Tag: King County Prosecutor’s Office

Report on SPD Destruction of DNA Evidence Reveals Serious Problems in Department’s Evidence Storage

SPD Evidence Storage Warehouse in January 2018

By Paul Kiefer

More than a year ago, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office (CAO) contacted the Seattle Police Department about a backlog of post-conviction DNA samples held in the department’s evidence warehouse. SPD had started storing DNA samples—each enclosed in a manila envelope and tagged with a case number—in their warehouse in 2016 as a temporary solution to an obscure glitch in state law.

Seattle law requires the city to collect DNA samples in a broader array of situations than state law requires. At the time, the Washington State Patrol wasn’t permitted to enter DNA samples collected from people convicted of certain crimes—particularly sex offenses—into the state’s DNA database, which is used to cross-reference DNA samples from crime scenes to identify suspects. To save the samples from the state patrol’s incinerator, SPD volunteered to store the existing samples beginning in 2016 while the legislature and city council resolved the issue.

By 2019, the state patrol was once again able to accept DNA samples from Seattle—the CAO only needed to gather the stored samples and hand them off to the state for processing and cataloging.

But when SPD’s evidence unit went looking through the warehouse, they discovered a problem: a year earlier, they had mistakenly destroyed 107 of the DNA samples, or 16 percent of the total samples in SPD’s storage, along with evidence from an unknown number of homicide investigations.

After their discovery, SPD contacted Seattle’s Office of the Investigator General (OIG) to review the policies and practices that led to the destruction of the DNA samples. The OIG’s final report on the incident, released in late December, revealed that the mistake was a symptom of much more widespread problems in SPD’s evidence collection, storage and disposal policies. That confluence of problems has left the department with a patchwork of evidence storage systems across its four precincts and a warehouse filled from floor to ceiling.

The evidence warehouse, tucked away on a side street in SoDo, has been a worsening headache for the department for nearly a decade. In November 2020, it was at 94 percent capacity. And even that was an improvement from three years earlier, when pallets of evidence stacked in the warehouse’s aisles prompted the Seattle fire marshal to find the building in violation of the city’s fire code. Some of that evidence may be significant for ongoing criminal investigations; in other cases (including homicide, sex offenses and stalking), the King County Prosecutor’s Office asks SPD to keep evidence after the conclusion of an investigation in case it becomes useful for prosecuting future crimes. But it also includes plenty of seized items that serve very little investigative purpose, including a fleet of bicycles that crowded the aisles alongside the pallets.

SPD doesn’t hold the precincts to any standard for evidence storage, leaving OIG auditors to discover that one precinct—which they left unnamed in the report—eschewed evidence lockers and security cameras in favor of a filing cabinet with no security cameras.

According to the members of SPD’s evidence unit cited in the report, one reason for the overcrowding is that some officers weren’t sufficiently trained on what to collect as physical evidence, as opposed to taking photographs or samples. The OIG report pointed to a shopping cart held at the warehouse as an example of evidence that could easily be replaced with a photograph to save space. Evidence unit staff also pointed out that officers and detectives themselves are responsible for determining which older evidence no longer needs to be in storage; because those officers and detectives rarely have time to revisit their old case files and fill out the paperwork to release or destroy evidence, the evidence unit couldn’t clear enough space to make way for new evidence.

But the fire code violation jolted the evidence unit into action. Under direction from the fire marshal to clear the warehouse’s aisles by February 2018, the evidence unit’s leadership directed staff to create a “batch list” of evidence related to cases from 2013 to 2016: a short list of stored items that the evidence unit thought it could destroy without undermining any ongoing criminal investigations. Facing a storage crisis, the evidence unit bypassed the requirement that detectives and officers sign off on the destruction of evidence; as a result, SPD detectives didn’t know that the evidence unit marked DNA samples related to their old case files for destruction. According to the OIG report, evidence unit staffers didn’t check SPD’s case file database, which would have shown them that the department was storing the DNA evidence for future processing.

