The attorney for an inmate charged with a courtroom attack argued Thursday that the law is unconstitutional because only those who can afford bail will see required signage.
A large sign outside the public entrance to the courtroom states, among other things, that assaults are prohibited inside.
Poor defendants like Brandon L. VanWinkle are at a disadvantage because they’re led in through another door and never see the sign, Karla Kane Hudson argued.
VanWinkle, 37, is accused of punching a child abuser in a Benton County Superior Court jury box because he disagreed with the man receiving a short sentence.
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What would have been a misdemeanor simple assault was elevated to a felony “due to the fact that it occurred in the courtroom while court was in session,” the attorney said.
The third-degree assault statute under which VanWinkle is charged states signage must be “prominently displayed” at any public entrance informing people of the possible enhanced penalties.
At the time, VanWinkle was in custody on a drug case that was later dismissed.
“He was brought into court via a back door where all inmates that have not been able to bail out enter the courtroom from,” Kane Hudson said. “If (VanWinkle) was not indigent and had been able to bail out, he would have entered the courtroom via the front door and would have been provided the notice mandated by the Legislature.”
VanWinkle’s case should be dismissed because the 2013 amendment to the assault law treats a certain class of people differently, she said. The equal protection clause of the U.S. and Washington constitutions protect him from disparate treatment.
Kane Hudson previously tried to get the case tossed on the grounds there was no sign at the inmate entrance. Judge Cameron Mitchell denied that request because the law doesn’t require that actual notice be given.
On Thursday, Judge George Fearing denied the defense’s second motion to dismiss.
Fearing — a former Tri-City lawyer who’s been on the Washington Court of Appeals since 2013 — is presiding over VanWinkle’s criminal matters.
That’s because the Benton-Franklin Superior Court judges recused themselves because VanWinkle has a newer case for allegedly threatening to chop up one of their colleagues.
Court administration typically finds judges in surrounding counties who are willing to take on a conflict case.
But since no one was available this time, Administrator Pat Austin said they had to turn to their “elected judge pro tem list” for help. Fearing is on that list, along with Judge Jerry Roach from Franklin County District Court, she said.
Fearing noted Thursday that he has a break in his schedule with his appellate docket not resuming until late April.
Deputy Prosecutor Brendan Siefken told the judge that VanWinkle isn’t locked up simply because he’s indigent, which makes it “a faulty premise” for the defense to raise that argument.
Siefken said VanWinkle is in custody with a high bail amount because he poses a danger to the community and “his propensity to not show up to court.”
I have no actual evidence that it makes a difference as to where the individual enters the courtroom. I don’t know how many people read the signage as they come in. My guess is not everybody.
Judge George Fearing
Fearing called the third-degree assault charge with required signage a unique statute because of that added element.
The general rule of law is that people don’t have to be given constructive notice to be guilty of a crime, he said. It is presumed they know what the law is.
“I have no actual evidence that it makes a difference as to where the individual enters the courtroom,” Fearing said. “I don’t know how many people read the signage as they come in. My guess is not everybody.”
Fearing pointed out there was no testimony from the defense whether VanWinkle was aware of the public sign or the potential for a higher charge, and if that even would have made a difference in his alleged conduct.
The burden was on the defense to show the law is unconstitutional, he said, but he “applauded” Kane Hudson for bringing the motion before the court.
VanWinkle’s trial is scheduled March 28 on the assault. His unrelated case for intimidating a judge is set for April 25.