Category: Courts

In Victory for Families of People Killed by Police, State Supreme Court Allows Inquest Reforms to Proceed

A portrait of Charleena Lyles on Capitol Hill in June 2020 (Flickr: Derek Simeone; reproduced under a Creative Commons license)

By Paul Kiefer

The Washington State Supreme Court sided with the families of people killed by police officers in a unanimous decision Thursday, restoring reforms to King County’s inquest process that have stalled since 2018 under pressure from law enforcement agencies.

The ruling brings a close to a lawsuit filed against King County Executive Dow Constantine last year by the families of Damarius Butts, Isaiah Obet, Charleena Lyles and seven other people killed by law enforcement officers in the county in 2017. It also opens the door for inquests—a type of fact-finding hearing in which a jury reviews the details of a death and decides who is responsible—to resume in King County after a four-year hiatus. 

Tiffany Rogers, Charleena Lyles’s sister, told PubliCola the four-year legal battle was exhausting for her and other family members of people killed by police. “It was painful, and it was painful for a long time, but we’re doing this so that other families don’t have to,” she said.

King County first overhauled its inquest process in 2018, when, under pressure from police accountability groups, Constantine implemented a slate of changes intended to improve transparency and give victims’ families a say in what information inquest juries hear. The changes allowed attorneys representing victims’ families to take part in inquest hearings for the first time and empowered juries to determine not only what happened in a police shooting, but whether the officers involved complied with their department’s policies and training.

In the ruling, the court concluded that all of the reforms supported by the families, including the changes introduced in 2018 and the reforms the families sought in their lawsuit, can move forward. In fact, the court noted that state law not only allows, but requires, inquest juries to consider whether an officer committed a crime.

Before announcing the reforms, Constantine had placed a hold on three pending inquests into the deaths of Butts, Obet, and Lyles. But when reforms took effect and the county began preparing to start the three inquests, a problem emerged: Under the executive order, the officers’ attorneys couldn’t participate if the officers themselves refused to testify. When the officers involved in Butts’ death declined to testify, the inquest couldn’t move forward.

The families filed a lawsuit in 2020, hoping to fill the gap in Constantine’s reforms by compelling the officers to testify. The families also called for another change to inquest procedures: allowing jurors to consider whether the officers involved in a shooting broke the law. “The inquest can be a useful tool to investigate police killings of community members, but the panel must answer whether the officer committed a crime for the process to have any teeth,” said Amy Parker, an attorney with King County’s Department of Public Defense who represented Obet’s family.

Meanwhile, several law enforcement agencies—the Seattle Police Department, the King County Sheriff’s Office and municipal police departments in Auburn, Renton, Kent and Federal Way—also sued Constantine, aiming to invalidate all of the recent changes to the inquest process. According to the agencies’ attorneys, the inquest reforms already underway in King County would put police officers at a serious disadvantage when facing a jury. The lawsuits forced the county to suspend the new reforms and put a stay on any new or ongoing inquests.

When the case came before King County Superior Court Judge Julie Spector in July 2020, the law enforcement agencies prevailed; Spector ruled that Constantine’s reforms threatened officers’ rights to counsel and struck down most of the changes to the inquest process. By that point, SPD had backed out of the lawsuit under pressure from members of the city council and the public, leaving the other agencies to carry on the suit.

The state supreme court entirely reversed the course of the case on Thursday, dismissing Judge Spector’s ruling as “wrong as a matter of law.” Continue reading “In Victory for Families of People Killed by Police, State Supreme Court Allows Inquest Reforms to Proceed”

Public Safety Fizz: “Less-Lethal” Weapons Restrictions Move Forward, Heat Wave’s Impact on Prisons Examined, County Searches for New Police Oversight Head

The Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County (Flickr: Brewbrooks; Reproduced with a Creative Commons License)

1. The Seattle City Council’s public safety committee voted out the latest version of legislation limiting the Seattle Police Department’s use of ‘less-lethal weapons’ on Tuesday, sending the embattled bill to the full council with a ‘do pass’ recommendation. If adopted, the bill would prohibit SPD from using five ‘less-lethal’ weapons, including blast balls, and place new restrictions on officers’ use of tear gas, pepper-ball launchers and pepper spray.

Last summer, the council passed an ordinance that would have prohibited police officers from using tear gas, pepper spray, blast balls and other ‘less-lethal’ weapons for crowd control.

