Basic Needs Defense Prompts Wild Claims, Top Staff Blindsided by Durkan Departure, Another Hiring Delay at Homelessness Authority

1. After listening to public comment from both sides of the debate (one woman, who rattled off the first names of several homeless people she claimed to know, said a guy named “Josh” told her, “The only way you can help me is to arrest me and have me sweat it out”), the council’s public safety committee discussed a proposal from council member Lisa Herbold that would create a new affirmative defense for people who commit crimes of poverty.

The proposal, a version of which Herbold originally proposed as part of the 2021 budget, would enable people who admitted to committing misdemeanor crimes, such as shoplifting or trespassing, to meet a basic human need to use this fact as a defense in court. A judge or jury would then determine whether the defendant actually committed the crime to meet a basic need or not.

The concept has been widely mischaracterized as a plan to “legalize all crime” by conservative interest groups Change Washington and business leaders who claim it would allow people to vandalize small businesses, walk out of stores with armloads of cell phones, and squat on people’s property with impunity. In reality, creating a “basic need” defense would  merely add one more affirmative defense to the list that already exists in city law. Defendants already have the ability to argue, for example, that they committed a crime because they were under duress. Judges and juries then have the ability to agree or disagree with this defense.

These facts didn’t stop public commenters from claiming that creating a new defense would effectively unleash “addicts” and “criminals” on the streets of Seattle. And it didn’t stop council member Alex Pedersen from rattling off a list of extremely implausible scenarios if the bill passed.

The Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) zone made Seattle a “national embarrassment,” he said—and a basic need defense might do the same, impacting everything from the US Senate races in Georgia to the future makeup of the Supreme Court. Renters, he said, might see their renters’ insurance premiums go up as insurance companies decide en masse to “classify all of Seattle as a high-risk zone.” And how, he wondered, would the proposal prevent criminals “from just coming to Seattle to shoplift because they know they can claim poverty as a defense?” (Never mind that the scenario he’s describing would involve going to jail, getting out, getting an attorney, going to court, and convincing a judge or jury that the defense was valid).

And how, city council member Alex Pedersen wondered, would the proposal prevent criminals “from just coming to Seattle to shoplift because they know they can claim poverty as a defense?”

In any case, Pedersen continued, it makes no sense to address the judicial system’s response to crimes of poverty before the city knows the impact of cuts to police, the outcome of the participatory budgeting process that just got underway, and the details of the next Seattle Police Officers Guild contract. “Let’s first see how these other changes work before this council is immersed in a time-consuming and distracting debate over whether we would be the first city in the US to weaken our laws that protect each other,” he said.

Finally, Pedersen argued that City Attorney Pete Holmes has already said that he doesn’t prosecute crimes of poverty, which means that there’s no reason to even discuss the issue for “one to five years,” the length of Holmes’ current and (likely) upcoming terms.

Herbold is still working on draft legislation. Outstanding questions (outlined in this memo) include whether to narrow the defense to a specific list of misdemeanors, whether to put the burden of proof on defendants to show that they had no choice but to commit a crime, and whether people who shoplift merchandise for resale should be allowed to use the defense.

2. Documents just posted on the website of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority indicate that the timeline for hiring a director for the agency has slipped again, from mid-January to mid-February of next year. Originally, the new homelessness agency—which is supposed to come up with a unified, regional approach to homelessness for the entire county, including Seattle and dozens of suburban cities—was supposed to approve the CEO in September.

Original CEO hiring timeline via KCRHA.

The delay in hiring could indicate that the consultant the county hired to find a director for the agency, the California-based Hawkins Group, is having trouble coming up with the list of five to eight qualified candidates they have said they would identify by early December. (Will outgoing interim Human Services Department director Jason Johnson be among them?) Mayor Jenny Durkan, who also recently announced that she is leaving, has indicated she is confident that the authority will be able to recruit plenty of qualified candidates for the position.

3. Speaking of Durkan’s departure: Sources familiar with the reaction of staffers to the mayor’s announcement say that many within her own inner circle, including cabinet members and people who report directly to the mayor, had no idea her announcement was coming and learned about it in media reports.

Durkan stage-managed the announcement, choosing Q13 and the Seattle Times as the public venues for her announcement. As Q13’s Brandi Kruse tweeted about her interview with the mayor in which the mayor made the “BREAKING” announcement “that she intends to focus on current crises rather than campaigning,” the Times’ Jim Brunner—also claiming an exclusive—posted that he had heard from sources in touch with the mayor that the mayor wasn’t running.

Half an hour later, Brunner’s paper posted an op/ed by the mayor (presumably written, read, and edited by the Times well in advance) explaining why she wasn’t running. Meanwhile, the mayor’s chief of staff and campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Formas alerted the media with a press release that included a video of the mayor making her official announcement.

Given all the effort that went into ensuring that the mayor could control the message around her departure, it’s a bit surprising that at least some department heads weren’t given a heads-up about the announcement—and that an internal announcement to all city staff didn’t go out until several hours after Durkan told the public.

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4 thoughts on “Basic Needs Defense Prompts Wild Claims, Top Staff Blindsided by Durkan Departure, Another Hiring Delay at Homelessness Authority”

  1. Very sad about Durkan not running again. She has done alot of good with the College Promise program and has for the most part (CHOP was the only big mistake) done well leading the city through a tumultuous time with a COMPLETELY UNSUPPORTIVE council that wouldn’t even denounce the release of her address and the repeated demonstrations at her home even attended by Councilmember Sawant. Totally Inappropriate behavior on the Councils part. I’m sure the danger to her family was in large part responsible for this decision. We have lost the adult in the room.

    Wake up Seattle!

  2. It seems you are “widely mischaracterizing” the proposed law legalizing misdemeanor crimes. It is so loosely defined that any of the scenarios mentioned by Alex Pederson and many more that anyone can think of – would be legal. Every small AND large business and their employees in the City of Seattle should be speaking out against this proposal! It will allow shoplifting to increase even more – thus increasing the cost of Business Insurance in Seattle. Combine this with the increases in taxes and the micromanaging legislation on restaurants and other businesses and you will be encouraging a mass exodus of businesses from Seattle above what has already happened due to COVID!

    BTW – Alex Pedersen also wrote about the possible increase to Business Insurance – which I notice you conveniently overlooked in your story.

  3. “(Never mind that the scenario he’s describing would involve going to jail, getting out, getting an attorney, going to court, and convincing a judge or jury that the defense was valid).”

    My understanding is that many cases are not prosecuted or settled without going to court. What makes a prosecutor decide how far to take a case is whether they think they can get a conviction or not. I believe police also keep this in mind somewhat–i.e. if they know prosecutors are not going to prefecture a particular type of crime, they are less likely to arrest. So, if the law is changed, I would think this could have all sorts of effects on people even without getting an attorney or going to court. Not saying if this proposed law is a good or bad thing, but I do worry that this coverage feels somewhat one-sided.

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