The OIG also discovered that during the rush to clear space in the evidence warehouse, SPD’s evidence unit had also moved 92 pallets of evidence—much of it gathered by the homicide unit—to the adjacent vehicle storage garage.

Most of the destroyed DNA evidence came from people convicted of harassment, sexual exploitation and patronizing sex workers; a smaller amount was connected to people convicted of assault or stalking. SPD’s own auditing team also found that the purge had destroyed an unknown amount of evidence from “reasonably recent” homicide cases.

The OIG report, written by auditor Matt Miller, did not excoriate SPD’s evidence unit for their mistakes, though Miller did write in the report that even in a crisis, the unit should have “establish[ed] proper safeguards” to avoid carelessly destroying valuable evidence.

During its review of SPD evidence collection and storage practices, the OIG also visited the department’s five precincts, each of which has been storing evidence temporarily since 2019, when SPD adopted a new records-management system that requires a member of the evidence unit staff to physically place evidence in the warehouse. While officers used to deliver evidence to the warehouse themselves, they now have to store it in their precincts until a member of the evidence unit is available to pick it up; as a consequence, the precinct captains have each developed their own evidence storage areas. SPD doesn’t hold the precincts to any standard for evidence storage, leaving OIG auditors to discover that one precinct—which they left unnamed in the report—eschewed evidence lockers and security cameras in favor of a filing cabinet with no security cameras. Continue reading “Report on SPD Destruction of DNA Evidence Reveals Serious Problems in Department’s Evidence Storage”

King County Appeals Ruling That Allows Lighter Sentencing for Juveniles to US Supreme Court

By Paul Kiefer

Last Thursday, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court appealing a pair of Washington State Supreme Court decisions expanding judges’ discretion to consider the age and maturity of juvenile offenders when sentencing or re-sentencing them.

Satterberg argues that overturning the decisions would restore the proper balance of power between the state legislature, prosecutors and judges and reduce sentencing disparities between different parts of the state. The ACLU and criminal defense attorneys disagree, saying that the rulings have allowed judges to impose sentences in line with new research about children’s brain development, and to redress ongoing prison sentences that were excessive to begin with.

Though Satterberg is challenging decisions the state court issued in September, the true target of his appeal is a landmark 2017 state Supreme Court decision that courts, attorneys and prosecutors—including Satterberg —have already acknowledged as case law. The appeal caught many juvenile justice reform advocates off guard, re-igniting a debate about the limits and fairness of age-conscious sentencing.

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The past three years of litigation about Washington’s juvenile sentencing laws hinges on six armed robberies on Halloween night in 2012. The culprits were a group of Tacoma teenagers, and their haul was mostly candy and cell phones. Nobody was injured, but because one of the teenagers threatened trick-or-treaters with a gun, the Pierce County Superior court charge two of the older members of the group—17-year-old Zyion Houston-Sconiers and 16-year-old Treson Lee Roberts—as adults. They received sentences of 31 and 26 years, respectively.

The lengthy sentences were the result of a Washington State law known as “automatic decline,” which requires prosecutors to charge 16- and 17-year-olds as adults if they commit a serious crime, such as aggravated assault or murder, or already have a criminal record. Unlike charges in juvenile courts, the state attaches mandatory minimum sentences to adult charges, so while the Pierce County judge who sentenced Houston-Sconiers and Roberts acknowledged that the sentences were unfair, his hands were tied by state law.

Houston-Sconiers and Roberts appealed their sentences to the Washington State Supreme Court, arguing that judges should be required to consider a juvenile defendant’s youth and immaturity when making sentencing decisions, regardless of the defendant’s crimes. The court agreed, ruling that Washington judges are required to consider a juvenile defendant’s age during a sentencing hearing in adult court, and as a result Houston-Sconiers and Roberts also received shortened sentences. Because the Pierce County prosecutor didn’t appeal the court’s decision, it became case law.

Satterberg argues that the state court’s rulings in Houston-Sconiers, Ali, and Domingo-Cornelio allow sentencing judges to “impose no jail time at all for juvenile offenders who commit the most serious crimes,” stripping the legislature’s power to determine mandatory sentences that “reflect the will of the citizenry.”

