By Erica C. Barnett
City Attorney Ann Davison’s office announced Davison will decline to prosecute nearly 2,000 misdemeanor cases referred by the Seattle Police Department as part of an effort to eliminate what she has described as a 5,000-case backlog left over by her predecessor, Pete Holmes. “In order to maintain close-in-time filing for present day cases, some cases from the backlog will be declined, including those involving: Property Destruction, Theft, Criminal Trespass, and Non-DUI Traffic,” the announcement from Davison’s office says.
A spokesman for Davison, Anthony Derrick, said the cases are, on average, 334 days old, “making them very difficult—and in some cases impossible—to prosecute.”
The city attorney’s office will prioritize the remaining cases according to the severity of the charges: “Crimes against persons” such as domestic violence and sexual assault, followed by misdemeanors involving firearms, DUIs, people who meet the criteria of the office’s “high utilizer initiative,” which identified 118 people with 12 or more misdemeanor referrals, and anyone with three or more cases in the backlog. The city has repeatedly announced initiatives to target so-called “prolific offenders” for enhanced prosecution, raising concerns from public defenders who argue that punitive approaches do not lead to rehabilitation or long-term public safety.
Earlier this year, Davison announced she would speed up filing decisions on misdemeanor cases, saying that “the best way to interrupt crime happening on the streets today is by quickly and efficiently moving on the cases referred to us by the Seattle Police Department.” On the campaign trail in 2020, Davison vowed to aggressively prosecute misdemeanors, accusing her opponent, Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, of wanting to legalize crime. On her campaign website, Davison said Thomas-Kennedy believed that “if we stop prosecuting misdemeanor crimes … such an approach would magically make crime disappear.”
Davison’s criminal division director, Natalie Walton-Anderson, struck a markedly different tone in her statement about the decision to decline almost half the cases that make up the backlog. “Simply filing every case would not resolve the backlog,” she said. “[T]he court system cannot handle an influx of cases of this magnitude all at once.”
Derrick, Davison’s spokesman, said the office doesn’t “anticipate that another mass decline will be necessary to clear the backlog by the end of the year”; he added that the decision to decline low-level misdemeanor cases only applies to the backlog, not future cases.
According to today’s announcement, the criminal division of Davison’s office is now “fully staffed.” However, the office plans to ask the city council for extra mid-year funding to hire more staff to address the backlog. The office is scheduled to present their approach to addressing the backlog to the council’s public safety committee next Tuesday.