After the US Department of Justice warned that the bill might lead officers to resort to more serious uses of force to control protests, Federal District Court Judge James Robart—who oversees reforms to SPD as part of an ongoing agreement between the US Department of Justice and the city of Seattle known as the consent decree—issued a temporary restraining order preventing it from taking effect. The version of the bill that passed on Tuesday reflects months of input from Seattle’s police oversight bodies, the DOJ, and the monitoring team appointed by Judge Robart to act as the eyes and ears of the consent decree.

Responding to the monitoring team’s concerns that the original bill would prevent officers from targeting small groups of people committing acts of violence at protests, the new bill outright bans less-targeted weapons such as blast balls and ultrasonic cannons while allowing officers to use more targeted weapons against individual people. The ordinance would also allow SPD to use pepper spray and tear gas to move crowds when twelve or more people in the crowd are engaging in violence—a legal standard that SPD might be able to skirt because of the difficulties of measuring the scale of violence within a crowd after the fact.

Although the committee voted to send the bill to the full council, that won’t happen immediately. Instead, Herbold opted to wait for the results of a hearing before Judge Robart on August 10 to review Seattle’s compliance with the consent decree, giving the council an opportunity for the council to hear more feedback on the bill.

2. Washington’s Office of the Corrections Ombuds (OCO), the oversight agency for the state’s Department of Corrections, issued a brief report on Tuesday describing conditions inside the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County during the record-breaking heat wave two weeks ago.

Meanwhile, the DOC is also preparing to address Washington’s falling prison population—4,000 empty beds statewide, and a more than 50 percent decline in new prisoners since last year—by closing some units.

An OCO staffer who visited the prison on June 28 found substantial differences between conditions in the four different units they visited. In the prison’s Intensive Management Unit, temperatures in hallways remained below 80 degrees; in contrast, the investigator, Matthias Gydé, found cells in the Twin Rivers Unit, which houses more than 800 people, in which some surfaces reached nearly 100 degrees.

The unit-to-unit variations in temperature were partially the result of inconsistent cooling systems across the prison system. The Intensive Management Unit is outfitted with an HVAC system, whereas the Twin Rivers Unit relies on a vent that pumps air from the building’s roof to cool its common areas and cells. Gydé also noted that the Twin Rivers Unit’s skylights and cell windows contributed to the high temperatures. The DOC relaxed rules to allow inmates to cover their windows, but the skylights in the building’s common areas remained uncovered during the heat wave. Continue reading “Public Safety Fizz: “Less-Lethal” Weapons Restrictions Move Forward, Heat Wave’s Impact on Prisons Examined, County Searches for New Police Oversight Head”

Council Reviews New Version of “Less-Lethal” Weapons Ban

Seattle Police Officers fire tear gas at demonstrators on Capitol Hill in June 2020 (via Chase Burns on Twitter)

By Paul Kiefer

Seattle City Council member Lisa Herbold introduced the latest version of legislation intended to restrict the Seattle Police Department’s use of so-called ‘less-lethal weapons’ against demonstrators during a public safety committee meeting on Tuesday, more than a year after the council first began its efforts to limit SPD’s crowd control arsenal. The proposal would restrict the use of tear gas, pepper-ball launchers and pepper spray by SPD officers responding to protests and outright ban five other ‘less-lethal’ weapons, including blast balls.

If passed, the proposed legislation would replace an ordinance the council passed in June 2020, which SPD never implemented, that would have prohibited police officers from using tear gas, pepper spray, blast balls and other ‘less-lethal’ weapons for crowd control.

Shortly after the ordinance passed, US District Court Judge James Robart—who oversees reforms to SPD as part of an ongoing agreement between the US Department of Justice and the city of Seattle known as the consent decree—issued a temporary restraining order preventing it from taking effect. The order came in response to a warning from the US Department of Justice that any law preventing officers from using ‘less-lethal’ weapons against crowds might make officers turn to more serious uses of force, including hitting protesters with batons.

In the aftermath of Judge Robart’s restraining order, city council members turned to Seattle’s police oversight bodies—the Office of Police Accountability (OPA), the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), and the Community Police Commission (CPC)—and the team appointed by the federal court to monitor the city’s compliance with federal court orders to rework the legislation.

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

The updated bill that Herbold introduced on Tuesday reflects the latest round of feedback from the DOJ and court-appointed monitoring team, who began an informal review of the draft legislation in February. In their recommendations to the council, the monitoring team emphasized that SPD officers need to be able to use targeted crowd control weapons against people committing acts of violence within larger peaceful protests, and that SPD will need additional time to adjust to any new restrictions on less-lethal weapons.