Many juvenile justice reform advocates celebrated the decision, known as Washington v. Houston-Sconiers, as a landmark victory in the fight for fairer juvenile sentencing in Washington. Tukwila criminal defense attorney Emily Gause, who will represent one of the juvenile defendants before the US Supreme Court when it hears Satterberg’s appeal, told PubliCola that Houston-Sconiers prompted courts to formally acknowledge the science of brain development and adjust sentences accordingly.

Among other impacts, Gause said defense attorneys are now less likely to encourage juvenile clients charged as adults to take plea deals to avoid lengthy mandatory sentences. Now, she said, “Judges can really craft the right sentence for the specific facts of a particular case. Now the details about the role that a child played in a criminal act actually matter, not just the rubber stamp of what they were convicted of.”

Continue reading “King County Appeals Ruling That Allows Lighter Sentencing for Juveniles to US Supreme Court”

Despite Months of Arrests and Impoundments, the Car Brigade Is Still Protecting Seattle Protesters

Seattle Police officers impound a Car Brigade vehicle on Capitol Hill on October 3

By Paul Kiefer

Late at night on September 11, during the worst of the past summer’s wildfire smoke, a driver pulled over in a Bothell parking lot. Less than an hour earlier, the driver – who asked to remain anonymous because of pending felony charges – had been a part of the Car Brigade, a group of drivers who use their cars to protect Black Lives Matter protesters from attacks.

That night, the group had formed a protective perimeter around a relatively small and subdued protest march in Seattle. Driving at a walking speed, the motley crew of luxury cars, nondescript sedans and massive SUVs maneuvered to keep other drivers from entering alleyways, parking lot exits and intersections.

After months of practice, angry honking from inconvenienced drivers doesn’t phase the Car Brigade. The protest ended with no police in sight, so the drivers went their separate ways, expecting to make it home without issue. But when he reached Bothell, the driver saw police lights in his rear-view mirror. “There was never a siren,” he said. “It seemed like they had just silently followed me all the way to Bothell.”

“SPD thinks drivers are somehow involved in organizing the marches or have a hand in what marchers do,” one driver told PubliCola. “Really, when I’m driving, I don’t even know where we’re turning next.”

To his surprise, the officer who approached his window was from the Seattle Police Department. According to the driver, the officer “told me I had three seconds to open my window or he would smash it. I didn’t really have time to react or think. I was still trying to remember where the door handle was when another officer walked up and smashed the window. The funny thing was that my doors were unlocked anyway.”

That night, the driver was booked into the King County Jail for allegedly obstructing a public officer at a protest several days earlier. He was released only a few hours later, but SPD had impounded his car and was waiting for a warrant to search it. Without his cell phone—which SPD had also seized—the driver spent the early hours of Saturday morning searching for some way to make his way to his home in a suburb east of Seattle. “I’ve never been so happy to see a yellow cab,” he said.

The arrest in Bothell was not an isolated incident: between August and mid-October, arrests of Car Brigade members were an almost weekly phenomenon. In total, SPD detained drivers on more than a dozen occasions and impounded 13 drivers’ cars; some, like the driver arrested in Bothell in September, were arrested more than once.

Incident reports and search warrants obtained by PubliCola offer a glimpse at what might lay behind the arrests: A larger SPD investigation into the Car Brigade’s connections to property damage and arson at last summer’s protests, driven by the department’s belief that the volunteer drivers are not good Samaritans, but accomplices who provide cover and support for property damage, arson and other crimes.

Five Car Brigade drivers who spoke to PubliCola believe that SPD has an ulterior motive for the arrests, impoundments and investigation. They describe SPD’s treatment of the Car Brigade as a “scare tactic” intended to punish drivers for protecting marchers, undermine marchers’ safety, and finally bring an end to the nightly marches. And the tactic may be working: drivers say that a dwindling number of drivers are willing to risk losing their vehicles, and potentially face felony charges, in order to protect protesters.

