Category: Courts

Seattle Court Agrees to Exclude City Attorney’s List of “High Utilizers” from Community Court

By Erica C. Barnett

The Seattle Municipal Court voted Friday to exclude so-called “high utilizers” of the criminal justice system—those who have been accused of misdemeanors more than 12 times in the past five years, and at least once in the past eight months—from community court, a therapeutic court established in 2020 for people accused of certain low-level crimes.

PubliCola reported the news exclusively on Twitter Monday morning.

Davison asked the court to intervene on her behalf in late April, after community court judge Damon Shadid (one of seven municipal court judges, and the only one who handles community court cases) declined her request to immediately bar “high utilizers” from community court.

Currently, people whose charges consist entirely of low-level misdemeanors (a category that excludes more serious crimes like assaults, domestic violence, and DUI) are automatically eligible for community court, which gives defendants access to services without requiring them to plead guilty to a crime. People can only go through community court four times; after that, they have to go through mainstream court, which frequently convicts defendants but does not jail them beyond the time they have already served.

The King County Department of Public Defese analyzed the “high utilizers” list and found that most were homeless or had undergone competency evaluations, an indication of behavioral health disorders.


In meetings between the court and Davison’s office, Shadid had proposed putting off a decision about “high utilizers” until July to allow parties to court deliberations, including the King County Department of Public Defense (DPD), to come up with a plan for this group that went beyond jail and traditional prosecution. 

In a statement, Davison said she was pleased that the court agreed to her request. “Individuals causing the most impact on our community need meaningful accountability for their criminal activity paired with increased behavioral health services,” she said. “The best venue to ensure appropriate accountability and community safety is in Seattle Municipal Court and my team will continue to engage service providers to address underlying behavioral health needs. Addressing the impacts of individuals engaged in frequent, repeat criminal activity is one of the best ways to improve public safety.”

Davison has not proposed any additional spending on behavioral health care, which is mostly funded by the county, not the city. An analysis of Davison’s “high utilizer” list by DPD showed that the list consists primarily of people who are unsheltered or have been through a court-order evaluation to determine their competency to stand trial, a sign of extreme behavioral health issues that are most effectively addressed with health care and treatment, not jail.

DPD director Anita Khandelwal said community court came out of a collaboration between the municipal court, the previous city attorney, and her department, with the goal of charting “a new path for people accused of misdemeanors in Seattle that would reduce the harm of the criminal legal system and quickly address the needs of vulnerable members of our community. While the court continues, we’re sorry to see this collaboration unravel so quickly at the behest of the City Attorney.”

Traditional prosecution and jail, Khandelwal continued, “takes far more time, is very expensive, and fails to produce meaningful results. The City Attorney has produced no data—and I have seen none—that shows that the traditional criminal legal system is effective in changing behavior. Instead, it means people who have significant unmet needs will continue to cycle through a system that we know to be expensive, ineffective, and racially disproportionate.”

In a statement, the municipal court judges said they agreed to the changes Davison requested “in an effort to work collaboratively” with her office and “in the interest of preserving Community Court as an option to address many non-violent misdemeanor cases.” Later, the court amended the judges’ statement (which we quoted on Twitter) to read, “The Community Court agreement already provided the judges with discretion to screen defendants out of Community Court. The changes approved last week will allow the City Attorney to decline to refer a case to Community Court even if it is technically eligible.”

As a partner in community court, Davison has the ability to withdraw the city from the court, effectively shutting it down. This gives her office considerable leverage in negotiations over court rules, including which defendants are eligible.

Community court, the judges noted in their statement, was established as a corrective to a system in which people are already being released onto the street (instead of jailed) and are often hard to track down for court appearances specifically because of “housing insecurity, mental health issues, and substance abuse issues; all issues that Community Court was meant to address.”

Conservative Group With Ties to Assistant City Attorney Launches Pro-Davison Effort; Mayor’s Office Said He Didn’t OK Police Hiring Bill, Contradicting Council Member

1. Change Washington, a “strategic communications organization” launched by a right-wing nonprofit called Project 42 in 2019, has repeatedly provided a platform for the tough-on-crime views of now-assistant city attorney Scott Lindsay (including this evocatively titled promotional piece, “Ann Davison’s Plan to Eliminate Repeat Offenders“). On Wednesday, it issued an explicit call to action on Davison’s (and Lindsay’s) behalf.

