Defendant's girlfriend walk across the alley, put something into a garbage can and walk quickly back to the house. The officers retrieved the espresso bar's bank bag from the garbage can. The bag had been slit open and contained no cash but still contained the deposit slip.

The officers then went to the Defendant's house where they found Defendant Rivers hiding underneath a mattress in a bedroom. The Defendant and the bank bag were separately brought outside to where Mr. Slobodzian was located. Both the bag and the Defendant were identified at that time by Mr. Slobodzian.

Defendant Rivers was arrested. He had $254.31 in cash on his person. The Defendant first told a police officer that his girlfriend had given him the money and that he did not know where she got it. He later claimed the money came from a check that he had cashed. At trial the Defendant testified that he took the money from the espresso bar when Mr. Slobodzian was not looking. No gun was found.

He was charged on December 23, 1993, with robbery in the second degree. On February 7, 1994, the State filed a "Notice of Intent to File Persistent Offender Allegation."

Defendant Rivers was the only witness to testify for the defense about the circumstances of the robbery. He testified that he had been staying with a friend in the house where he was arrested, across the street from the espresso bar. He said his friend went to the espresso bar frequently and that he himself had gone there and had talked with Mr. Slobodzian more than once. He testified that he had heard from a friend that Mr. Slobodzian wanted some marijuana and that he attempted to sell marijuana to Mr. Slobodzian. He testified that Mr. Slobodzian told him that he was short on money but could pay him in a couple of days. The Defendant said he believed Mr. Slobodzian owned the espresso shop, so he sold Mr. Slobodzian marijuana on credit. He testified that he asked Mr. Slobodzian for the money due, but Mr. Slobodzian kept putting him off.

Defendant Rivers testified that he went to the espresso bar on the evening of December 20, 1993, and that Mr. Slobodzian again told him that he did not have the money that was owed to the Defendant. The Defendant said he had seen Mr. Slobodzian place the money sack on the counter right by the door and when Mr. Slobodzian had his back turned, the Defendant took the bank bag, put it under his coat, and said goodbye. About 20 minutes later, the police came to his home and arrested him.

At trial the State was permitted to use three prior felony convictions in its attempt to impeach the Defendant's testimony. The State also was allowed to question the Defendant about a statement made by his lawyer during opening statements. Further, the State was permitted to ask one of its witnesses, a police officer, whether the person shown in exhibit 6, a booking photograph dated December 21, 1993, was the Defendant. These three actions are challenged on appeal.

The jury returned a verdict of guilty on the robbery charge.

A second jury found Defendant Rivers to have three convictions of "most serious offenses." This finding is not challenged on appeal. The trial Judge then sentenced the Defendant to life imprisonment without possibility of parole, under the terms of the Persistent Offender Accountability Act. Laws of 1994, ch. 1 (Initiative 593, approved November 2, 1993), amending the Sentencing Reform Act of 1981, RCW 9.94A.

Defendant Rivers appealed his conviction and his sentence. We ordered this case transferred to this court for argument and set it as a companion case with State v. Manussier, 129 Wash. 2d 652, 921 P.2d 473 (Wash. 1996), and State v. Thorne, 129 Wash. 2d 736, 921 P.2d 514 (Wash. 1996).


1. Did the trial court err in permitting the State to use a prior assault conviction to impeach the credibility of the Defendant?

2. Did the trial court err in permitting the State to cross examine the Defendant on statements made by defense counsel during opening statement?

3. Did the trial court err in admitting a photograph taken of the Defendant at the time he was arrested on the predicate crime?

4. Did application of the Persistent Offender Accountability Act in this case violate the federal and state constitutional rights of the Defendant?


Prior Convictions . The trial court permitted the use of three prior convictions in the State's attempt to impeach Defendant Rivers' testimony. The Defendant's prior convictions were a 1985 conviction for attempted robbery in the second degree, a 1987 conviction for robbery in the second degree, and a 1990 conviction for second degree assault. Because of the closeness in nature to the predicate charge, the trial court ruled that the State could offer the prior convictions only as unnamed felonies. *fn1

Evidence of prior convictions may be admissible for the purpose of attacking the credibility of a witness, including a defendant in a criminal case, under ER 609. Rulings made under ER 609 are reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard. State v. King, 75 Wash. App. 899, 910 n.5, 878 P.2d 466 (1994), review denied, 125 Wash. 2d 1021 (1995).

ER 609(a) states:

For the purpose of attacking the credibility of a witness in a criminal or civil case, evidence that the witness has been convicted of a crime shall be admitted if elicited from the witness or established by public record during examination of the witness but only if the crime (1) was punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of 1 year under the law under which the witness was convicted, and the court determines that the probative value of admitting this evidence outweighs the prejudice to the party against whom the evidence is offered, or (2) involved dishonesty or false statement, regardless of the punishment.

Two of Defendant Rivers' prior crimes, robbery and attempted robbery, involved dishonesty and therefore were per se admissible for impeachment purposes under ER 609(a)(2). State v. Ray, 116 Wash. 2d 531, 545, 806 P.2d 1220 (1991) (crimes of theft involve dishonesty and are per se admissible); State v. Schroeder, 67 Wash. App. 110, 115, 834 P.2d 105 (1992).

It is only the admission of the 1990 conviction for assault that is claimed to have constituted error in this case. Defendant Rivers claims the trial court abused its discretion in failing to consider, on the record, the factors which favored admission or exclusion of the prior conviction.