SPD did not respond to questions about specific arrests or the broader investigation, so the details of arrests included in this story reflect the drivers’ own accounts, as well as SPD incident reports.

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The Car Brigade formed earlier this year in the wake of the the July 4 attack on I-5 that killed Summer Taylor and injured Diaz Love. In the weeks that followed, one organizer told PubliCola, marches were flooded with volunteer drivers. “There were 40 or 50 drivers a night,” she recalled, “but it was chaos. The only coordination came from one person running from car to car to relay directions.” The playbook the Car Brigade now uses was the brainchild of a group of former marchers and new volunteers, she said. The team developed nicknames, a weekly driving schedule and an emergency fund to cover gas and window replacements; by August, the Car Brigade was a well-oiled machine.

Over those months, the Car Brigade drivers maintain, their presence at marches has served one purpose. “What we do is protect protesters – that’s the entire reason we’re there,” the driver arrested in Bothell said. Continue reading “Despite Months of Arrests and Impoundments, the Car Brigade Is Still Protecting Seattle Protesters”

Cuts to SPD’s Domestic Violence Unit Could Undermine DV Investigations, Experts Say

Image by zeraien via Wikimedia Commons.

By Paul Kiefer

As part of the staffing transfers that Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz announced last Tuesday, the Seattle Police Department is in the process of moving 88 officers to patrol duties, with more transfers to follow. Those reductions include 29 Community Policing Team members, five members of the department’s Intelligence Unit (used to identify crime hot spots and to determine where patrol officers will be deployed), and five members of the department’s Domestic Violence Unit—nearly a quarter of that unit’s staff.

Despite assurances from both Chief Diaz and Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office that the department is working to ensure that the staffing transfers don’t limit the domestic violence unit’s efficiency and capacity, sources both outside SPD and inside the unit itself are raising concerns that the move will undermine domestic violence investigations.

“Of course I’m concerned,” said David Martin, the head of the King County Prosecutor’s Domestic Violence Unit, which works with the SPD unit on felony cases. “It’s hard to imagine this not increasing the caseloads for the remaining detectives, and that can take a toll on the thoroughness or speed of the investigations.” That increase in caseloads would have happened this year even without the staff transfers, he said, given the recent surge in domestic violence cases in the county.

“A 911 response never resolves a domestic violence incident. Relying on police response to address domestic violence lacks understanding of what survivors experience when they encounter the legal system because neither the domestic violence nor the legal process ends with that 911 call.” – Judy Lin, King County Bar Association

According to the King County Prosecutor’s Office, as of the end of July, the county saw a 17 percent increase in domestic violence felony case filings compared to last year. So far this year, there have been 11 domestic violence homicide incidents in King County, accounting for 15 deaths (which include two murder-suicides and one incident with multiple victims)—twice as many as in all of 2019. Another eight murders were committed by convicted domestic violence offenders; because the victims in those cases weren’t intimate partners of the perpetrators, they aren’t counted as domestic violence homicides.

According to Martin, SPD’s Domestic Violence Unit plays a crucial role not only in investigating domestic violence cases, but in conducting follow-up with offenders, including serving protection orders and removing guns from offenders’ homes. In fact, SPD’s Domestic Violence unit was created specifically to shift those duties away from patrol and into a specialized unit trained specifically in managing domestic violence cases.

The SPD Domestic Violence Unit is also a part of King County’s Regional Domestic Violence Firearms Enforcement Unit (RDVFEU)—a collaboration between county and city prosecutors, the sheriff’s office, and the SPD unit; the SPD detectives are responsible for serving protection orders and removing guns from the domestic violence offenders within city limits. The RDVFEU has recovered 30 percent more firearms this year than they had by the same time last year and has seen a 104% increase in Extreme Risk Protection Order filings, which mandate the removal of a firearm from domestic violence offenders.

