Court of Appeals: Div. III – Gang Affiliation and Witness Intimidation Not Prejudicial for This Walmart Shopper
State v. Saenz
Mr. Saenz was a member of a gang called the Bell Garden Locos in Sunnyside, Washington. Saenz got into a verbal altercation at Walmart with two 15 year old members of a rival gang, the Lower Valley Locos. Walmart makes me crazy too. I become a member of the Low Price Locos and our motto is “I don’t care how cheap it is, get me the hell out of here!” And their logo is a smiley face…I don’t think so.
The parties left the store and Saenz had a friend, Guillen, pick him up to pursue the two rivals. They found the rivals driving through the parking lot. Saenz started shooting and the two rivals exited their vehicle and ran. Saenz shot one of them in the back. The other fell while trying to escape and put his head through the glass door at Ace Hardware.
Saenz and Guillen escaped, but were later turned in by a relative. Guillen agreed to testify against Saenz for a plea deal. Saenz was charged with two counts of first degree assault and one count of unlawful possession of a firearm. At trial, the State sought admission of Saenz’s gang affiliation. “The court found that three detectives had specific knowledge of language, formation, affiliation, and overall gang structure. The trial court allowed the detectives to testify regarding gangs and gang activity to show proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, and absence of mistake or accident.”
The State also sought to introduce evidence of witness intimidation. Saenz had been sending messages to Guillen while they were both in jail. Saenz wanted Guillen to take responsibility for the crimes because he wouldn’t get as much time. Guillen was warned that if he didn’t take the rap, then he and his family would be harmed. Guillen was assaulted in the jail by a group of inmates who were “sending a message.” The court allowed the evidence regarding witness intimidation to show guilty knowledge of the crimes and participation.
Saenz was convicted on all charges and the State sought to have Saenz sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole because he was a persistent offender. The judge disagreed that Saenz was a persistent offender because Saenz had plead guilty to second degree assault and custodial assault when he was 15 years old. When Saenz plead guilty to these charges he signed a stipulation declining juvenile jurisdiction and specifically waived the requirement of a declination hearing. Saenz was represented by counsel when he plead guilty. However, the judge who took the plea failed to make any findings regarding the declination of juvenile court jurisdiction or Saenz’s waiver. So the trial court in the present case concluded that these convictions did not qualify for purposes of persistent offender status because there was no express waiver of juvenile jurisdiction. Saenz had one other serious offender conviction, but the statute requires two convictions for persistent offender status.
Saenz appealed the admission of gang affiliation evidence and witness intimidation. The State appealed the court’s failure to sentence as a persistent offender.
Since the trial court had weighed the probative value of the evidence of gang affiliation against its prejudicial impact and held that the evidence was being introduced to establish motive, intent, opportunity, and res gestae for the crimes charged, the Court of Appeals did not disturb the ruling. Similarly, the witness intimidation evidence was also properly weighed by the trial court and admitted.
Saenz also challenged the sufficiency of the evidence to convict him. However, given the testimony of the victim AND Saenz’s own homie that he was the shooter, the Court of Appeals held that the evidence was sufficient.
In addition, the Court of Appeals found that when Saenz entered his plea as a 15 year old, he knowingly and intelligently waived juvenile court jurisdiction. Thus he was a persistent offender under the statute and the trial court was reversed. Saenz will be getting LIFE! Maybe he can start a new gang called the Life Time Locos!