In its current form, the bill would ban officers from using “disorientation devices” like blast balls or ultrasonic cannons under any circumstances, with the exception of flash-bang grenades, which would still be available to SWAT teams. It would also allow officers to use pepper spray and tear gas to move crowds of protesters, but only in response to a “violent public disturbance”—a legal term to describe violence committed by a group of twelve or more people. Continue reading “Council Reviews New Version of “Less-Lethal” Weapons Ban”

“Three-Strikes” Resentencing Continues; Campaign Debate Highlights Urbanist Shift

1. On Friday afternoon, 63-year-old Raymond Ben became the fifth person from King County to be resentenced under a new state law intended to correct decades of harsh mandatory sentences by retroactively removing second-degree robbery from the list of offenses targeted by the state’s “three-strikes” statute, which imposes a life sentence without parole for so-called “persistent offenders.”

The law requires prosecutors to request resentencing hearings by July 25 for anyone currently serving a life sentence for a “three-strikes” case involving a second-degree robbery—which, unlike other three-strikes offenses like rape and manslaughter, typically doesn’t involve a weapon or injury to another person. The law made at least 114 people across Washington eligible for resentencing, including 29 people from King County—many of whom, like Ben, have spent a decade or more in prison.

In 2001, a King County judge sentenced Ben to life in prison after he stole a computer from a secure building at the University of Washington and punched three bystanders who tried to stop him; because of previous convictions for burglary and second-degree robbery, Ben fell into Washington’s “persistent offender” category.

Ben is one of a dozen inmates for whom the unit requested resentencing hearings before the July deadline. Two of those hearings—for 50-year-old Michael Peters and 59-year-old Rene Haydel—also took place on Friday.

Of the dozen inmates scheduled for resentencing before July 25, three—including Ben, who has cancer—received priority because of health concerns. Rickey Mahaney, the first person resentenced in King County under the new law, left the Coyote Ridge Correctional Facility in Franklin County on June 1 to move to hospice care.

Once the Washington Department of Corrections approves Ben’s re-entry plan, he has arranged to join his sister’s family after his release. But not everyone resentenced under the new law can turn to family members for support, which has forced the prosecutor’s office to rely on nonprofit organizations—the Seattle Clemency Project, among others—to organize housing, employment and other elements of re-entry plans for several inmates who would otherwise have no support system after their release.

Carla Lee, who leads the sentence review unit within the King County Prosecutor’s Office, told PubliCola that many other prosecutors’ offices in Washington won’t be able to provide backup options to those they resentence. “If someone in another county doesn’t have family to help them get back on their feet after their release,” she said, “there’s no guarantee that they’ll have another option.”

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

2. PubliCola’s Erica C. Barnett moderated a mayoral forum sponsored by the MASS Coalition, Cascade Bicycle Club, Transportation Choices Coalition, and several other environmental groups last Wednesday.

The conversation, which featured five of the leading mayoral candidates (Colleen Echohawk and Casey Sixkiller were absent), highlighted substantive differences on issues that have flown under the radar during most debates this year, such as transit funding, the future of the Move Seattle levy, and the city’s contribution to climate change.

Some observations from the debate:

• Former council member Bruce Harrell, who’s leading (after “undecided”) in recent polls, has really embraced the idea that private donations will help solve the city’s biggest problems, including not just homelessness but transportation infrastructure.

In response to a question about the Move Seattle levy, which has failed to produce promised investments in sidewalks, bike infrastructure, and road and bridge maintenance, Harrell he would lean on large employers’ obligation “to give back to the community, to help us with the infrastructure. … So you’ll see not only a taxing mechanism, but you’ll see philanthropic efforts on my part.”

• Nearly every candidate supported the concept of making transit free—a huge endeavor that would have significant revenue impacts on both Sound Transit and King County Metro—although supporters varied in their responses to how they would like to see free transit happen. Continue reading ““Three-Strikes” Resentencing Continues; Campaign Debate Highlights Urbanist Shift”

Eviction Moratorium Set to Expire at End of Month, Putting Tenants Statewide at Risk

By Leo Brine

As the state begins to lift its pandemic restrictions, housing advocates worry that one restriction is ending prematurely.

Washington’s eviction moratorium, which Governor Jay Inslee established at the start of the pandemic, is set to expire on June 30. The bill established a right to counsel for tenants facing eviction—the first law in the nation to do so—but included a Republican amendment establishing the expiration date.

Now, as counties begin begin distributing rent assistance, advocates worry about a vicious cycle in which tenants get evicted because their assistance didn’t arrive on time, and can’t hire attorneys to defend them because legal assistance programs aren’t up and running yet. Advocates are asking Inslee to extend the moratorium so the state can hire and train lawyers, set up mediation programs and properly distribute rent assistance to tenants and landlords.

