Seattle suing King County over inquest process

You may have heard that the City of Seattle is suing King County over recent changes to the inquest process for officer-involved deaths in the county. Here’s what’s going on with that.

Police shootings have grabbed news headlines in Seattle, Washington state, and nationwide the last few years. In response, in 2018 Washington voters passed Initiative 940, which (among other things) made it easier to prosecute police officers for unjustified shootings of civilians and required independent investigations into officer-involved use of deadly force.

At the same time, King County Executive Dow Constantine was working on revisions to the county’s inquest process. In December 2017, Constantine appointed a six-member committee to review inquest processes and recommend changes. That committee delivered its report in March of 2018, and in October 2018 Constantine issues an Executive Order instituting many of the committee’s recommendations.

In 2019, two inquests were called for in King County: for Damarius Butts and Charleena Lyles. Despite lingering questions about some of the changes to the process specified in Constantine’s Executive Order, the Executive appointed Michael Spearman as the Administrator for the Butts inquest, and the gears started turning. Spearman made several orders and interpretations before the inquest started, including pre-inquest depositions and discovery and a provision for live-streaming the inquest proceedings.

Then on December 5, 2019, two days before the scheduled beginning of the Butts inquest proceeding, Constantine issued a new executive order with an updated set of directives and rules for inquests.

That new executive order, and some specific provisions in it, form the heart of the lawsuit along with specific objections to some of Spearman’s decisions.

Here are the objections listed in the city’s filed complaint:

  • Constantine has broadened the purpose of an inquest beyond the authority granted under state law. RCW 36.24.020 states: “The coroner in the county where an inquest is to be convened pursuant to this chapter shall notify the superior court to provide persons to serve as a jury of inquest to hear all the evidence concerning the death and to inquire into and render a true verdict on the cause of death.” But Constantine’s latest executive order says “The review will result in the issuance of findings regarding the cause and manner of death, and whether the law enforcement member acted pursuant to policy and training.” (my emphasis) The City argues that the King County Executive is not authorized to empanel an inquest jury to render an opinion on whether an officer was following department policy and training, and that Constantine has turned the inquest process into a “quasi-civil quasi-criminal proceeding not contemplated by the Coroner’s Statute.” To that end, the executive order also compels the testimony of law enforcement agency representatives and the chief law enforcement officer of the department involved related to departmental policy and training (though not to render an opinion on whether the officer’s actions were consistent with them). The city argues that  Constantine doesn’t have authority to compel their testimony.
  • The executive order grants the family of the deceased the right to have an attorney present and representing them. It also grants the officers involved the right to an attorney, but only if they agree to testify and to be cross-examined by the other parties. That, the city argues, deprives the officers of their constitutional rights, especially since they are the only ones potentially subject to civil liability and criminal prosecution. The order also prohibits inquiry into the officers’ mental state during the incident, including whether they felt that their safety was at risk, and it allows for the disciplinary history of an involved officer to be evaluated under some circumstances. The city argues that these provisions extend beyond the authority of the Executive and arbitrarily shape the available evidence.
  • The city complains that the Administrator is delegated quasi-judicial authority over the inquest but because she or he is appointed by and reports to the Executive is not independent and impartial.
  • The city objects to several rulings that the Administrator, Michael Spearman, made in the the run-up to the start of the Butts inquest. They include: excluding some witnesses; granting subpoena authority to the coroner; allowing for discovery before the start of the inquest proceedings; and deciding that the inquest proceedings will be livestreamed and uploaded to YouTube.

As I mentioned earlier, Constantine’s new Executive Order was released two days before the start of the Butts inquest (the Lyles inquest was expected to start this spring). But the parties, each of whom had certain objections to provisions in the new rules, asked Spearman to stay the proceedings while they filed a challenge. Spearman agreed, so the Butts inquest is on hold for the moment.

The City of Seattle has asked a King County Superior Court judge to issue a “writ of prohibition” invalidating Constantine’s most recent Executive Order because it extends beyond the authorities granted to him under state law. It is also asking for the court to declare that the offending provisions in the Executive Order and the discretionary decisions by the Administrator are prohibited by law.

Several of the other parties in the inquests, including the family of Damarius Butts, filed separate cases that have now been linked together and assigned to the same judge. In addition, other parties have joined the case as intervenors, including:

  • The Cities of Kent, Auburn, and Federal Way, who also have pending inquests;
  • The King County Sheriff’s Office;
  • Officers Anderson and McNew, the two SPD officers who shot Charleena Lyles and as such are parties in the other active King County inquest.

It’s important to remember that Initiative 940 required an independent review of officer-involved deaths; however, that is NOT the inquest process that Constantine has defined — it will be a completely separate effort.

The City Attorney’s Office issued a statement related to the lawsuit, which mostly repeats the history laid out above. Beyond that it adds:

Independent review of officer involved shootings, community engagement in review of officer involved shootings, and a systematic review of policy and training for the use of force have been integrated and are being implemented statewide as part of I-940. These measures further assist with appropriate statewide accountability of officer involved shootings.  

Accordingly, all interested parties are evaluating and assessing their rights in the inquest proceedings and are participating in the writ actions. Rather than enduring reoccurring piecemeal legal challenges, these writs will provide for a comprehensive review for what is appropriate for inquest consideration to minimize any potential setbacks in the future. We are confident the Superior Court will ensure the inquest process is consistent with state law and will provide clarity as we all navigate inquests moving forward. We all share the goal for transparency and accountability. The fairness and legitimacy of the inquest process relies on preserving the rights of all the parties involved and ensuring that all participants and the public will have trust in the process.

The court will hear arguments on the writs on March 30.

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