State Supreme Court clarifies rules for King County inquests, allows pending inquests to move forward

This morning the Washington State Supreme court issued a powerful 49-page unanimous ruling resolving a fierce, multi-year, multi-party battle over how inquests should be conducted in King County. The ruling upholds portions of the changes that King County Executive Dow Constantine enacted through a series of executive orders, but wipes out other parts.

After concerns were raised about King County’s inquest process in 2017 and early 2018, Constantine placed a hold on pending inquests and convened a six-member Inquest Review Committee to make recommendations on how the process should be improved. Based on its recommendations and feedback from a coalition representing law enforcement and community advocates, in late 2018 Constantine issued an executive order setting out a new set of rules for inquests, including:

  • allowing an inquest administrator to preside over inquests as the Executive’s designee;
  • reducing the role of the prosecuting attorney;
  • expanding public access to inquest proceedings;
  • allowing the chief law enforcement officer of the involved agency to provide limited testimony about police training and policies;
  • allowing testimony from expert witnesses on whether the officers involved followed those training and policies;
  • prohibiting the issuance of subpoenas to compel the testimony of involved officers;
  • conditioning the participation of involved officers’ attorneys on the officers’ willingness to participate in the inquest (though it did not define what it means for officers to “participate”);
  • barring the inquest jury from determining issues of fault or criminal or civil liability.

Following that order, in 2019 Constantine officially initiated the inquests for Charleena Lyles, Damarius Butts, and Isaiah Obet and appointed retired Judge Michael Spearman as the inquest administrator.

Just before the Butts inquest was about to begin, Constantine issued an updated Executive Order, clarifying that officers’ attorneys would only be able to participate if the offers were willing to testify. The officers immediately moved to stay the inquest in order to allow them to file a legal challenge to the executive order, and Spearman granted the motion. In the meantime, the families of Butts, Lyles and Obet filed their own petitions in King County Superior Court challenging parts of Constantine’s executive orders by demanding that Spearman subpoena the police officers and include in the scope of the inquest whether the victims were killed “with criminal means.” The City of Seattle also filed a legal challenge to have the executive orders thrown out in their entirety. And the individual officers filed their own suit , also seeking to have the executive order vacated. Auburn, Federal Way, Kent, Renton, and the King County Sheriff’s Office joined those challenges. The courts consolidated all of the charges under one case, though the City of Seattle voluntarily dropped its claims after pressure from the City Council and community activists.

The superior court heard the case and issued its ruling last July, largely finding in favor of the law enforcement agencies. The case was then appealed directly to the state Supreme Court, leading to today’s ruling.

Much of the case centers on interpretation of RCW 36.24, aka the Coroner’s Act, which defines the job of County Coroner and at a high level how and when inquests must be conducted. Two sections of the Coroner’s Act are most relevant to the Court’s legal argument:

RCW 36.24.050: “The coroner may issue subpoenas for witnesses returnable forthwith or at such time and place as the coroner may appoint, which may be served by any competent person. The coroner must summon and examine as witnesses, on oath administered by the coroner, every person, who, in his or her opinion or that of any of the jury, has any knowledge of the facts. A witness served with a subpoena may be compelled to attend and testify, or be punished by the coroner for disobedience, in like manner as upon a subpoena issued by a district judge.

RCW 36.24.070: “After hearing the testimony, the jury shall render its verdict and certify the same in writing signed by the jurors, and setting forth who the person killed is, if known, and when, where and by what means he or she came to his or her death; or if he or she was killed, or his or her death was occasioned by the act of another by criminal means, who is guilty thereof, if known.”

The Court ruled today that:

  • Generally the King County Executive has discretion to issue procedural rules for inquests through an executive order, but they must align with state and federal laws and constitutional requirements.
  • Officers must testify, and the Coroner can subpoena them if necessary. The Court leaned heavily on the phrasing in RCW 36.24.050 that the coroner must summon and examine “every person” who has knowledge of the facts of the case. Officers may not be excluded.
  • Officers have no right to counsel during inquests; that right doesn’t attach until a criminal charge is filed. Officers also may not invoke the Fifth Amendment as a blanket excuse not to answer any questions; they may only invoke it on a question-by-question basis.
  • The jury must determine whether the death(s) were by “criminal means.” Constantine’s executive order precluded the inquest jury from determining issues of criminal fault or liability; the Court said that in fact the inquest jury must consider those questions if relevant to the circumstances. However, it clarified that an inquest jury doesn’t convict an officer if it finds criminal means; rather, it becomes probable cause for the prosecuting attorney to consider in whether to file criminal charges — which would ultimately lead to a criminal trial in front of a separate jury.
  • The coroner may conduct pre-inquest discovery.
  • Again relying on the requirement to examine “every person” with knowledge of the facts, the inquest may hear testimony from the chief law enforcement officer on department training and policies, and from expert witnesses on whether officers complied with the training and policies (law enforcement agencies demanded this, and the Executive Order restricted it).
  • The coroner may make the proceedings open to the public and the media.
  • The jury can hear testimony from officers on their mental state at the time of the incident.
  • Allowing the King County Executive to appoint an inquest administrator, whom the Executive could hire and fire “at will,” does not violate the “appearance of fairness” doctrine that applies to quasi-judicial proceedings such as inquests.
  • Even though state law says that inquests must be completed within 18 months, the Butts, Lyles and Obet inquests are still timely and may proceed, since they were not officially initiated until a jury was requested in 2019 and all parties agreed to stay the proceedings last year.

Overall it’s clear that the guiding principle for the Court was that the inquest must hear all the evidence and “every person” with knowledge of the facts. It repeatedly ruled in favor of allowing subpoenas, witnesses, and testimony, and excluding little to nothing. There were wins and losses for all sides in that: in particular, officers are compelled to testify, but they can also provide additional evidence that further contextualizes their actions.

Today’s ruling clears the path for the inquests into the deaths of Damarius Butts, Charleena Lyles, and Isaiah Obet to finally move forward under a clear set of rules that ensure the proceedings will be open and that officers will be forced to publicly defend their actions.

Epilogue: looking back at the claims the City of Seattle made in its later-withdrawn challenge (most of which were carried forward by other parties), it would have lost on nearly every issue, with the exception of those related to including testimony on officers’ mental state and inclusion of evidence related to department training and policy.

I hope you found this article valuable. If you did, please take a moment to make a contribution to support my ongoing work. Thanks!