“Ann Davison Needs Your Help!” screams the headline above an blog post imploring readers to contact Davison and King County Department of Public Defense director Anita Khandelwal to support banning so-called “high utilizers” of the criminal justice system from Seattle Community Court. The link for Davison is her generic city email address; the link for Khandelwal goes to a listing for her direct phone line, effectively encouraging Davison’s supporters to harass a county employee with no control over Seattle’s community court.

“[T]he Seattle Community Court has already failed regarding these criminals, because if the program was working as intended those serial offenders wouldn’t exist, and Davison’s initiative wouldn’t be necessary,” the blog post says. (All bolds in original).

This isn’t the first time Change Washington has encouraged people to flood officials’ emails and phone lines to support an agenda directly promoted by Deputy City Attorney Lindsay. Dann Mead Smith, who heads up Project 42, credited a post Lindsay wrote on Change Washington’s website with “stopping the proposal to do away with misdemeanor crimes in Seattle by activating its list of 35,000 subscribers and flooding the council with emails and comments.”

As we reported last week, Davison’s office sent a letter to all seven Seattle Municipal Court judges asking them to overrule the community court judge, Damon Shadid, who has been negotiating with Davison’s office over her demand to exclude people from community court who meet her “high utilizers” criteria. Community court is the municipal court’s therapeutic, less-punitive option for people accused of certain low-level, nonviolent misdemeanors.

Davison’s high-utilizers list (like similar lists Lindsay has made over the years, including the “high impact offenders” list that was the basis of KOMO News’ “Seattle Is Dying” video) is made up largely of people who are homeless and those who’ve been through court-ordered evaluations to determine their competency to stand trial. Or, as Change Washington puts it, people who are “not interested in living honest lives like the rest of us even when offered a helping hand to accomplish it.”

Change Washington headlines and stories about Ann Davison and her agenda

This isn’t the first time Change Washington has encouraged people to flood public officials’ emails and phone lines to support an agenda directly promoted by Lindsay. Dann Mead Smith, the former head of the libertarian Washington Policy Center who now heads up Project 42, credited a post Lindsay wrote on Change Washington’s website with “stopping the proposal to do away with misdemeanor crimes in Seattle by activating its list of 35,000 subscribers and flooding the council with emails and comments.” (That proposal would have allowed defendants to say they committed a crime, such as shoplifting, to meet a basic human need as part of their defense; it would not have “legalized” any crimes.) Project 42’s latest corporate filing indicates the group had revenues of more than $500,000 last year.

Change Washington’s post on community court lists all seven municipal court judges’ names along with a warning: “We won’t forget their names when they’re up for reelection. The time of judges flying under the radar with regards to criminal coddling and degrading the City’s public safety is coming to an end.”

It’s possible that conservative groups will recruit challengers for municipal court judges—the entire court is up for reelection, and has a history of liberal-conservative swings—but historically, most Seattle Municipal Court elections go uncontested and largely unnoticed amid higher-profile campaigns in Congressional election years.

2. Earlier this week, Seattle City Councilmember Sara Nelson said both Mayor Bruce Harrell and Senior Deputy Mayor Monisha Harrell had given her the “thumbs up” to propose a bill that would lift restrictions on $4.5 million of the Seattle Police Department’s 2022 budget, allowing SPD to spend the full amount, or any portion of it, on financial incentives to recruit new officers. Because we hadn’t heard anything about either Harrell explicitly supporting Nelson’s contentious proposal, we reached out to the mayor’s office to hear their version of the story.

According to a Harrell spokesman, Jamie Housen, both Harrells’ conversations with Nelson about hiring incentives took place “before this ordinance was even contemplated. Councilmember Nelson informed the mayor of her plan to sponsor a resolution in support of staffing bonuses, generally. The mayor let her know she was welcome to put it forward and that doing so would not create an issue with the Mayor’s Office,” Housen said.

