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State v. Mitchell

January 27, 1997

STATE OF WASHINGTON, RESPONDENT,
v.
JAMES ADRIAN MITCHELL, APPELLANT.



Appeal from Superior Court of King County. Docket No: 92-1-07764-3. Date filed: 07/26/93.

PER CURIAM -- James A. Mitchell appeals his conviction after a bench trial for possession with intent to deliver cocaine. He argues that the trial court erred by admitting evidence of his employment status, disclosed in response to a booking officer's routine inquiry. He bases his claim on his invocation of his right to silence before the question was asked. The record before us demonstrates that there was overwhelming evidence of Mitchell's guilt, independent of his employment status. Because any alleged error was therefore harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, we affirm.

On November 30, 1991, King County Police Detective Richard McMartin was using a confidential informant (CI) to investigate alleged narcotics sales by Mitchell. Detective McMartin strip-searched the CI to confirm that he had no drugs or money in his possession. McMartin then gave the CI $80 in prerecorded buy money and instructed him to buy two $40 quantities of cocaine from Mitchell. McMartin took the CI to a telephone booth to call Mitchell's pager, await a return call, and arrange the sale. After the CI completed the telephone calls under McMartin's observation, they went to a restaurant adjacent to a gas station.

Shortly thereafter, Mitchell drove into the gas station, stopped, and began pumping gas into his car. McMartin then sent the CI to contact Mitchell. The CI approached Mitchell, and the two of them entered the car. McMartin observed the CI and Mitchell conversing but did not see any exchange. McMartin never lost sight of the CI during that time, and the CI contacted no one but Mitchell. The CI then returned to McMartin's car and handed the detective two pink bindles containing suspected rock cocaine. McMartin contacted the arrest team, directed them to arrest Mitchell, and returned with the CI to the police station. There McMartin strip-searched the CI to confirm that he possessed no drugs or money.

At the arrest scene, other officers recovered the prerecorded buy money, as well as a pager corresponding to the telephone number that the CI had called. An officer also recovered several items from a pouch hanging from Mitchell's neck. The items included three bindles of suspected cocaine, a chunk of suspected rock cocaine weighing more than four grams, a film canister with a razor blade, and a Blockbuster video card imprinted with Mitchell's name. The police recovered no personal use paraphernalia such as syringes or a pipe. A forensic scientist from the state crime lab testified that the large chunk and all of the bindles contained cocaine.

After the arrest, Officer John Holland advised Mitchell of his Miranda rights. *fn1 Mitchell declined to make any statement to the police. Officer Holland then asked Mitchell questions necessary to complete a Suspect Information Report (SIR). These questions included Mitchell's date of birth, social security number, address, telephone number, sex, and race. Holland also inquired as to Mitchell's employment status. Mitchell replied that he was unemployed. The State charged him with one count of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute.

Mitchell stipulated to a bench trial. He made two objections at trial to admission of evidence of his employment status. First, he claimed that the evidence was irrelevant. Second, he claimed that the question was designed to elicit an incriminating response and was therefore forbidden interrogation, given his assertion of his right to silence. The trial court overruled Mitchell's objections. At the Conclusion of the trial, the court found him guilty and imposed a standard range sentence of 26 months' incarceration.

In this appeal, Mitchell argues that the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress his statement to the booking officer regarding his employment status. He claims that the statement was obtained in violation of the right against self-incrimination guaranteed him by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. We hold that any alleged error was harmless, based on the overwhelming evidence of his guilt, untainted by the challenged evidence.

We need not decide whether error occurred. If it did, it would be a violation of the defendant's right against self-incrimination, a constitutional error. *fn2 To determine whether such an alleged error is harmless, we look "only to the untainted evidence to decide if it is so overwhelming that it necessarily leads to a finding of guilt." *fn3 Here, the trial testimony and the physical evidence, independent of Mitchell's answers to routine booking questions, provided overwhelming evidence of guilt. Furthermore, the trial court's findings of fact and Conclusions of law do not mention Mitchell's employment status. The trial court described its basis for concluding that Mitchell had the intent to distribute:

Intent to sell was circumstantially shown given the fact that the informant was searched before and after the transaction; the defendant had two bindles similar to the ones delivered to the informant on his person upon arrest; the buy money was found in his hand and he had no drug paraphernalia on him. In addition, the cocaine found on Mitchell after arrest was similar to those [sic] found delivered to the informant. Finally, the amount of drugs found on the defendant is excessive. Any alleged error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

We affirm the judgment and ...


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