Seattle City Council mulls law that could result in dismissal of many misdemeanor crimes
Seattle police car

The Seattle City Council is considering new legislation that would create a legal loophole that would make substance addiction, mental illness or poverty a valid legal defense for nearly all misdemeanor crimes committed in the city.

The council's consideration of the plan has occurred with virtually no public discussion about the proposal, which has been included in the municipal budgeting process. The council has not, so far, conducted a standalone meeting to discuss the idea.

Scott Lindsay, the former public safety advisor for the city, said Seattle would be in a class of its own if it ultimately enacted the ordinance. 

"I'm not aware of any legislation like this anywhere in the United States (or) even globally," he said Monday. "All cities have criminal codes to protect their citizens from criminal acts. This would essentially create a legal loophole that swallows all those codes and creates a green light for crime."

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The legislation was proposed by Seattle City Councilwoman Lisa Herbold last Wednesday.

The proposal would allow for the dismissal of crimes of poverty and it would do so by revising the definition of duress as a defense against prosecution.

Seattle police currently make about 12,000 arrests every year that are not DUI offenses or related to domestic violence. In 2019, charges were filed for just over 5,400 misdemeanor cases, not including DUI charges or domestic abuse allegations. 

If approved, the ordinance would excuse and dismiss -- essentially legalizing -- almost all misdemeanor crimes committed in Seattle by offenders who could show either:

  • Symptoms of addiction without being required to provide a medical diagnosis;
  • Symptoms of a mental disorder; or
  • Poverty and the crime was committed to meet an "immediate and basic need." For example, if a defendant argued they stole merchandise to sell for cash in order to purchase food, clothes or was trying to scrape together enough money for rent. The accused could not be convicted.

"If you don't feel very protected right now, this would wipe out almost all remaining protections that we have," Lindsay said.

The offenses that would be covered by the Seattle ordinance would include just about any crime below the level of a felony while excluding charges of driving under the influence or domestic violence.

The Seattle City Council is considering legislation that could result in many misdemeanor charges being tossed.

"This would absolutely open the floodgates for crime in Seattle, even worse than what we often currently struggle with," Lindsay said. "It's basically a blank check for anybody committing theft, assault, harassment (and) trespass to continue without disruption from our criminal justice system."

Although the measure could radically alter the way Seattle levies charges in criminal court, there have been no public hearings about it and it has not been discussed so far by the council's Public Safety Committee. 

It was proposed late in the third hour of a council Budget Committee meeting. 

Said Lindsay: "This is a back door to get this legislation into the budget process (and) not through the normal democratic processes with transparency, dialogue, (or) public discussion."

If Councilwoman Theresa Mosqueda, chairperson of the council's Budget Committee, adds the legislative proposal to the budget, it would be considered by the full council as part of the entire budget.

But if Mosqueda opts to not add it to the budget, the legislation could still be approved if five Seattle City Council members agree to add it as an amendment to the budget.

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