There’s a wonderful new book by Amor Towles called Lincoln Highway. In the story two adolescents fight. One teenager falls backward, trips over a cable, strikes his head on a concrete block, and dies nearly two months later. The adolescent who struck the fatal blow is then sentenced to a state work farm. The warden at the work farm tells the defendant that he understands the blow was “the ugly side of chance.”
It’s a reality that unintended consequences matter, in fiction and in life. In one recent case reported in The Columbian, a Vancouver resident – Mickey Alan Day – was charged with fatally killing a man named Joshua Beatty in July of 2021. The weapon? A pellet gun.
A quick recap of the fatal shooting
The story behind the case is convoluted at best, and the statements from the witnesses are contradictory, but it appears that there was a confrontation between Day and Beatty at Day’s motor home. At one point, Beatty pulled a gun and Day had a knife, and then Beatty drove away.
Per the Columbian:
[Day] was in the motor home, he said, when he saw Beatty arguing with his wife and waving a gun. He said he went outside with a knife, and Beatty drove away, according to court records.
However, the sound of an apparent gunshot was captured on surveillance video from nearby houses, though Day is not seen. The gunshot was prior to Beatty exiting his van. Day’s wife and the other man at the house were also captured on surveillance video unarmed, the affidavit says.
Day was arrested on a warrant and, in a later interview, allegedly told police he’d fired the pellet gun to scare Beatty away after Beatty grabbed a gun, according to the affidavit.
Interestingly, The Columbian reported that “the judge questioned whether the confrontation was a setup, but the prosecution said it was too early to say.”
Clark County Medical Examiner’s Office later determined that Beatty was shot with a pellet, which traveled into his chest cavity. The medical examiner’s office said the wound was fatal, but it could’ve taken a few minutes for Beatty to die.
Are pellet guns considered deadly weapons in Washington?
They can be. They are considered firearms under RCW § 9.41.010, and it is against the law to “[Aim] any firearm, whether loaded or not, at or towards any human being” and “willfully [discharge] any firearm, air gun, or other weapon… in any place where any person might be endangered thereby” under RCW § 9.41.230.
And they should be considered deadly weapons. The Consumer Production Safety Commission (CPSC) reports that “High-velocity BB guns, which have muzzle velocities higher than 350 feet per second, can increase this risk” of injury and death, and are responsible for about four deaths every year.
The problem, of course, is that most agencies don’t consider BB guns firearms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) specifically excludes them from its definition of firearms, and the last time the CDC looked into injuries was 1994. So 18 years ago, about 30,000 people suffered BB-related injuries each year.
And you were just worried about shooting your eye out.
When unintended consequences lead to criminal charges
In the end, an unintended consequence is still a consequence, and in many cases, it will lead to more severe penalties. Drivers who drive under the influence of alcohol will likely be charged with a DUI – a gross misdemeanor if their BAC result is too high. If, however, the driver causes a death as a result of driving under the influence, the driver can be charged with vehicular homicide. The vehicular homicide law applies if the victim dies within three years of the accident and the death is due to the drunk driving. The DUI charge will then be upgraded to a felony punishable under RCW § 9A.20 . In addition, two years will be added to any sentence if the defendant had a prior DUI.
Washington’s three strikes rule
This gets much worse if you are a “repeat” offender. Washington law still follows the “three strikes” rule, with the most serious offenders be sentenced to prison for life without the possibility of parole. The problem with the law is that it paints with a broad brush. Many defendants who might otherwise face short prison sentences on conviction can, under the three-strikes law, be sentenced to life behind bars.
The statute states that the reasons for this law are to:
- Improve public safety by placing the most dangerous criminals in prison.
- Reduce the number of serious, repeat offenders by tougher sentencing.
- Set proper and simplified sentencing practices that both the victims and persistent offenders can understand.
- Restore public trust in our criminal justice system by directly involving the people in the process.
The definition of a “serious offender” is located in another statute: RCW 9.94A.030. Examples of a serious offense include:
- Assault in the second degree
- Assault of a child in the second degree
- Child molestation in the second degree
- Controlled substance homicide
- Extortion in the first degree
- Incest when committed against a child under the age of fourteen
- Indecent liberties
- Kidnapping in the second degree
- Leading organized crime
- Manslaughter in the first degree
- Manslaughter in the second degree
- Promoting prostitution in the first degree
- Rape in the third degree
- Sexual exploitation
- Other crimes
The role of “intent” when it comes to criminal charges in Washington
Let’s go back to the story in The Columbian. Day is suspected of manslaughter in the first degree. Per the statute, “A person is guilty of manslaughter in the first degree when he or she recklessly causes the death of another person.” It’s not a murder charge because, at this time, there’s no way to prove intent or premeditation. Remember – most people and government agencies do not classify pellet guns as deadly weapons, even though they fall under the definition in our own state Code. As such, Day may have a strong defense for lack of intent because the average person doesn’t think shooting a person with a pellet gun will lead to a death, and Day himself said he was just trying to scare Beatty – that he only fired the gun because Beatty tried to grab it from him. And while ignorance of the law does not excuse one from it, Day may avoid more severe charges as a result.
On the other hand, he is accused of shooting a man in the stomach at point-blank range, so whether the charges will be upgraded or not remains to be seen.
At Philbrook Law Office, our Vancouver and Battle Ground, WA criminal defense lawyers have a strong record of success in obtaining dismissals and acquittals of criminal charges. We are also skilled at negotiating plea bargains when justice demands that more serious charges be dropped. We assert your Constitutional rights, challenge the prosecution’s interpretation of the laws, and work to show the government cannot prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
To speak with an experienced and respected criminal defense lawyer in Vancouver or Battle Ground, WA, call us at 360-996-3462 or use our contact form to schedule an appointment. We’ll assert all your defenses.
Founding Attorney Matthew Philbrook attended Clark College, Washington State University, and Gonzaga University School of Law. He is a member of the Washington State and Oregon State Bar Associations and started Philbrook Law Office in 2005. He specializes in Personal Injury, DUI and Criminal Defense cases. Learn more about Mr. Philbrook.