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Retired judge Anne Levinson, who led the effort to establish the regional firearms unit, is worried that the cuts to SPD’s domestic violence unit will undermine the department’s commitments to their regional partners. “My concerns are both the ability to swiftly and strongly enforce the law and the importance of quickly serving protection orders and removing firearms when those orders are served,” Levinson said. “Both those are put at risk by those cuts.”

An officer who works in SPD’s Domestic Violence Unit, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, echoed the concerns of Martin and Levinson, saying they can’t fathom how their colleagues will be able to process ever-growing caseloads with fewer investigators. The officer said they are especially concerned about the unit’s Elder Crimes division, which will lose two of its three officers. The division is responsible for investigating physical abuse, neglect, or financial abuse involving senior citizens.

Mirroring the broader surge in domestic violence filings, the officer said, the elder abuse unit has also seen their caseloads increase during the past year, which they credit to pandemic-related isolation. “The elder abuse team’s numbers are always increasing,” they explained, “and during the pandemic, there’s less supervision of elders because people don’t want to infect them, so they can be hugely vulnerable to abuse.”

In his press conference last week, Interim Chief Diaz said that increasing the number of patrol officers will enable faster 911 responses;  that distributing patrol duties between a larger number of officers will reduce on-the-job stress and allow those officers more time to build relationships with community members; and that decreasing the number of officers assigned to special units—who Diaz said often work more overtime—will lower the department’s overtime spending.

Durkan spokeswoman Kelsey Nyland said Durkan supports the transfers because they serve Diaz’s goal to “focus the culture of SPD— including patrol—on community and neighborhood policing” and “lay the groundwork to create a department that is less centered around individual, siloed specialty units and instead can handle a total collection of incidents.”

As for concerns about the ability of SPD’s Domestic Violence Unit to investigate cases, aid in prosecutions, and provide follow-up for victims, the mayor’s office doubled down on last week’s assurance that “SPD will be closely monitoring the data for any potential negative impacts and making data-informed decisions about staffing and allocation of resources.” Nyland added, “If SPD doesn’t have enough officers in patrol to be quickly dispatched to initial incidents of domestic violence, then the subsequent detective work loses much of its purpose.”

But according to Judy Lin, the Senior Managing Attorney for the pro bono family law programs at the King County Bar Association (which deals with domestic violence cases), improving 911 response times to domestic violence incidents does less to ensure the safety of victims than the follow-up work provided by the Domestic Violence Unit.

“A 911 response never resolves a domestic violence incident. What you’re dealing with are survivors who have a relationship with the abuser involving a pattern of coercive control,” Lin said. “Relying on police response to address domestic violence lacks understanding of what survivors experience when they encounter the legal system because neither the domestic violence nor the legal process ends with that 911 call.”  If the reduced Domestic Violence Unit struggles to keep up with casework, she said, “it is more likely that abusers will not be held accountable… Without [an efficient Domestic Violence Unit] there are so many reasons for survivors to not follow through with the criminal case when they assess the risks of doing so to their safety and that of their children.” 

Lin also added that patrol officers responding to domestic violence incidents can actually make victims less safe. “If survivors reach out to law enforcement who don’t have specialized training, it can increase the risk of harm and lethality,” she said.

And elder abuse cases often don’t involve a 911 call at all, said Nadia Armstrong-Green, a Senior Rights Assistance administrator with Sound Generations, a King County nonprofit that serves older adults and adults with disabilities. “A lot of elder crimes involve some form of financial abuse,” she said, “and I often advise people to get the police involved, but many of our clients are reluctant to do that. Most people don’t see fraud or identity as an emergency.”

According to the Domestic Violence Unit detective, problems may also arise from transferring detectives who haven’t been on patrol in several years without adequately preparing them for their new patrol positions. One of the domestic violence detectives who will be transferred, they say, hasn’t been in the field for nearly a decade. “I’d think [they] would need some kind of modified field training before [they] would be prepared to work as a single officer unit. There have been technological changes, policy changes… a lot has evolved for patrol officers.” Instead, they say, the transfers will receive only about a week of training before they are deployed on patrol on September 16.