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State v. Torres

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 3

April 13, 2017

MARIO TORRES, Appellant. In the Matter of the Personal Restraint of MARIO TORRES, Petitioner.

          PENNELL, J.

         Mario Torres was convicted of a witness tampering charge involving his minor son. At sentencing, the trial court imposed a five-year no-contact order between Mr. Torres and his son. Because the no-contact order was imposed without adequate consideration of Mr. Torres's fundamental right to parent his son, we remand for reconsideration.


         Mario Torres is the father of M.T. (born 2003) and N.B. (born 2012). N.B. had been living with his mother, but on the morning of December 22, 2014, he was left in Mr. Torres's care while N.B.'s mother went shopping. M.T. was also with Mr. Torres at the time. On December 23, N.B.'s mother and grandmother took him to receive medical care after he was found unresponsive. N.B. died a few days later. A preliminary investigation of N.B.'s injuries suggested his death was a homicide.

         Part of law enforcement's investigation into N.B.'s death involved a forensic interview of M.T. M.T. originally told the interviewer that N.B. was responsive while in Mr. Torres's care and ate some "Chicken McNuggets" during this time. Clerk's Papers (CP) at 8. But M.T. subsequently told the interviewer this was not true. M.T. then related that he heard a loud bang while Mr. Torres was caring for N.B. and N.B. started loudly crying. Mr. Torres later told M.T. he had accidentally stepped on N.B.'s leg causing him to fall and strike the bedpost. M.T. never saw N.B. get up again after this. M.T. told the interviewer that both his parents approached him at his grandmother's home earlier that day and told him to make up a story about N.B. eating Chicken McNuggets, and not mention that N.B. had bumped his head. Mr. Torres allegedly told M.T. to "make up lies." Id.

         The police talked to Mr. Torres the day after M.T's interview. After being advised of his Miranda[1] rights, Mr. Torres denied injuring N.B. but admitted N.B. fell and struck his head on a bedpost. Mr. Torres also admitted he did not want M.T. to talk to the police and had a private conversation with him to outline what M.T. would say. Mr. Torres claimed he told M.T. to tell the truth and say Mr. Torres did not cause the injuries to N.B. He did not offer any specific details on what M.T. was told.

         The State charged Mr. Torres with one count of witness tampering under RCW 9A.72.120(1)(c). The case progressed toward trial and a CrR 3.5 hearing was set for February 11, 2015. The hearing was not held, but the parties stipulated to a continuance on February 11 that pushed the CrR 3.5 hearing to February 25 the trial date out to late March. Mr. Torres ultimately entered an Alford[2] plea on February 25. His case then proceeded directly to sentencing.

         During the sentencing colloquy, counsel for the State requested a six-month no-contact order between Mr. Torres and his son, which would be subject to renewal. Defense counsel asked the court not to impose a no-contact order, citing the active role Mr. Torres played in his son's life. The court ultimately imposed a five-year no-contact order, prohibiting Mr. Torres from all contact with M.T. except by written mail that first must be screened by M.T.'s mother. Mr. Torres also received a sentence of six months and $1, 960 in legal financial obligations (LFOs).[3]


         RCW 9.94A.505(9) authorizes a trial court to impose crime related prohibitions as sentencing conditions. State v. Warren, 165 Wn.2d 17, 32, 195 P.3d 940 (2008).[4]Conditions interfering with fundamental rights, such as the right to a parent-child relationship, must be "sensitively imposed" so they are "reasonably necessary to accomplish the essential needs of the State and public order." In re Pers. Restraint of Rainey, 168 Wn.2d 367, 374, 229 P.3d 686 (2010) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Warren, 165 Wn.2d at 32). Although we review a trial court's decision to impose sentencing conditions for abuse of discretion, discretion is abused if the trial court employs the wrong legal standard. Rainey, 168 Wn.2d at 374-75; see also State v. Lord, 161 Wn.2d 276, 283-84, 165 P.3d 1251 (2007).

         At sentencing, the trial court imposed a five-year no-contact order, prohibiting almost all contact between Mr. Torres and his son. In so doing, the court failed to acknowledge Mr. Torres's fundamental right to parent his child or explain why a five-year prohibition on all personal contact was reasonably necessary to further the State's interests. This was error, even under the deferential abuse of discretion standard. Rainey, 168 Wn.2d at 374-75; State v. Howard, 182 Wn.App. 91, 100-01, 328 P.3d 969 (2014). While the trial court certainly can impose a no-contact order to advance the State's fundamental interests in protecting children, it must do so in a nuanced manner that is sensitive to the changing needs and interests of the parent and child. Rainey, 168 Wn.2d at 378.

         The State suggests we can infer the reasons for the court's no-contact order from the record. We disagree. The record before us is scant. The trial judge did not explain why he decided to impose a no-contact order that was 10 times longer than what was requested by the State. We are unable to discern the court's likely reasoning from the limited information presented. It is the trial court's duty to balance the competing interests impacted by a no-contact order. This is a fact intensive exercise that must, at first instance, be done in the trial court, not the appellate court.

         Because the trial court's decision to impose a no-contact order was not guided by the analysis required by our case law, we remand for reconsideration of the no-contact order. On remand, the trial court shall first address whether a no-contact order remains reasonably necessary in light of the State's interests in protecting M.T. from harm. If it is, then the court shall endeavor to narrowly tailor the order, both in terms of scope and duration. When it comes to the order's scope, the court shall consider less restrictive alternatives, such as supervised visitation, prior to restricting all personal contact between Mr. Torres and his child. See, e.g., State v. Ancira, 107 Wn.App. 650, 654-55, 27 P.3d 1246 (2001). In addition, the court's order should recognize that "what is reasonably necessary to protect the State's interests may change over time." Rainey, 168 Wn.2d at 381. Accordingly, the court shall consider whether the scope of the no-contact order should change over time. The court shall also reconsider whether the ultimate length of the no-contact order remains appropriate.

         On remand, the trial court should keep in mind that a sentencing proceeding is not the ideal forum for addressing parenting issues. Ancira, 107 Wn.App. at 655. Our juvenile and family courts are better equipped to resolve custody questions, including whether restrictions should be placed on parent-child contact. See chs. 13.34, 26.09, 26.10, 26.26 RCW. Outside the context of the procedural protections provided in dependency and child custody cases, our legislature has directed that a parent-child no-contact order should not last longer than one year, unless ...

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