By Paul Kiefer
On Thursday morning, a Seattle Municipal Court Judge approved a motion by Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes to quash all outstanding warrants for misdemeanor prostitution, including some issued well over a decade ago.
The motion, which Holmes’ office filed last Friday, requested that the court dismiss 37 warrants involving 34 people arrested for selling sex between 2001 and 2019; the office also asked the court to dismiss cases or vacate charges against the individuals named in the warrants, on the condition that a future city attorney cannot refile the cases at a later date. The warrants represent less than one percent of the outstanding warrants issued by the municipal court.
The City Attorney’s Office hasn’t prosecuted anyone for selling sex since 2019, when the Seattle Police Department ramped up arrests and sting operations targeting both sex workers and buyers in response to public pressure driven by an increase in the presence of sex workers along Aurora Avenue North—an uptick partially driven by the federal shutdown of Backpage, a website sex workers used to find clients. Because Seattle’s pre-arrest diversion programs were stretched to capacity, officers booked dozens of sex workers into the King County jail; the City Attorney’s Office opted not to file charges against most of them, though eight of the warrants quashed on Thursday stemmed from charges that the office filed in 2019.
Lisa Daugaard, the executive director of the Public Defender Association and co-founder of Let Everyone Advance with Dignity (LEAD), previously known as Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, told PubliCola on Thursday that public criticism of SPD’s arrests in 2019 likely prompted the department to reverse course. The change in police department leadership (from Carmen Best to interim chief Adrian Diaz), the COVID-19 pandemic, and SPD’s ongoing staffing challenges also played key roles in curtailing low-level arrests in general, Daugaard added. SPD officers have made 55 prostitution arrests this year, compared to 78 in all of 2020 and 175 in 2019.
The City Attorney’s Office has also seen a sharp decline in the number of sex buyers the police department refers to the office for charging. Because of a delay between arrests and filings, the office received 88 referrals in the first two months of 2020—sex buyers arrested during SPD sting operations the previous year—but only a single case between early March and the end of the year. In 2021, SPD has only referred four sex buyers to the office for charging. SPD has also made fewer arrests of sex buyers in the past two years: seven in 2021 and nine in 2020, compared to 76 in 2019.
The City Attorney’s Office did not attempt to contact the people subject to outstanding prostitution warrants before filing the motion; Holmes spokesman Dan Nolte told PubliCola on Wednesday that his office planned to wait until the court accepted their motion before reaching out.