If the moratorium is lifted, it will disproportionately impact people of color and people with disabilities. Census data shows that 34 percent of Latino/Hispanic households and 16 percent of Black households are behind on rent in Washington.

To prevent hundreds of thousands of people from losing their homes after the moratorium ends, the legislature passed a trio of eviction prevention bills this session. One established a list of 16 “just cause” reasons landlords can give in order to evict a tenant (HB 1236); another will fund state rental assistance programs (HB 1277); and one allows landlords to apply for rental assistance funds and provides a right to counsel for indigent tenants facing eviction, similar to public defenders in criminal cases (SB 5160).

When the House voted on the last bill, they also included an amendment by Rep. Michelle Caldier (R-26, Port Orchard) stipulating that the eviction moratorium is up at the end  of this month. When Inslee signed the bill, he left in Caldier’s amendment, signaling he agreed with setting a hard deadline.

The Washington Low Income Housing Alliance is now lobbying Inslee to extend the moratorium so the state can get all its eviction protection programs in place. “All we need is time,” Michele Thomas,W LIHA’s Advocacy and Policy Director, said. The protections the state put in place this year are great, she added, but “if the governor does not extend the moratorium, a lot of the work will be for not.”

Thomas said Inslee should end the moratorium on a county-by-county basis, depending on how prepared each county is to handle eviction cases, similar to how the state has lifted COVID restrictions.

Support PubliCola

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Democrats have also called on the governor to extend the moratorium. On Wednesday, June 17, Rep. Jamila Taylor (D-30, Federal Way), the chair of the House Democrats’ Black Caucus, sent a letter to the governor asking him to extend the moratorium.

Taylor also wants to see the moratorium lifted in counties who are adequately prepared to dispense rent assistance and provide legal representation to tenants, “so that no families are homeless,” she said in a statement. “We’re at the two-yard line. Now is not the time for us to leave families without this crucial safety net.”

If the moratorium is lifted, it will disproportionately impact people of color and people with disabilities. Census data shows that 34 percent of Latino/Hispanic households and 16 percent of Black households are behind on rent in Washington. Taylor said that by allowing the moratorium to expire, Washington would be taking a major step back in improving equity—something the Democratic legislature touted as a priority for the 2021 session.

King County Housing Justice Project Manager Edmund Witter told PubliCola that despite Caldier’s amendment, Gov. Inslee could extend the moratorium. (King County’s Housing Justice Project, which provide legal counsel to tenants, is one of several such groups across the state.) All the amendment did was say the current iteration of the moratorium must end on June 30; it did not limit the governor’s to extend the moratorium in response to the pandemic emergency, Witter said.

However, the governor’s emergency powers run out on June 30, when the official state of emergency ends, creating a hard deadline for Inslee to make a decision. Inslee spokeswoman Tara Lee said the governor’s office has not decided yet whether to extend the moratorium.

If the moratorium does end on June 30, Witter is concerned that Washington’s courts will be overwhelmed with eviction cases. “There’s just no plan,” for how courts will deal with cases, Witter said.

“If a tenant doesn’t know whether or not they’re going to get rental assistance, how are they going to know what terms are reasonable to a repayment plan that they’re going to sign onto?How would they know whether or not what they’re signing onto is something they can afford?”—Michele Thomas, Washington Low-Income Housing Alliance

Ideally, eviction cases could be resolved without getting courts involved at all. SB 5160 establishes Eviction Resolution Programs (ERPs) in six counties (Clark, King, Pierce, Thurston, Snohomish and Spokane), using dispute resolution centers to settle landlord-tenant disputes. These programs work by having landlords, tenants, and their lawyers meet with an eviction resolution specialist to reach an agreement to prevent eviction, such as a more forgiving rent repayment plan.

Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle) worked on the eviction protection bills during the session. She said many of the tenant protections the legislature passed this year included emergency clauses that put them into effect immediately, including mandatory repayment plans and the just cause eviction bill. (The latter still allows landlords to evict tenants for failing to pay their rent, but requires them to offer tenants a repayment plan 14 days before serving them an eviction notice.)

However, she’s still worried that when the moratorium ends, there won’t be enough attorneys ready to represent tenants in eviction cases and courts won’t have the tools to settle disputes without going to trial.