“Similarly, when Councilmember Nelson asked to discuss police recruiting with Senior Deputy Mayor Harrell, the Senior Deputy Mayor encouraged her to explore potential solutions to SPD staffing challenges from the legislative level, which might include incentive pay or relocation costs as potential options.”

Herbold, who chairs the public safety committee, has proposed releasing $650,000 of the restricted money to pay for relocation expenses for officers moving to Seattle from out of town and to hire a professional recruiter for SPD.

Sound Transit Removes Threat of Collections, Adds ID Requirement, In New Fare Enforcement Policy

By Erica C. Barnett

The Sound Transit board voted on Thursday to adopt a new fare enforcement policy that will provide more opportunities to resolve unpaid fares and give riders more chances before they incur fines and other penalties.

Under the new rules, which PubliCola covered earlier this month, riders who repeatedly failed to show proof of valid payment would face a gradually increasing set of penalties, culminating on the fifth offense in a $124 fine and the possibility of court action, which could lead to collections and other penalties if a rider fails to pay their fine.

Sound Transit’s outgoing CEO, Peter Rogoff, has argued repeatedly that without fare enforcement, “fare evaders” will take advantage of Sound Transit’s gate-free entrances and ride for free, cutting into agency revenues and producing an unpleasant environment for paying riders.

Farebox recovery—the amount of Sound Transit’s operating budget that comes from fares—has declined during the pandemic, as it has at all of the region’s transit agencies; Rogoff has claimed “fare evasion” is to blame for most of that decline. The new fare enforcement policy is aimed at addressing some equity concerns leveled at Sound Transit in the past—namely, that their fare enforcement efforts have disproportionately targeted Black and low-income riders—while increasing penalties for people who “could” pay and don’t.

An amendment to the new policy, proposed by King County Councilmember Joe McDermott would have taken fare enforcement out of the court system, addressing a major concern advocates have raised for years. That amendment failed, with Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell among the majority voting “no.” Another McDermott amendment, which takes away Sound Transit’s ability to turn people with unpaid fines over to a collections agency, passed.

“Having debts sent to collections can impact someone’s finances for years to come in substantial ways—from wage garnishments that can impact your ability to afford day to day life, to a lower credit score that can negatively impact a person’s ability to find appropriate and affordable housing,” McDermott said.

The new policy rebrands fare enforcement officers as “fare ambassadors,” expanding a pandemic-era pilot program that took fare enforcement in-house at Sound Transit, and and gives fare ambassadors the authority to issue tickets and fines.

On Thursday, Fife Mayor Kim Roscoe proposed an amendment that gives fare ambassadors new authority to remove riders from trains and buses if they fail to produce ID—a power board members argued they need in order to see how many times a rider has failed to pay in the past to and ensure that riders can’t exploit the system by giving a fake name or otherwise refusing to identify themselves. That amendment passed, with both Harrell and Seattle City Councilmember Debora Juarez voting “no” and King County Executive Dow Constantine supporting the requirement.

Riders who are “responsible,” board chairman and University Place City Councilmember Kent Keel said, will “give them the ID.” But “where we find people that don’t want to give them their ID, my opinion is that [they’re] being less than responsible.”

“There’s nothing [in state law] that says you have to have an ID. So it is creating this opportunity for some people to be targeted … where otherwise there isn’t a legal requirement.”—ACLU-WA Senior Attorney Nancy Talner

Harrell argued that the ID requirement is in conflict with Washington state law, which does not require people to carry ID. “We do we know that some people, because of their immigrant status, for example, may be reluctant to carry ID,” Harrell said.

