In State v. Johnson, the Washington Supreme Court provided two rulings. First, it unanimously held that a charging document does not need to provide legal definitions of all the concepts within it to provide constitutionally sufficient notice to the defendant. Second, it ruled 7-2 that a jury must only be given a general criminal law definition of “reckless” to convict a defendant if it is also instructed as to the particular form of recklessness charged. Justice Gordon McCloud assumed her now customary role of dissenter to the second ruling.
Background: The facts of this case are unsettling. The defendant held his wife captive for three days, subjecting her to emotional, mental and physical abuse. The physical abuse included attacking her with a rock, allowing his Rottweiler to bite her, and slamming her to the ground. The defendant was convicted of five counts. The Supreme Court granted review of the unlawful imprisonment and assault charge.
First holding (unanimous): All nine Justices agreed that the State need not define “restrain” in a charging document accusing a defendant of unlawful imprisonment (domestic violence) by restraining a victim. The court held that definitions are not essential elements of the crime charged. Therefore, the charging document provides sufficient notice to the defendant of the crime charge without including definitions.
In the unanimous ruling on behalf of the State, the Supreme Court provided a salve to defense attorneys. The high court accepted a prior decision by the intermediate Court of Appeals that the state must prove defendants knew they lacked legal authority to restrain the victim in order to convict of unlawful imprisonment. However, the State does not need to tell the defendant that it believed he or she lacked this good faith belief in the initial charging document. The court noted that most unlawful imprisonment cases do not involve the assertion of a good faith belief in legal authority to restrain, especially in domestic violence cases.
Second holding: In the second holding on the assault charge, the court lost two votes and held 7-2 that a jury may properly convict a defendant for “recklessly” committing a crime when it is both given a general definition of “reckless” (ignoring a substantial risk that a wrongful act may occur) and an instruction that to convict they must find a charge-specific kind of recklessness occurred (ignoring a substantial risk that substantial bodily harm may occur). The court found that the jury instructions as a whole were sufficient and that requiring separate additional definitions of “reckless” for each crime charged would cause jury confusion.
Partial dissent: In a partial dissent joined by Justice Wiggins, the indefatigable dissenter Justice Gordon McCloud argued that “reckless” must get a charge-specific definition. Otherwise, a jury might improperly convict the defendant if he ignored the risk of slight bodily harm while inflicting great bodily harm. The dissent is correct as a matter of strict logic, but the instructions read as a whole probably provided the jury with enough information to convey that a conviction for reckless assault required a finding that the defendant ignored the risk of serious bodily harm. This is especially so under the woeful facts of this case, where it was readily apparent that the defendant was ignoring a substantial risk of serious bodily harm rather than another wrongful act in his treatment of his wife.
Justice Gordon McCloud’s suggestion that jury instructions define reckless to reference “the wrongful act charged” seems to be sound advice to trial courts even if the more general definition survived this challenge. In a case presenting more of a question about the defendant’s understanding of the specific risks in his actions, how “reckless” is defined to the jury could face more scrutiny.