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Washington DOC Can’t Impose 5 Years Flat Time for All 1st Degree Assault Convictions with Deadly Weapons Enhancements

The Washington State Supreme Court has ruled that the State Department of Corrections (DOC) can’t require prisoners to serve the first five years of a 1st degree assault sentence as “flat time” (without good time) simply because the sentence includes a deadly weapon enhancement.

Michael J. Roberts and Huy Khac Tran both pled guilty in Washington courts to 1st degree assault, Roberts in February 1999, and Tran in June 2000. Neither plea agreement or judgment and sentence included a mandatory minimum (flat time) sentence, but both had deadly weapons enhancements. The DOC imposed five years flat time in both cases, and both prisoners filed personal restraint petititions in Division 1 of the State Court of Appeals challenging the flat time. Division 1 dismissed the petitions without formal opinions.

The State Supreme Court consolidated the cases on discretionary review. The core issue involved construction of the following three statutory provisions:

The former RCW 9.94a.120(4) (1999-2001) (now 9.94a.540(1)(b)) states that “[a]n offender convicted of assault in the first degree…where the offender used force or means likely to result in death or intended to kill the victim shall be sentenced to a term of total confinement not less than five years.”

RCW 9.94a.602 defines the term deadly weapon for special verdict purposes only. It defines a deadly weapon as “an implement…which has the capacity to inflict death and from the manner in which it is used is likely to produce or may easily and readily produce death.”

RCW 9a.04.110(6) defines the term deadly weapon as “any explosive or loaded or unloaded firearm,…other weapon, device, instrument, article, or substance, including a ‘vehicle’ as defined in this section, which, under the circumstances in which it is used, or threatened to be used, is readily capable of causing death or substantial bodily harm.”

The DOC’s position was that because RCW 9.94a.602 defines a deadly weapon as one “likely to produce…death[,]” and RCW 9.94a.120(4) required flat time for prisoners who use “force or means likely to result in death” which committing a 1st degree assault, all prisoners with 1st degree assault convictions with deadly weapon enhancements must serve five years flat time.

The prisoners argued that RCW 9a.04.110(6) provides the correct definition of deadly weapon for flat time purposes and that its “readily capable of causing death” language doesn’t satisfy the “force or means likely to produce…death” requirement for flat time in RCW 9.94a.120(4), thus that all 1st degree assault convictions with weapon enhancements aren’t subject to flat time.

The Supreme Court agreed with the prisoners, overruled Division 1, and invalidated the flat time imposed by the DOC on Tran and Roberts. See: In re Pers. Restraint of Tran, 154 Wn.2d 323 (Wash. 2005).

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Related legal case

In re Pers. Restraint of Tran