“We need to make sure that we set up the mediation support for landlords and tenants [and that] we hire those attorneys. A lot of that is not authorized until the state budget goes into effect July 1,” Macri said. Continue reading “Eviction Moratorium Set to Expire at End of Month, Putting Tenants Statewide at Risk”

State Goes on Offensive to Save Capital Gains Tax, Police Oversight Group Considers Candidate Forum, and Compassion Seattle Plays Victim

1. Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a motion Tuesday seeking to have a Douglas County judge throw out two lawsuits against the capital gains tax. Ferguson argues in his motion that the plaintiffs filed the suits for political reasons and don’t have grounds to sue because they don’t know yet if they’d be subject to the tax.

The capital gains tax bill (SB 5096) imposes a 7 percent tax on profits of $250,000 or more from the sale of intangible financial assets, such as stocks and bonds. The bill would go into effect in 2022, but the state would not collect taxes until January 2023. Roughly 7,000 Washington taxpayers would be subject to the tax, which would generate $415 million for the state in its first year.

Three days after the legislature passed the bill, the Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank, challenged the law in court. Less than a month later, former attorney general Rob McKenna, along with the Washington Farm Bureau, filed a second lawsuit against the bill. Both suits were filed in conservative Douglas County.

The lawsuits say taxing capital gains is unconstitutional because capital gains are property, and all property must be taxed at a uniform rate in Washington because of a 1933 state Supreme Court decision.

However, Democrats have argued that the capital gains tax is an excise (sales) tax, not a property tax, because it is triggered by the sale of financial assets.

Ferguson argued that the plaintiffs have asked the court to settle a political dispute, rather than a legal one, noting that they “are suffering no legal harm from the tax they challenge and ask this Court to issue a purely advisory political opinion.” He also argued that the lawsuits are preemptive and speculative, since the plaintiffs don’t know whether they’ll even have to pay the tax when it goes into effect in 2023.

The state Supreme Court is also hearing arguments for a lawsuit against the state’s 2019 bank business and occupation tax (HB 2167), which was also filed by McKenna. Washington State Solicitor General Noah Purcell argued at the court on May 25 that state law prohibits lawsuits against taxes until they have gone into effect. If the court sides with Purcell, the lawsuits against the capital gains tax might have to wait until state residents actually pay the tax, which wouldn’t be until 2023 at the earliest.

State Sen. Jamie Pedersen (D-43, Seattle) said that if the court dismisses the lawsuits, it will only delay the inevitable: having the state Supreme Court reviewing the law. Democrats want the court to review the tax because they believe the court would overturn the previous ruling declaring income a form of property, which would blow the doors open for an income tax.

The next hearing for the cases is set for July 13 at 10am, with Douglas County Superior Court Judge Brian Huber presiding.

2. The future of the Seattle Police Department is front-and-center in the upcoming elections, but some members of Seattle’s Community Police Commission (CPC)—the branch of the city’s police oversight system tasked with gathering community input on police reforms—are wary of wading into electoral politics.

Reverend Harriet Walden, the commission’s longest-serving member, also opposed the candidate forum. “It’s not part of our mission,” she said.

During the CPC meeting Wednesday, CPC communications director Jesse Franz described plans that are already underway for a general election forum that the CPC plans to co-host alongside a community organization involved in criminal justice reform, such as Choose 180 or Community Passageways.

But some prominent members of the commission pushed back on the plan. Suzette Dickerson, who will represent the CPC during contract negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers Guild next year, argued that hosting a candidate forum was outside the scope of the CPC’s responsibilities. From her perspective, the commission’s role is to be a sounding board for Seattle residents’ opinions on reforms to SPD; “stepping into the political arena,” she argued, would undermine public trust in the commission.

Reverend Harriet Walden, the commission’s longest-serving member, also opposed the candidate forum. “It’s not part of our mission,” she said, adding that she isn’t confident that the CPC would allow community groups opposed to downsizing SPD to have a voice in the forum. “I think that we’re headed down a path to help social engineer the defunding the police department,” she said.

The commission’s current leaders, however, supported the idea. “To me, holding a candidate forum seems within the scope of ensuring that the community is informed about what accountability may or may not look like, in particular candidates minds,” said CPC co-chair LaRond Baker.

Though the CPC can’t endorse candidates, the commission is not a neutral player in the police oversight sphere: It recommends reforms to SPD and Seattle’s police oversight system. Recent CPC recommendations have included a ban on tear gas and removing limits on the number of civilian investigators in the Office of Police Accountability. The success of those recommendations depends on the support of the mayor, the council, and the police chief, which gives the CPC a clear stake in the outcome of the election.

“Opponents have been using increasingly violent tactics against our signature collection teams,” the solicitation for funds claims. “We must persevere, and we need your help to ensure we reach 33,060 signatures by June 25.”