The Washington State Supreme Court is currently considering a case involving a Community Transit rider in Everett who was arrested after he failed to pay his fare and provided a fake name to officers. In that case, the ACLU of Washington argued that people do not give up their legal protections against warrantless search and seizure when they board public transit, and that punitive fare enforcement “exacerbates [the] legacy of racial discrimination” because it disproportionately targets people of color.
Continue reading “Sound Transit Removes Threat of Collections, Adds ID Requirement, In New Fare Enforcement Policy”

City Attorney Davison Asks Court to Let Her Deny “High Utilizers” Access to Community Court

City Attorney Ann DavisonBy Erica C. Barnett

City Attorney Ann Davison sent a letter to the entire Seattle Municipal Court on Wednesday asking the court to give her the ability to deny “high utilizers” of the criminal justice system—a group of about 120 people who have had 12 or more referrals from the Seattle Police Department to the City Attorney’s Office (CAO) in the past five years—access to community court, a therapeutic court in which defendants define their own goals, such as reduction of substance use, and participate in mandatory community service. The change would effectively make prior criminal history a factor in determining someone’s eligibility for community court.

Currently, people whose charges consist entirely of low-level misdemeanors are automatically eligible for community court, which allows defendants to access services without requiring them to plead guilty to a crime. Crimes like theft, pedestrian interference, and resisting arrest are eligible offenses; more serious misdemeanor offenses like reckless driving, harassment, and DUI are not.

For weeks, Davison’s office has been negotiating with Municipal Court Judge Judge Damon Shadid, who presides over community court, over how to treat this group of defendants. As of Wednesday, according to Davison’s letter, those discussions “have come to an impasse.” In her letter, Davison asks the judges to overrule Shadid and allow the city attorney to deny access to community court for people the city attorney categorizes as high utilizers, and to “clarify how many chances individuals get to have their cases referred to Community Court.” Currently, defendants can go through community court a maximum of four times.

In a statement responding to Davison’s letter on Thursday, the municipal court said community court was ”

founded to address the root causes behind low-level criminal activity while reducing the harm of pretrial incarceration” and “designed with the Washington State Pretrial Reform Task Force Final Recommendations report and The Vera Institute of Justice’s 2020 report front and center.” (Links in original.) The court said it was still evaluating Davison’s proposal and “will continue to work with her office and the Department of Public Defense to identify how to move forward together and create a prioritized plan for people whose needs and issues are not being addressed, and have not been addressed historically, by our criminal justice system.”

“The letter mischaracterizes Judge Shadid’s statements in the meetings (and I have been in attendance at these meetings). The letter causes me concern about the possibility for good faith negotiations with the City Attorney’s Office given the inaccuracies in their statements.”—King County Department of Public Defense director Anita Khandelwal

Davison released her letter in a press release at 8:00 Wednesday night after PubliCola obtained a copy and sent her office a list of questions about it Wednesday afternoon.

“Unfortunately, in the Community Court Steering Committee meeting last Friday, Judge Shadid insisted that he would not agree to exclude those meeting the High Utilizer criteria from Community Court and would potentially refuse to oversee Community Court if his fellow judges agreed to the changes that I have requested,” Davison’s letter to the Municipal Court judges said. “At this juncture, I am formally requesting that the full Seattle Municipal Court consider this important modification of the 2019 Community Court agreement.”

That agreement, signed by then-city attorney Pete Holmes, lays out a process for the city attorney’s office to refer defendants to community court and describes the court’s less punitive approach to misdemeanor crime. “Simply stated, this version of Community Court (with its ‘release-first model,’ voluntary referrals to services, and limited accountability mechanisms) is the wrong place for those committing repeat, high-impact criminal activity,” Davison’s letter says.

King County Department of Public Defense (DPD) director Anita Khandelwal says Davison’s letter “mischaracterizes Judge Shadid’s statements in the meetings,” which Khandelwal has attended, and “causes me concern about the possibility for good faith negotiations with the City Attorney’s Office given the inaccuracies in their statements.”

Judge Shadid, Khandelwal said, did not “insist on anything,” as Davison’s letter claims. Instead, she said, he suggested postponing any major changes to community court until July, to “allow for us to work collaboratively to develop a plan for people on the list, because the only plan that the City Attorney’s Office seemed to be putting forward involved incarceration (including overriding jail booking criteria) and traditional prosecution.”

Importantly, the 2019 agreement removed a requirement that defendants plead guilty before getting access to community court—a requirement for other alternatives to the mainstream court system, such as King County Drug Court. According to the community court rules and procedures, “An individual should not have to choose between their Constitutional rights to a trial and having the ability to access services that will help them exit the criminal justice system. Therefore, a person doesn’t have to give up trial rights to participate and gain benefits from Seattle Community Court.”

