From our colleague Karin Jones:

In State v. Sweat, the Washington Supreme Court held that a court may impose a sentence above the standard range for a domestic violence conviction where the defendant has engaged in a past pattern of abuse towards other individuals.


Criminal defendant Richard Sweat was a repeat abuser, convicted multiple times of domestic violence towards several different women. His most recent act of violence occurred in September 2010, when he struck his girlfriend in the face, causing a fracture and significant swelling. At the hospital, the girlfriend informed a nurse of the abuse. Sweat was charged and convicted, once again, of domestic violence. Because of his history of abuse, the court imposed an exceptional sentence of 7 years, well beyond the standard sentencing range.


The trial court’s 7-year sentence was founded on RCW 9.94A.535(3)(h)(i), which provides for the imposition of a sentence above the standard range where the domestic violence offense “was part of an ongoing pattern of psychological, physical, or sexual abuse of a victim or multiple victims manifested by multiple incidents over a prolonged period of time.” Despite his undeniable past pattern of abuse, Sweat appealed the exceptional sentence, arguing that the term “victim” in RCW 9.94A.535(3)(h)(i) must be interpreted as that term is defined in RCW 9.94A.030(53): as “any person who has sustained emotional, psychological, physical, or financial injury to person or property as a direct result of the crime charged.” (Emphasis added).

The Supreme Court unanimously rejected Sweat’s interpretation of RCW 9.94A.535(3)(h)(i). First, the Court noted that RCW 9.94A.030 provides: “Unless the context clearly requires otherwise, the definitions in this section apply throughout this chapter.” (Emphasis added). The Court found that the context of RCW 9.94A.535(3)(h)(i) clearly requires that the term “victim” can encompass individuals other than the victim of the current charged offense.

Specifically, the Court found that the provision’s use of the terms “a victim” and “multiple victims” in lieu of the term “the victim” was significant. Other provisions in RCW 9.94A.535 expressly refer to “the victim,” “the offense,” or “currently charged offense.” In contrast, RCW 9.94A.535(3)(h)(i) includes broader language. Most importantly, the similar provision of RCW 9.94A.535(3)(g) provides for an exceptional sentence where “[t]he offense was part of an ongoing pattern of sexual abuse of the same victim . . . manifested by multiple incidents over a prolonged period of time.” (Emphasis added). The Court found that if the Legislature had intended a similar limitation in RCW 9.94A.535(3)(h)(i), it would have included similar language in that provision. Thus, the Court held that RCW 9.94A.535(3)(h)(i) is intended to apply to domestic violence perpetrated not only against the victim of the instant offense, but also against any other victims of the defendant’s violent conduct.