If someone trespasses by pitching a tent on private property or walks out with a handful groceries from the corner market or steals power tools with the intent of reselling them online in order to pay for a basic need like food or rent, the city of Seattle may be OK with that.
The idea, referred to as the poverty defense, was discussed Tuesday by the Seattle City Council's Public Safety Committee after it was introduced by City Council member Lisa Herbold and Anita Khandelwal, the King County’s director of the Department of Public Defense.
During the committee meeting, council members heard an update to the poverty defense argument, which was first presented by Herbold, chairperson of the committee, in October. The council took no action on the proposal on Tuesday but its members are expected to discuss the proposal again in January.
The new twist is that Herbold wants the new legal defense to be added to the Seattle municipal code. It would provide an affirmative defense for someone who committed a crime because they need to meet a basic need to survive.
“The defendant would just have to prove that the needs fit within the definition of immediate basic need,” Asha Venkataraman, a member of the council’s Central Staff, told the Public Safety Committee.
Herbold said she wants a jury to hear a defendant's reasoning and leave it up to jurors to decide if the crime was committed to supply a basic need.
“It’s giving people an opportunity to tell their stories and giving judges and juries the opportunity to hear those stories and make a decision based on the values of our city,” Herbold told the committee.
In a letter sent to the council on Oct. 30, City Attorney Pete Holmes said his staff is already doing some of what the poverty defense would provide.
"I have worked to move the City Attorney’s Office away from prosecuting property crimes that appeared to be committed out of survival necessity," he wrote.
Critics of the plan suggested that it could lead to more criminal offenses.
“It’s a green light for crime,” said Scott Lindsay, a former mayoral Public Safety Advisor who unsuccessfully ran against Holmes for city attorney.
“If you are engaged in 100 different misdemeanors that are in our criminal justice system code, you are not going to be held liable," Lindsay said. "You are not going to be held accountable.”
Councilman Alex Pedersen said he wants the panel to back up a step and consider if the proposal is wanted before hashing out its details.
“This proposal seems to create too easy of a way for repeated vandalism, trespassing and shoplifting and other misdemeanor crimes that can harm others” he said.
A new element that was not part of the initial discussion last month was an exception that would allow for the reselling of stolen goods to raise money to pay for a basic need.
“If somebody stole a bunch of cell phones and intended to resell them to pay their rent, it would apply to that defense,” Venkatarama said.
But Assistant City Attorney John Schochet balked at that idea.
“That could broaden this and create some unintended consequences” he said.
Khandelwal said the legislation should not include any restrictions, monetary or otherwise, and jurors should be allowed to decide.
“Our jurors are going to be able to understand when someone is trying to meet an immediate need and when they are not,” she said.