Khandelwal says community court is designed to avoid the harmful outcomes that are common in the mainstream court system, which often leads to a cycle of incarceration and disproportionately impacts people of color, unsheltered people, and people with a history of being declared incompetent to stand trial because of mental illness.

In fact, a DPD analysis found that the people on Davison’s “high utilizer” list are overwhelmingly people who fit into one or more of those three categories. Nearly six in ten have “indications of housing instability,” such as giving 77 South Washington—the Compass Center shelter in Pioneer Square—as their address. More than half (51 percent) have been through a court-ordered evaluation to determine their competency to stand trial. And 40 percent were Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC), higher than the proportion of BIPOC Seattle residents.

“Prior criminal legal system involvement is often a result of racially biased policing, which is only perpetuated or deepened by prosecution,” Khandelwal said. “DPD worked hard with the court and CAO to develop a court that did not look at criminal history to avoid perpetuating that bias.”

“Our office does not believe that individuals meeting the High Utilizer criteria are a good fit for Community Court, where the main obligations are completing a life skills class or meeting with service providers.”—City Attorney’s Office spokesman

According to a spokesman for Davison, Anthony Derrick, the 2019 agreement “removes [the city attorney’s] prosecutorial discretion to consider prior criminal history. Because community court is a release-first model, individuals with a history of repeat criminal activity are able to immediately return to their criminal behavior without consequence. Ultimately, as this agreement is written, we have no discretion to screen out any candidates that fit the high utilizer criteria without being in violation” of the agreement.

“Without modification to this agreement, many individuals meeting the high utilizer criteria are required to be repeatedly routed through Community Court despite little to no change in their criminal activity,” Derrick said. In general, he added, “our office does not believe that individuals meeting the High Utilizer criteria are a good fit for Community Court, where the main obligations are completing a life skills class or meeting with service providers.” Continue reading “City Attorney Davison Asks Court to Let Her Deny “High Utilizers” Access to Community Court”

City Attorney Davison’s Plan to Clear Case Backlog Includes Dismissing Nearly 2,000 Low-Level Misdemeanors

City Attorney Ann DavisonBy 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.

Report Shows Ongoing Racial Disparities in Use of Force, Sparking Criticism and Questions About Future of Consent Decree

By Erica C. Barnett

A review of the Seattle Police Department’s use of force over the last three years, released by the federal monitor who oversees the consent decree over the department, found that despite a decline in the use of all levels of force, officers remain far more likely to use force against Black and Native American people than white suspects, and that Black people were most likely to experience the most serious type of force, which includes shootings by police. Thirty-six percent of use of force incidents involved Black individuals, who make up just over 7 percent of Seattle’s population.

Between 2019 and 2021, SPD officers used the highest level of force (known as Type 3 force) against 15 Black people, compared to 15 white people and 15 whose race officers listed as “unknown.” Overall, the race of nearly one third of all use-of-force subjects (and more than half of the people police used force against during the summer 2020 protests) was recorded as “unknown” (compared to 9 percent of people arrested overall), making it hard to draw clear conclusions about the true extent of racial disproportionality in use of force. This data gap could simply mean “a box wasn’t checked,” Oftelie said during a public meeting about the report Tuesday night, or it could be “something a bit deeper and more culturally nefarious, like officers have not wanted to check that box… in order to avoid repercussions” related to racial bias.

At Tuesday’s meeting, community members, including members of the city’s Human Rights Commission and a staffer for City Councilmember Alex Pedersen, raised questions about the report’s conclusions and how they’ll be incorporated into upcoming negotiations with the city’s largest police union, the Seattle Police Officers Guild. Malik Davis, a staffer for Pedersen, expressed frustration about the secrecy surrounding contract negotiations, noting that SPOG’s 2018 contract, which invalidated major elements of the city’s landmark 2017 police accountability ordinance, was the reason the federal judge overseeing the consent decree, James Robart, ruled the city partly out of compliance with the agreement the following year.

