Hundreds of drug possession charges in Lewis County are being dismissed after the Washington state Supreme Court issued a ruling that struck down the state’s felony drug possession law last week.
While other drug possession charges such as possession with the intent or delivery of a controlled substance still hold, simple possession of a controlled substance charges that were filed under the state’s current statute (RCW 69.50.4013) have been deemed unconstitutional as a result of the Feb. 25 ruling, requiring criminal justice systems statewide to go through and weed out all charges filed under the statute.
“This impacts cases all the way into the 1970s,” Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer said.
On Thursday alone, Meyer estimates that 20 people were released from the Lewis County Jail, and between 50 and 60 active arrest warrants were quashed.
“And there’s really not an option. That’s the only thing you can do when that’s the only charge that there is,” Meyer said.
Cases with more than one charge are being pushed back to their originating agency for review, he said.
Defendants who have already been sentenced on a possession of a controlled substance charge will be officially called back to court for resentencing, and if defendants have other felony convictions on their record, there’s a chance that those too could be resentenced due to Washington’s sentencing system, which scores offenders based on the severity and number of felony charges are on their record.
“All of those prior felonies count against you and your time goes up; more points, more time,” said Meyer, adding that if felony drug possession charges are revoked, “that will lower your score and lower your time” for all convictions that occurred after the drug charge.
The ruling comes after the Supreme Court voted 5-4 in favor of a Spokane woman who challenged the state’s drug possession statute after she was found guilty of possession of an uncontrolled substance in 2016.
The charge is considered a Class C felony, which carries a maximum sentence of up to five years in prison and fines up to $10,000.
A corrections officer had found a small baggie of methamphetamine in the coin pocket of Shannon Blake’s jeans and the state charged Blake with possession, despite Blake’s defense that a friend had bought the jeans secondhand and she didn’t know the jeans had drugs in the pocket. A trial court found that Blake “had not met her burden to prove that her possession was unwitting,” and found her guilty, according to the Supreme Court decision. Blake appealed the decision, and the Court of Appeals found that statute does not require the state to prove the defendant’s intent.
“This case presents an issue of first impression for this court: Does this strict liability drug possession statute with these substantial penalties for such innocent, passive conduct exceed the legislature’s police power?” wrote Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud in the ruling. “The due process clauses of the state and federal constitutions, along with controlling decisions of this court and the United States Supreme Court, compel us to conclude that the answer is yes — this exceeds the State’s police power.”
The statute will need to be amended before law enforcement agencies can arrest or charge anyone on drug possession charges, and that new statute would only affect future cases.
The Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office is working closely with the county clerk’s office, the jail and local defense attorneys to ensure that all affected charges are dropped.
“I want to make sure that nobody is missed,” Meyer said.