In a case that emerged from tragic facts of a dogs killing weaker members of their pack and maiming a neighbor’s pet, the Washington Supreme Court issued two significant rulings concerning criminal sentencing last week. First, it unanimously ruled in State v. Deskins that district courts have broad discretion to impose conditions of probation. Second, in a 5-4 ruling, it clarified that evidentiary rules concerning hearsay do not apply to evidence of restitution amounts offered at sentencing hearings.
Pamela Deskins kept approximately 40 dogs in a fenced area on her property. These dogs were vicious toward one another, with some mauling and killing other members of the pack. They attacked and killed livestock on the property. And despite the fence, some attacked a pet dog off the property, inflicting serious injuries. The local sheriff later seized the remaining dogs, placing them in the custody of a local animal rescue.
Deskins was later found guilty of confining animals in an unsafe manner (a misdemeanor), among other charges. Twenty-two minutes after the jury rendered its verdict, the District Court commenced a sentencing hearing, denying Deskins’ request for a one-week continuance. Prepared for sentencing, the State presented statements from individuals who witnessed the dog attacks, the owners of the injured pet, and evidence of the State’s costs of caring for the seized dogs. The District Court sentenced Deskins to two years of probation (as well as a period of confinement), ordered her to pay restitution, and imposed two conditions on her probation: (1) it prohibited her from owning or living animals during her probation; and (2) it ordered to forfeit any remaining animals to the local sheriff, after allowing Deskins seven days to find any remaining animals new homes.
After both the Superior Court and the Court of Appeals reversed certain aspects of the District Court’s rulings, the Washington Supreme Court granted review of the two probation conditions and whether the short period between trial and sentencing and the resulting restitution order violated due process.
The Supreme Court affirmed on all three issues. As to the prohibition on owning animals during probation, the Court rejected Deskins’ argument that the District Court was limited by statute only to ordering forfeiture of animals seized by law enforcement. The Court emphasized that district courts have broad statutory authority to impose conditions on probation and the statute cited by Deskins provided only what courts must do in certain cases and did not restrict what they may do under their broad discretionary authority.
Regarding Deskins’ argument that the forfeiture order was improper, the Court ruled that this issue was moot because there was no evidence of any actual forfeiture.
With respect to Deskins’ due process argument, the Court ruled that Deskins had adequate notice of the possibility of restitution (multiple applicable statutes provided for restitution and Deskins’ criminal proceedings lasted more than a year and a half) and a sufficient opportunity to be heard (Deskins did not object to certain evidence of damages and made now showing of prejudice). The Court further noted that there was sufficient evidence to support its calculation of the restitution amount because evidentiary rules against hearsay did not apply to invoices presented by the State’s witness.
Justice Gordon McCloud (joined by Justices Wiggins, James Johnson, and Fairhurst) dissented from the ruling on due process/restitution, arguing, as a matter of law, that precedent of the Court of Appeals held that hearsay rules do apply, in principle, to evidence of restitution amounts. Factually, she argued that Deskins lacked notice because there was no evidence that the State indicated the amount of restitution it would seek before the sentencing hearing.