Oftelie is expected to recommend a path toward ending the consent agreement later this spring.

Meanwhile, the city’s Human Rights Commission, which is not one of the city’s official “accountability partners,” is seeking amicus status on the consent decree in order to share “the stories and solutions of our residents and community stakeholders most affected,” according to an SHRC press release. “In simple terms, the amicus status will enable the Commission to be a ‘friend of the court’ and have the ability to petition the court for permission to submit a brief in support of our neesd for continuous police accountability,” the SHRC wrote.

Two members of the city’s Community Police Commission, which does have amicus status with the court, said Tuesday night that amicus status does not give them carte blanche to “petition the court” or communicate with Judge Robart directly; it does allow them to “file on on the city’s brief, like we did in 2020 when the city tried to come out from under the consent decree,” CPC member Rev. Harriett Walden said. Continue reading “Report Shows Ongoing Racial Disparities in Use of Force, Sparking Criticism and Questions About Future of Consent Decree”

Sound Transit Fare Enforcement Plan Could Send Riders to Court and Collections

By Erica C. Barnett

This Thursday, Sound Transit’s executive committee will take up a proposed new fare enforcement policy that would reinstate fines of up to $124 and impose legal penalties against riders who repeatedly fail to pay their fares. The new policy, if adopted, will go into effect on September 1.

The transit agency, which operates Link light rail as well as regional buses and Sounder commuter trains, has been working on a new fare enforcement policy since before the pandemic, after an internal review showed that despite its supposedly neutral fare enforcement strategy, the system disproportionately penalized Black riders. < During the pandemic, Sound Transit briefly eliminated fares, then reinstated them along with a new "fare ambassador” program that focused on education and engagement, replacing uniformed security officers with Sound Transit staffers in vests and regular clothes. The program is currently understaffed and has been ineffective at getting riders to pay their fares; during a recent Sound Transit board meeting, staffers said fares account for just 5 percent of the agency’s budget, down from a 2017 high of almost 40 percent.

Riders who repeatedly fail to pay their fare (or “tap” their prepaid transit pass correctly) can still wind up in court facing a civil infraction, and unpaid fines will still go to a collections agency, which can lead to garnished wages and a cycle of debt.

The new policy includes a number of reforms designed to reduce the punitive nature of Sound Transit’s old fare enforcement system. For example, it provides a number of alternatives for resolving an unpaid fare, including reduced-fare cards for very low-income riders, and it ends the policy of suspending people from the system if they have unpaid tickets or multiple infractions. Under the new policy, riders will get two warnings in a 12-month period, followed by a fine of $50; fines will only rise to $124 after the fifth time fare checkers catch a rider without proof of payment, and anyone under 18 will be exempt from legal penalties.

Still, the new policy preserves many of the elements of the old fare enforcement policy many transit advocates found objectionable, starting with the reinstatement of fare enforcement by on-board staff.

According to the policy, fare ambassadors will essentially become plainclothes fare enforcement officers, “issuing fines and citations” to riders who fail to show proof of payment. Riders who repeatedly fail to pay their fare (or “tap” their prepaid transit pass correctly) can still wind up in court facing a civil infraction, and unpaid fines will still go to a collections agency, which can lead to garnished wages and a cycle of debt. And it remains unclear how, or whether, the new policy will address the stark racial disproportionality that plagued the pre-pandemic system.

King County Councilmember Joe McDermott, who sits on the Sound Transit board, plans to introduce two amendments Thursday that would take away Sound Transit’s ability to send riders to court and send unpaid fines to collections. McDermott said the changes would address the agency’s “disproportional response” to fare evasion by a very small number of riders—perhaps 100 a year.

“The policy that’s before us now is light years better than what we were doing three years ago, McDermott said. “Removing collections and the courts are the final two pieces.” Continue reading “Sound Transit Fare Enforcement Plan Could Send Riders to Court and Collections”

Legislation Will Allow Police to Use Force to Stop People from Fleeing

Rep. Roger Goodman (D-45, Kirkland) speaks during a meeting of the House Public Safety Committee in February.