3. In a fundraising email Tuesday, the Compassion Seattle campaign, which is gathering signatures to get its charter amendment on homelessness on the November ballot, claimed that several of its paid signature gatherers have been attacked by people who oppose the initiative.

“Opponents have been using increasingly violent tactics against our signature collection teams,” the solicitation for funds claims. “We must persevere, and we need your help to ensure we reach 33,060 signatures by June 25.” Continue reading “State Goes on Offensive to Save Capital Gains Tax, Police Oversight Group Considers Candidate Forum, and Compassion Seattle Plays Victim”

Resentencing Hearings Begin to Address Some “Three Strikes” Life Sentences

Russell Harvey attends his resentencing hearing via Zoom on June 3, 2021.

By Paul Kiefer

At the end of an emotional hearing on Wednesday, Russell Harvey still looked nervous. The 60-year-old sat facing a webcam in an office at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County—his beige uniform matching the empty wall behind him—as King County Superior Court Judge David Steiner signed the paperwork releasing Harvey after more than two decades in prison.

Just before Judge Steiner ended the hearing, Harvey leaned closer to the computer in front of him. “Thank you, Judge. I’m sure it was a tough decision.”

“It wasn’t,” Steiner replied.

Harvey is the second inmate in King County to be resentenced under a new Washington law that retroactively removes second-degree robbery from the list of offenses targeted by the state’s “three-strikes” statute, which imposes a life sentence without parole for so-called “persistent offenders.” In 1993, Washington became the first state in the country to adopt a three-strikes policy; at the time, the measure received broad bipartisan support.

But some Washington lawmakers are now trying to correct the long-term consequences of the “tough on crime” era, including by reconsidering the state’s harsh sentencing guidelines for nonviolent crimes. The bill that led to Harvey’s release, sponsored by Sen. Jeannie Darnielle (D-27, Tacoma), is only one element of the broader push to address excessive sentences, but for both incarcerated people and the King County Prosecutor’s Office, the new law is the culmination of more than a decade of advocacy.

“For a long time, you had to be able to prove that there were ‘exceptional’ circumstances to get someone released. And our office was arguing that life sentences for second-degree robbery were ‘exceptional’ in and of themselves—in a bad way.”—Carla Lee, King County Prosecutor’s Office

Twenty-four years ago, a King County Superior Court judge sentenced Harvey to life in prison after his third arrest for second-degree robbery, which—unlike other three-strikes offenses like rape and manslaughter—generally doesn’t involve a weapon or injury to another person. In the early years of his sentence, Harvey told the court, he repeatedly clashed with prison administrators and spent time in an “intensive management unit”—in other words, solitary confinement.

One of his trips to “the hole” brought him to breaking point, Harvey said. “I called my mom and I asked her what I should do,” he told the court in his opening remarks. “The disappointment in my mom’s voice—there’s no mistaking it. … She basically just hung up on me, right after she asked, ‘when are you going to learn?’ I didn’t want to be affecting people like that. That was when I hit rock bottom.” Harvey’s mental health suffered; according to his attorney, Susan Hacker, Harvey struggled through a series of “trials and errors” by prison medical staff who tried to prescribe him medication after diagnosing him with depression.

But in 2009, Harvey’s case caught the attention of the King County Prosecutor’s Office, which was assembling a list of inmates serving life sentences for three-strikes offenses involving at least one second-degree robbery with the goal of bringing their cases before Washington’s clemency board. That list grew to 45 names. Nearly two dozen received clemency, but Harvey was not among them.

Then, in 2020, the state legislature passed a law giving prosecutors the discretion to request resentencing for people whose original sentences no longer serve the “interest of justice.” In response, the King County Prosecutor’s Office created a sentence review unit and added Harvey’s name to a list of inmates eligible for re-sentencing. Largely because of COVID-19-related court delays, that resentencing effort also stalled, but Harvey received a third chance at release when the state legislature passed the new law that specifically affects inmates facing life in prison for three second-degree robberies.

Carla Lee, who leads the sentence review unit, told PubliCola that the newest resentencing law follows a model developed in King County since the prosecutor’s office first identified Harvey as a candidate for a reduced sentence. “For a long time, you had to be able to prove that there were ‘exceptional’ circumstances to get someone released,” she said. “And our office was arguing that life sentences for second-degree robbery were ‘exceptional’ in and of themselves—in a bad way. Our model has now been legislated, so other prosecutors now have to follow it.” Continue reading “Resentencing Hearings Begin to Address Some “Three Strikes” Life Sentences”

Domestic Violence Survivors Face Challenges Using Law to Prevent Abuse of Legal System

King County Courthouse (Flickr: Evan Didier)

By Paul Kiefer

When a Washington state law intended to prevent abusive partners from using courts to harass or manipulate domestic violence survivors went into effect in early January, Isabelle Latour was one of the first people to try to put the new law to work. In doing so, she illustrated how difficult it may be for the law to efficiently protect survivors from a tactic known as “abusive litigation.”