In State v. Alexis, 95 Wash. 2d 15, 19, 621 P.2d 1269 (1980) this court held that a trial court exercising its discretion under ER 609(a)(1) must not only weigh the prejudicial effect of the prior conviction against the probative value of the evidence but must additionally consider and weigh the following factors:

(1) the length of the defendant's criminal record; (2) remoteness of the prior conviction; (3) nature of the prior crime; (4) the age and circumstances of the defendant; (5) centrality of the credibility issue; and (6) the impeachment value of the prior crime.

In exercising its discretion, the trial court is required to follow the balancing procedure in a meaningful way. Further, the trial court must articulate, for the record, the factors which favor admission or exclusion of prior conviction evidence under ER 609(a)(1). State v. Jones, 101 Wash. 2d 113, 122, 677 P.2d 131 (1984), overruled on other grounds by State v. Brown, 111 Wash. 2d 124, 761 P.2d 588 (1988), adhered to on reh'g, 113 Wash. 2d 520, 782 P.2d 1013, 80 A.L.R.4th 989, corrected, 787 P.2d 906 (1989); State v. Gomez, 75 Wash. App. 648, 651, 880 P.2d 65 (1994).

The responsibility of the trial court to state the factors considered under the Alexis test for the record is mandatory. Jones, 101 Wash. 2d at 122; Gomez, 75 Wash. App. at 651. Failure to engage in this process on the record is an abuse of discretion. Jones, at 122-23. Admission of a felony as "unnamed" is not a substitute for the balancing process required under Alexis. Gomez, 75 Wash. App. at 655.

Although the trial court was aware of Defendant Rivers' prior criminal history, and the nature and dates of prior convictions, the court did not complete the required analysis of the Alexis factors on the record. Its failure to do so constituted an abuse of discretion. Jones, 101 Wash. 2d at 122-23; Gomez, 75 Wash. App. at 656 n.11.

An erroneous ruling under ER 609(a) is reviewed under the nonconstitutional harmless error standard. Ray, 116 Wash. 2d at 546. Thus an erroneous ER 609 ruling is not reversible error unless the court determines that "'within reasonable probabilities, had the error not occurred, the outcome of the trial would have been materially affected.'" Ray, 116 Wash. 2d at 546 (quoting State v. Smith, 106 Wash. 2d 772, 780, 725 P.2d 951 (1986)); Gomez, 75 Wash. App. at 657.

We hold here that the error was harmless. Had the evidence of the third felony not been before the jury, the outcome of the trial would, in all likelihood, have been the same, i.e., conviction for second degree robbery. First, the testimony offered on behalf of the State showed consistent statements were made by the victim over a period of time with respect to the circumstances of the crime, and several inconsistent statements regarding the incident were made by the Defendant. Second, the Defendant claimed to have talked with the victim a number of times before the date of the crime charged and to have arranged a drug transaction for him through a third person, but the Defendant offered no corroborating testimony even about the occasional legal contacts. Third, the Defendant's own testimony showed a criminal history. He admitted that he stole the money from the victim but denied taking it by force. He stated that he hid from police just prior to his arrest because he believed he had outstanding warrants issued against him. He testified that he had had contact with the police on two other occasions the week of the crime charged, and he testified that he had sold drugs on a number of occasions. Fourth, the State had a per se right to impeach the Defendant's testimony with the prior convictions for robbery and attempted robbery, but the trial court tempered the prejudicial effect of those crimes by restricting the evidence to "unnamed" felonies. Fifth, the trial court instructed the jury that evidence of prior convictions was not evidence of the Defendant's guilt and could be considered only in deciding what weight or credibility should be given to the Defendant's testimony.

Based on the other evidence before the jury, we are able to conclude within a reasonable probability that the outcome of the trial was not materially affected by the erroneous admission of evidence that the Defendant was convicted of a third unnamed felony. Therefore, the error was harmless.

Cross Examination of Defendant. Defendant Rivers claims the trial court abused its discretion by permitting irrelevant evidence to be admitted during cross examination of the Defendant. The Defendant argues that the State should not have been allowed to cross-examine him about statements made by his counsel during the opening statement.

During the opening statement, defense counsel made the following statement:

Back on December 20th, this man here, Paul Rivers, didn't rob anybody -- not Joseph Slobodzian or anyone.

In identifying Mr. Rivers, you will find that what the officers did was take Mr. Slobodzian to a house, show him the bank bag which had been taken, said essentially we found the bank bag in the house, bring Mr. Rivers out in handcuffs, the only African American there, the only guy not in a police uniform, brought him out in front of the house, shined a spotlight on him, said Mr. Slobodzian, do you see anybody who can be a suspect.

Now, every lawyer dreams of getting a case like this, based on a shaky ID. . . .

Clerk's Papers at 364-65.

During cross examination, the following occurred:

Q. [By Prosecutor] Now, you were sitting through opening statement; is that correct?

A. [By Defendant Rivers] I was.

Q. And you heard your attorney make some reference to the jurors that identity was an issue in this case; is that correct?

[Defense Counsel]: I object to that, Your Honor.

THE COURT: Overruled.

Q. [By Prosecutor] That identity was an issue in this case; is that correct?

A. That's correct.

Q. But identity is not the issue in this case, is it?

A. Just as I told you in my statement, the ...

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