By Paul Kiefer

The state Senate voted on Friday to allow police officers to use force to stop people from fleeing when police stop them on suspicion of a crime. The legislation was a sticking point in the legislature’s efforts to revisit and refine a set of sweeping police reform bills that passed last year, including a rule that officers can only use force when they have probable cause to make an arrest.

This year’s bill, sponsored by Rep. Roger Goodman (D-45, Kirkland) drew criticism from national police accountability organizations and split the Senate Democratic caucus. Some police accountability advocates argued the bill gives police permission to use force in situations that don’t call for it.

Goodman initially introduced the bill in response to pressure from law enforcement agencies around the state, who argued that last year’s reforms, which required officers to have probable cause to make an arrest before using force, unintentionally limited police officers’ ability to stop and question people while allowing suspects to simply run away from police when stopped for questioning.

In crafting this year’s bill, lawmakers had to step carefully around a 1968 US Supreme Court decision, Terry v. Ohio, in which the court ruled that while police can detain someone based on suspicion alone, they can’t use force during such stops. The bill specifically focused on the right for police force to stop someone from walking away from officers during a stop, which law enforcement groups argued would not run afoul of the ruling.

“This law gives officers more leeway to harm people, and it makes it harder to hold them accountable when they do escalate an encounter.”—Enoka Herat, ACLU of Washington

Steve Strachan, director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, told PubliCola that so-called “investigative stops” usually end with officers letting a suspect walk away. “Most investigative stops I’ve done in my law enforcement career have ended with, ‘thank you, I appreciate the information and you’re free to go,” he said.

Since the legislature adopted stricter rules for when police can use force in 2021, Strachan added, officers have “felt unsure of what to do if the person they’re trying to talk to—a person who may have been involved in a domestic violence incident, for example—starts walking away.” As a result, Strachan said, officers have increasingly opted not to stop people who attempt to flee questioning.

There is no statewide data to demonstrate that pattern, and while Seattle Police Department data shows that officers made fewer investigative stops in the six months after the 2021 rules took effect than in the previous six months, that decline began at the start of the pandemic, during which SPD has seen hundreds of its officers retire or transfer to other law enforcement agencies.

In Strachan’s view, Goodman’s bill was an attempt to find an “appropriate balance” between enabling police to hold suspects for questioning and prohibiting officers from using excessive force to do so; the bill stipulated that officers could only use “reasonable and proportional” force to stop a person from fleeing from a stop, which Strachan called a “productive guardrail for accountability.”

But civil liberties groups say the new law will enable law enforcement to escalate otherwise minor encounters with civilians, possibly with deadly consequences. “There was already case law that would allow officers to use force to stop someone from fleeing if there’s a danger to the officer or the public, like if there’s reason to believe that a person is armed,” said Enoka Herat, the Police Practices and Immigration Counsel at the ACLU of Washington. “But this law opens the door wider than that. … It gives officers more leeway to harm people, and it makes it harder to hold them accountable when they do escalate an encounter.” Continue reading “Legislation Will Allow Police to Use Force to Stop People from Fleeing”

Capital Gains Ruling Threatens Legislative Victory for Progressives

A Douglas County Judge ruled on Tuesday that the statewide capital gains tax, which progressive legislators passed last year, is unconstitutional. The ruling concerned two lawsuits that were consolidated into one—one by the conservative Freedom Foundation, the other by Republican former state attorney general Rob McKenna.

The decision marks a win for Washington’s ultra-wealthy, like Steve Gordon of Gordon Trucking and hedge fund manager Brian Heywood, who each contributed $20,000 to an initiative campaign to repeal the tax; former Starbucks CEO Howard Beher, contributed $5,000. Unsurprisingly, the Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a Democrat, said he would appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.

Douglas County Superior Court Judge Brian Huber wrote in his ruling that the 7 percent tax on the sale of intangible financial assets, such as stocks and bonds, violates Washington’s constitution’s “uniformity clause” because it imposes “zero tax on capital gains below that $250,000 threshold.” The uniformity clause prohibits the state from taxing different property at different rates.

