SEATTLE — Seattle’s Mayor and City Attorney want to vacate 208 misdemeanor arrest warrants, some dating back more than 20 years.
Mayor Jenny Durkan, during a news conference Tuesday, said the move would address racial and social inequities as well as let law enforcement place a heavier focus on more serious offenses.
“We will continue to hold people accountable, we will continue to make sure communities are safe, but doing this actually makes our community safer,” Durkan said.
Standing behind a podium in the lobby of City Hall, with City Attorney Pete Holmes, Police Chief Carmen Best and Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez by her side, Durkan said many of the warrants involve “crimes of poverty.”
The city is asking Seattle Municipal Court judges to quash many warrants involving prostitution, driving with a suspended license in the third-degree, minor in possession of alcohol, graffiti and other low-level crimes.
“Think about where you were five, and 20 years ago? Some of these warrants, people literally don’t know they were issued,” Durkan said.
Durkan said more than 40 percent of the 208 defendants are people of color. While 101 of the defendants are white, 73 are African-American, according to the city.
Many of the cases, Durkan said, were for driving with a suspended license.
“They were issued for, literally, crimes of poverty,” Durkan said.
The City Attorney’s Office said the warrants they’re asking to have quashed are primarily post-conviction – when a defendant fails to return to court after being convicted. The warrants were filed between February 1996 and July 2013.
“The warrants will go away,” Holmes said during the news conference. “They will no longer, if someone is pulled over, pop up as an outstanding warrant; that then subjects someone to an arrest.”
To qualify for a quashed warrant defendants cannot have committed a new crime within five years of the warrant being filed, the City Attorney’s Office said.
“We’re trying to sort the ones that are a serious public safety concerns from those that are simply impairing the ability of people to get on with their lives,” Holmes said.
Alisa Bernard, with The Organization for Prostitution Survivors, said Tuesday, a warrant can often be the one barrier keeping someone from leaving the sex trade or seeking help from police.
“Having a warrant hanging over your head means a constant fear of arrest,” Bernard said. “It means women still in the life are hesitant to reach out to police if they’re sexually assaulted or physically assaulted.”
When Bernard learned about the city’s proposal to quash the warrants she was elated.
“To be able to walk around free, free, free it’s pretty exciting for these women,” she said.
Bernard said her biggest question was when and where the quashed warrant information would be posted.
A spokesman for Seattle Municipal Court said it could take weeks, even months, for judges to decide how to proceed.
“Generally speaking, the court periodically receives motions from the City Attorney’s Office to administratively review and consider clearing older warrants,” court spokesman Gary Ireland said in a written statement. “In these instances, the individual circumstances are considered by a judge and a decision is rendered. There is no set time frame for this review.”
This is the second time Durkan has sought to have cases vacated from Seattle Municipal Court. Earlier this year the city asked the court to toss out all convictions and dismiss charges for all misdemeanor marijuana possession cases filed before 2010 – the court agreed to.