EVERETT — A Sultan man accused of a bank robbery had his case thrown out because deputies took pictures of letters to his lawyer, while trying to compare his handwriting to that of a robbery note.
The state Court of Appeals overturned Adam Myers’ conviction for first-degree robbery this week, ruling his constitutional rights were violated.
In May 2021, Myers was arrested for robbing a Wells Fargo bank in Snohomish. Myers, 26, had rented a Nissan Altima, saying he was going to Bellingham, according to charging papers. He allegedly walked into the bank and asked to check his balance, but slipped the teller a note.
“Give me all your money. 100s, 50s, 20s. No dyes no trackers no alarms,” it read. The teller handed the robber a stack of cash, and he left.
Detective Judith Saarinen was assigned as the lead investigator, according to court documents.
Surveillance footage helped identify Myers as a suspect. Snohomish police searched Myers’ house, and found the handwritten note that appeared to be the one handed to the teller, according to court documents.
While Myers was in custody at the Snohomish County Jail, detective Saarinen learned Myers’ former landlord received a letter from him, according to appellate court documents. The letter, which was written in cursive, contained a confession that said Myers was forced to rob the bank by someone who threatened him with a gun, according to the appellate court ruling. This was the story he maintained when the case went to trial.
Saarinen consulted with a forensic scientist at the Washington State Patrol crime laboratory, who advised that a handwriting comparison could be conducted, but they would need more materials. The detective notified the jail, and police said they would search Myers’ cell.
Sheriff’s deputy Pavel Ryakhovskiy entered the cell and noticed several handwritten papers on his desk. The deputy took pictures of 10 different documents, then emailed the images to detective Saarinen.
Saarinen noticed documents titled, “the story,” “haircut” and “notes about defense.” According to the appellate decision, the detective was concerned the documents contained privileged material, so she “closed her email and did not read anything further.”
The detective sent an email to Tyler Scott, the deputy prosecutor in charge of Myers’ case, about the privileged attorney-client communications. Scott asked the documents be reviewed by an “uninvolved detective,” David Bilyeu, who determined several documents contained “privileged communications.”
Detective Saarinen told deputy Ryakhovskiy to return to Myers’ cell and take pictures of papers that “did not look like legal documents,” according to court papers. The deputy decided to not take pictures of documents that were on lined paper and looked “neat.” Bilyeu later testified that four out of these five documents contained privileged communication.
On Sept. 27, 2021, Myers’ attorney Erika Bleyl moved to dismiss the case based on “government misconduct.” Superior Court Judge Edirin Okoloko denied the motion “finding that there was no prejudice taken against the defendant,” according to court records. However, the judge ordered the documents in question needed to be destroyed and that Bilyeu and Ryakhovskiy could not testify at trial.
After hearing testimony, the court decided Ryakhovskiy “did not share the documents with the prosecutor or anyone else,” even though the deputy testified he shared them with Bilyeu at the direction of prosecutors, according to court documents.
“The conduct here does not rise to the level of egregiousness where prejudice should be presumed,” the trial court ruled.
The Court of Appeals found once it’s established that a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right was violated, there is a “presumption of prejudice to the defendant that can only be rebutted if the State proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant suffered no prejudice.”
The case went in front of a jury later in the month in Judge Richard Okrent’s court, and Saarinen testified, as did the defendant.
A jury convicted Myers in November 2021. Myers immediately appealed.
According to the appellate decision, there was “definitive evidence” that a “state actor” read the privileged attorney-client communications, because Bilyeu confirmed he reviewed the documents in their entirety, doing so at the discretion of the lead detective on the case, with the blessing of prosecuting attorneys, according to the appellate ruling.
Finally, the appellate judges ruled the decision to have another sheriff’s deputy review the privileged materials, instead of a neutral judicial officer, further violated Myers’ constitutional rights.
“This (was) no sanction at all on the government actors, who appear to have genuinely believed that their conduct was wholly appropriate,” the court wrote, “so there is no discouragement from engaging in similar behavior in the future.”
According to the appellate court, it was an error egregious enough to reverse the conviction. The case now will return to Snohomish County.
Myers’ attorney did not immediately return a Daily Herald reporter’s phone call Thursday.
Michael Held, the Snohomish County prosecutor’s chief of staff, said state attorneys were reviewing the decision and “assessing our options” for the next step.