Democrats have argued that the tax is constitutional because it doesn’t assess property, but rather, the sale of property, making it an excise tax, not an income tax. Huber rejected that argument, saying the plaintiffs “properly characterized [the capital gains tax] as an income tax” in their lawsuit. And since Washington considers income to be a form of property, any income tax would need to meet the state constitution’s uniformity clause.

Washington is one of the few state’s in the country without an income tax. The state instead relies heavily on business and sales taxes to generate revenue. Democratic lawmakers have frequently criticized this model as regressive, because it means that people who earn less pay a larger percentage of their income in taxes than wealthy people pay. Democrats saw the capital gains tax as a way to reverse this regressive .

Following the judge’s decision, State Attorney General Bob Ferguson said  if the tax were ultimately struck down, the state could lose hundreds of millions in funding for childcare programs, early learning, and school construction projects. “Consequently, we will continue defending this law enacted by the peoples’ representatives in the legislature. All the parties recognize this case will ultimately be decided by the State Supreme Court. We respectfully disagree with this ruling, and we will appeal.”

—Leo Brine

As Fewer Sexual Assault Cases Go To Court, More Survivors Seek Help

Sexual assault referrals to prosecutors from King County police departments have declined since the start of the pandemic (Source: King County Prosecutor’s Office)

By Paul Kiefer

The King County Sexual Assault Resource Center (KCSARC) connected more people to therapy, legal support and other services in 2021 than at any other point in the past five years, even as law enforcement agencies referred fewer sexual assault cases to the King County Prosecutor’s Office.

In 2021, the prosecutor’s special assault unit, which handles sexual assaults and child abuse, filed 485 charges; about 85 percent of those charges were for sex crimes. In the same year, more than 5,000 people sought help from KCSARC, compared to 4,905 in 2019. In the past five years, the number of people seeking support from KCSARC rose by 23 percent.

KCSARC Director Mary Ellen Stone says the mismatch points to a growing problem in King County’s law enforcement agencies, including the Seattle Police Department: With fewer detectives to investigate sexual assaults and a growing backlog of cases, police have left more cases on hold, or declined to investigate reported assaults, than at any other point in the past decade. For some victims, she said, the prospect of delays and dead ends is enough to dissuade them from reporting an assault. “Our system relies on people saying, ‘this happened to me, and I want to make sure it doesn’t happen again,'” she said. “We aren’t making people feel like that’s worthwhile.”

The drop in the number of sexual assault referrals began early in the pandemic, when police departments across the county began losing officers and focusing their resources on patrol instead of investigative units. Since the spring of 2020, the number of sexual assaults the Seattle Police Department’s referred to the prosecutor’s office fell by a quarter compared to the previous five-year average; the King County Sheriff’s Office’s average monthly referrals fell by roughly 20 percent.

Sergeant Jason Escobar heads the special assault unit, which investigates sex crimes and child abuse, at the King County Sheriff’s Office. He says his team of detectives has shrunk by nearly half since the start of the pandemic. As of this week, Escobar has only five detectives to investigate sexual assaults, and four vacant positions; he added that one of his detectives may soon leave because they haven’t complied with the department’s vaccination requirement.

“As it is, our remaining detectives are carrying heavier caseloads,” he said. “Even then, some of the reports we receive—if the victim isn’t a child, or if someone isn’t in immediate danger or in the hospital—we have to hold until we can find a chance to assign them. If someone reports an assault that happened months or years ago, we will still assign that case to a detective, but it’s not going to be right away.” Escobar assigned 30 fewer cases to his detectives in 2021 than in 2020, and his unit’s backlog of unassigned cases is growing.

Escobar said his unit would be able to investigate more cases if he could bring on more detectives. For now, the sheriff’s office isn’t letting him bring in new officers from patrol units because of the staffing shortage. But Escobar sees another hurdle on the horizon: as the King County Superior Court begins holding trials that the pandemic delayed, some of his detectives will need to split their time between giving testimony in court and working on investigations. The court currently has a backlog of more than 400 sexual assault cases; the average age of the victims of those cases is 16. Continue reading “As Fewer Sexual Assault Cases Go To Court, More Survivors Seek Help”