Dozens of King County prosecutors want office to ignore some burglary, drug and assault cases

A group of King County prosecutors who are part of a working group on race and social justice has a long list of crimes they believe the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office should decline to file charges on, including in some cases when officers are assaulted.

According to a letter obtained by Q13 News and signed by dozens of current King County deputy prosecutors, the group also wants to change the influence and input law enforcement has on criminal cases. 

“We are committed to being servants of our community, and our community is crying out for a new vision of justice, now more than ever,” reads the letter, a proposal from the King County DPAA Equity & Justice Workgroup. “We join those cries wholeheartedly, and we urge you not to miss this moment.”

The DPAA is the union representing deputy-level prosecuting attorneys.

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“These ideas are a starting point; we have a diversity of backgrounds and opinions, and we recognize that some proposals may not come to fruition. Our allegiance is not to any particular recommendation within, but to the overarching mission of equity and racial justice,” the letter reads.

Among their proposals: Reconsider whether to file felony third-degree assault cases when the victim is a law enforcement officer.

“These (charges) often arise from aggressive responses by law enforcement officers toward persons of color, or from an arrestee’s mental health or substance abuse episode,” the letter reads, adding that such cases should be filed “reluctantly.”

The letter also states that third-degree assault charges should not be filed if the officer had a bodycam but did not turn it on, or if the officer did not have proper training on de-escalation and implicit bias.

“It’s unfortunate that prosecutors are using language such as ‘reluctant’ when determining whether charges should be filed when police officers are assaulted," said Mike Solan, president of the Seattle Police Officers' Guild. "I think it’s more political pandering and divisive rhetoric at a time when we need unity in our city."

The working group also seeks to reevaluate the relationship between county prosecutors and police by giving investigators less input in bail recommendations.

“Stop holding Burglary 2 defendants with no violent history during a global pandemic simply because (Seattle) PD is annoyed by how often they’re responding to break-ins,” the letter cited as an example.

The group also cites recommendations for dealing with a current case backlog due to the coronavirus pandemic. For cases awaiting a charging decision, the group recommends that the prosecutor’s office agree not to file charges on referrals for: escape, eluding, drug possession, drug possession with intent to deliver, delivery of controlled substance, second-degree burglary, and auto theft, as long as the suspect in each case has “remained crime free from when the case was referred to present.”

Solan said declining to charges burglaries, auto thefts, and other felonies would only embolden criminals, and that officers would continue to make the arrests regardless.

“Our obligation is to arrest people based upon probable cause," he said. "That is part of our oath of service to protect the public. They expect police officers to do their jobs. We have no control over the political decisions of whether or not to prosecute offenders.”

The union’s working group sent the letter to leadership of the criminal division on July 17. The group then formally presented its ideas to the division’s leadership on Tuesday and followed up with an email to DPAA members stating that leadership was “pleased with the proposals” and added that “over half of the DPAA have now chosen to include their signatures” on the plan.

A deputy prosecutor who provided the letter to Q13 asked to have their name withheld due to concerns about retaliation, but called the proposals alarming. 

“I don’t even know why we’re prosecutors anymore,” the source said. “It seems almost as if the prosecutor’s office becomes less and less relevant and necessary to a safe society when we’re willing to let burglars or robbers go free or have a license to assault police officers.”

Recommendations from the working group also seek to address possible ethical issues by empowering junior prosecutors to speak up when they have concerns. The group questioned whether enough consideration is given to equitable outcomes when making charging decisions.  

“The question is often whether we can file a case, not whether we should,” the letter read (emphasis theirs).

“We have observed how little scrutiny is applied at filing as to whether filing is the correct just and equitable decision (not just the correct legal decision), and then how difficult it becomes to dismiss/divert/reduce once a case is filed.”

The recommendations were sent to King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg Wednesday morning after Q13 News inquired about them. Casey McNerthney, a spokesperson for Satterberg's office, wrote in an emailed statement:

"These proposals that King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg received this morning are exactly that – the first step in a much larger discussion. We want the non-senior members of our office to be comfortable sharing their feedback and ideas with senior leadership. We want to hear their opinions and have those be shared in a safe, constructive environment.

As the Equity and Social Justice team said themselves, these ideas and recommendations are a starting point for collaboration within our office as we take on the complex and difficult issue of systemic racism within the criminal justice system. It would be incorrect to say these proposals are policy. They are the start of a discussion in a longer process.

Our policy on filing assault cases hasn’t changed. Our filing and disposition standards do not charge without careful evaluation and input from experienced leaders. Our filing and disposition standards are public, and we’ll always be accountable for our decisions.

Because the proposals were an initial draft, the Equity and Justice Workgroup asked to withhold them until there was a response from the Criminal Division on the next steps. But to be clear, we’re not afraid in being open about our discussions. The proposals are starts to conversations initiated this week. These are important discussions when our office has been told to take a $9 million cut over the next two years. The court closures because of the Covid-19 pandemic also backlogged roughly 5,000 felony cases. We will work through these difficult times with collaborative, thoughtful discussions -- and we will not make rushed decisions at the expense of public safety.

Of course, decisions that affect how our office handles criminal cases will be made public."

An email to the working group seeking comment has not been returned. 

Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best said she needed to review the recommendations before commenting. 

The working group’s recommendations come amid other major proposals to overhaul the county’s criminal justice system.

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On Tuesday, an internal memo from the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention spelled out King County Executive Dow Constantine’s plan to end youth detention in the county by 2025 and to close the King County Jail in downtown Seattle once the Coronavirus pandemic is under control.

Also on Tuesday, the King County Council voted to send two separate proposals to voters in November. One would change the sheriff to an appointed position rather than an elected one. The other would give the council power to change or reduce responsibilities of the sheriff.

Councilmember Girmay Zahilay called the proposed ordinances a step “to remove a structural barrier preventing us from even having the conversation about reform” of the King County Sheriff’s Office.