Over four years, multiple King County judges ruled on dozens of occasions that Latour’s ex-husband, a Seattle attorney, had used frivolous lawsuits, unfounded complaints about Latour and her attorney, a questionable bankruptcy claim and dozens of other motions filed across multiple courts to drag out their divorce and maintain a form of control over Latour. The endless stream of litigation forced Latour to spend countless hours and thousands of dollars battling her ex’s efforts to re-litigate their divorce.

“After surviving a lot of abuse, I got pulled onto Zoom call after Zoom call—it became like a second job,” she said. “It was a heavy cloud hanging over me. I wanted to move on with my life, but I had to keep revisiting my trauma.”

When state Sen. Christine Rolfes (D-23, Bainbridge Island) began drafting legislation targeting abusive litigation for the state legislature’s 2019-2020 session, Latour and other survivors provided input. A version of the legislation that passed in 2020 empowered judges to limit an abuser’s ability to file or continue litigation against their victim; it also required the abuser to pay the court and attorneys’ fees. A court can only impose those restrictions on someone who a court has previously found to have committed domestic violence, and the restrictions expire after four to six years.

But the law’s impact depends on survivors, who need to petition a judge to consider whether to impose restrictions on their abuser’s rights to file litigation.

Because of the fragmented nature of Washington’s superior court system, it’s difficult to know how many survivors have tried to use the law so far. Of the half-dozen attorneys who spoke with PubliCola, only Latour’s attorney—Karma Zaike—has represented a client who successfully petitioned a court to stop their abuser from filing new litigation.

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By the time the law went into effect on January 1, 2021, Latour believed that her motion to stop her ex-husband’s litigation would be an open-and-shut case. Zaike was so confident that a judge would approve Latour’s request that she tried to schedule a hearing on January 4.

Instead, Latour struggled to find a judge to hear her case; then, once she landed before King County Superior Court Judge Johana Bender, she endured four more hearings over Zoom. According to Latour and Zaike, the new hearings gave Latour’s ex additional opportunities to denounce his ex-wife and her attorney with allegations of dishonesty, and to argue that his lengthy history as a litigant was justified.

Latour’s ex-husband did not respond when PubliCola attempted to contact him.

Because restricting someone’s right to file litigation is a serious imposition by a court, judges like Bender often allow an accused abuser to argue their case at length before deciding whether to issue an anti-abusive litigation order. “A lot of abusers are very persistent—they won’t give up easily,” said Antoinette Bonsignore, an attorney who volunteers with Seattle-based women’s rights group Legal Voice who has advocated for protections against abusive litigation.

Continue reading “Domestic Violence Survivors Face Challenges Using Law to Prevent Abuse of Legal System”

Year-Old Resentencing Effort Languishes Due to COVID Delays, Inconsistent Standards

Stafford Creek Corrections Center, Aberdeen, Washington (Washington Department of Corrections)

By Paul Kiefer

Last spring, the state legislature passed a measure allowing county prosecutors to ask judges to resentence inmates whose sentences “no longer advance the interest of justice.” The lawmakers who drafted the bill cast it as a tool to mitigate decades of harsh sentencing—and, they hoped, a way to recognize rehabilitation as the cornerstone of Washington’s criminal justice system.

When ‘tough-on-crime’ laws came into fashion across the United States in the ’80s and ’90s, Washington was no exception. In 1984, the state legislature dissolved Washington’s parole board, cutting off a key path to early release for inmates in the state; only thirteen other states have abolished parole. Most other options for early release are less flexible: inmates with clean disciplinary records can shave off fifteen percent of their sentence, and the state’s Clemency and Pardons Board hears two or three dozen cases per year, though they rarely grant clemency. More recent efforts to pass resentencing laws—including the legislation that passed last spring—are an attempt to open new paths to reduce sentences that no longer seem appropriate.

A month after the bill passed, Kimothy Wynn wrote a letter to Pierce County Prosecutor Mary Robnett asking her to reconsider his sentence.

Wynn, now 43, has spent the past two decades in prison serving a 38-year sentence for a gang-related shooting in a Tacoma alley in 1999.

In his letter to Robnett, Wynn wrote that he believed that the sentencing standards in place during his trial were excessive. He had spent half his life in prison for a serious mistake—one he regretted but that hadn’t injured anyone, since the targets of the shooting escaped unharmed. But because inmates in Washington don’t have the option of parole, Wynn wrote, he never had a chance to demonstrate that he deserved a a second chance. The new law, he told Robnett, could be his chance to join his wife and stepchildren on the outside. “Please let my case be one of the positive examples of why this bill was written,” he wrote.

“Understandably, the people writing [requests for resentencing] are unclear about whether they’re eligible. don’t blame them for giving it a shot.”—Kitsap County Prosecutor Chad Enright

In October, Wynn received a reply from the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office. Though he met most of their criteria to be eligible for resentencing, a review committee declined Wynn’s request.

In the past year, hundreds of inmates across Washington have sent similar letters to county prosecutors. Most were rejected outright; many others, including in King County, are still awaiting a prosecutor’s decision. Since the passage of the 2020 law, SB 6164, fewer than a dozen people have been resentenced as a result.

The bill’s original sponsor, Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-45, Bellevue), told PubliCola that she didn’t have specific outcome in mind when she drafted the measure; the goal, she wrote, was to “see who would benefit” from the law in its preliminary form, and then analyze the results to shape future legislation. But Wynn and other inmates saw the law as a reason to be hopeful, not a preliminary test of prosecutors’ willingness to reconsider past sentences. “This past year has been heartbreaking, sitting here in prison hearing person after person getting denied for [resentencing] when I know they are deserving of this chance,” he wrote in a letter to PubliCola. “[Yet] another year that criminal justice and sentencing reform is just talked about and never anything done…”

There doesn’t seem to be a singular reason the bill has had such a negligible impact so far.

Prosecutors in many of the state’s smallest counties, such as Skamania, Stevens and Pend Oreille, haven’t gotten around to creating their own eligibility criteria for resentencing and instead review cases individually; those prosecutors have only received a handful of resentencing requests, none of which they approved. Continue reading “Year-Old Resentencing Effort Languishes Due to COVID Delays, Inconsistent Standards”

Homeless Advocates Challenge Compassion Seattle Ballot Measure

By Erica C. Barnett

Advocates for people experiencing homelessness challenged the ballot title for the “Compassion Seattle” initiative in King County Superior Court on Thursday, arguing that the short description of the proposal—which is what Seattle voters would see on their ballots in November—is inaccurate and “prejudicial” because it implies that the measure would guarantee new funding for housing and homeless services when it does not, among other reasons.

The petition, filed by Real Change, the Transit Riders Union, Nickelsville, and Be:Seattle, makes several key points. First, the groups argue that the ballot language—which says the measure would require the city to “dedicate minimum 12% of the annual general fund revenue to homelessness and human services”—inaccurately implies an increase in funding for homelessness, when in fact the 12 percent would go to human services in general, which currently make up about 11 percent of the city’s general-fund budget.

“Requiring twelve percent of the general fund to be placed in [a new] ‘Human Services Fund may not add any funding to homelessness services,” the petition says.

“To put [encampment removals] in the statement of subject, which is those first ten words [of the ballot title], is inflammatory, which is prejudicial,” said Knoll Lowney, the attorney for the advocates.

Second, they argue that language saying the charter amendment “concerns actions to address homelessness and keep areas clear of encampments” is misleading because it implies that the initiative will keep the city clear of encampments, when the measure actually says the city will balance homeless residents’ interests against the city’s interest in having encampment-free parks and public spaces.

“To put [encampment removals] in the statement of subject, which is those first ten words [of the ballot title], is inflammatory, which is prejudicial,” said Knoll Lowney, the attorney for the advocates.

Compassion Seattle has consistently argued that the initiative, which began as a sweeps-focused measure that evolved to include aspirational language about ensuring that people have access to shelter or housing, does not require sweeps. By taking proponents at their word—that is, by conceding their point that the proposal is actually designed to house people so no one will need to live in public—advocates are essentially arguing that the proponents of the initiative are relying on prejudice against homeless people to sell the measure.

The advocates also argue that the ballot title is misleading in another way: Rather than requiring “action,” as the short description implies, its primary impact would be imposing new policies and performance standards on programs, which could end up having a bigger impact than aspirational language about encampments or vague funding promises. For example, the proposed amendment says would make it official city “policy to make available emergency and permanent housing to those living unsheltered.” Continue reading “Homeless Advocates Challenge Compassion Seattle Ballot Measure”