Thurston County Still Grappling With Supreme Court Drug Possession Ruling


About two months after the landmark State v. Blake decision by the Washington state Supreme Court, Thurston County officials are about halfway through quashing hundreds of outstanding warrants with simple drug possession charges.

The 5-4 court ruling found that the state's simple drug possession law was unconstitutional because it criminalized passive, unknowing conduct. Since then, prosecutors across the state, including in Thurston County, have been working to drop pending cases, quash warrants and vacate sentences for simple drug possession.

At the same time, law enforcement has had to stop arresting people for simple possession, and counties are facing the prospect of having to refund millions of dollars in court fees, known as legal financial obligations or LFOs, imposed on top of criminal sentences.

To address the decision, the state legislature also is considering bills that would finance LFO refunds or reinstate criminal penalties in some form. However, any legislative remedy would only address the aftermath of the decision rather than apply retroactively, meaning these thousands of simple drug possession cases still must be processed one way or another.

Progress so far

At least 200 out of nearly 500 outstanding warrants for simple possession charges had been quashed in Thurston County as of last week, said Christy Peters, chief of staff for the prosecuting attorney's office. About 100 more may be in the process of being quashed, she added.

"These cases had to be looked at individually because the way our system ran it would pick up any cases that had (unlawful possession of a controlled substance)," Peters said. "If it's a UPCS and a robbery, we're only going to quash the warrant piece for (UPCS). We're keeping the robbery outstanding."

Right now, the prosecuting attorney's office is focused on addressing cases where suspects are in custody. Among those who are serving their sentences, 14 have seen their simple drug possession convictions vacated.

Additionally, Peters said 207 pending cases, where defendants had not pleaded guilty or gone to trial yet, have been dismissed.

Impact on drug court

The court ruling also affected Thurston County's drug court, a court-supervised treatment program that serves as an alternative to jail or prison time.

Peters said there were 61 participants in the drug court program prior to the Blake decision. After the decision, just four participants were left, she said.

However, the majority of drug court participants have remained in the program because they have other charges in addition to simple drug possession.

"Some might have forgery (charges), they might have property crimes, those types of things," Peters said. "They are choosing to stay in the drug court program because they still qualify due to a substance abuse disorder. If they successfully complete that drug court program, all of their charges are dismissed, not just the UPCS."

Impact on those in prison

Peters said the Department of Corrections has informed her staff that there are about 100 people in state prisons with just simple possession charges from Thurston County. However, the majority of affected individuals in state prisons, likely hundreds of people, have other significant charges, Peters said.

In those cases, Peters said removing the simple drug possession conviction from their record would likely not have a significant impact on their offender score, a value used to determine sentencing.

"Some of these people have, like, residential burglaries, robberies, what have you," Peters said. "Let's say their sentence was six years, but even if they subtract their UPCS charges, they might be looking at four years."

Given the complexity of the task, Peters said her office and the office of public defense are working to prioritize addressing cases based on expected release dates.

"So for instance, we're not looking at cases where somebody might get released in 2023," Peters said. "We are trying to look at people that are in 2021."

Resentencing individuals in state prisons will take unique collaboration between the Department of Corrections and Thurston County officials, Peters said.

"Typically, if there was to be an argument regarding resentencing, the defendants would be transported right from DOC for all of these," Peter said "But because of the pandemic and because of not only Thurston County jail but every jail trying to keep the numbers low, that is why we're looking for an alternative method to address this huge influx of cases."

She said the DOC is working set up a system that would allow affected incarcerated individuals to be remotely resentenced in Thurston County Superior Court.

However, details about how this system will work are still being determined. When it does happen, she said it will likely require a separate calendar of court hearings, adding more work on top of addressing an unprecedented case backlog caused by the pandemic.

The cost

The overall financial impact of the State v. Blake decision is also cause for concern among county officials.

County Manager Ramiro Chavez told The Olympian that he is uncertain what the overall impact of the Blake decision will be, but he is hopeful the state legislature will support the counties in meeting their newfound obligations.

"We will take any financial help from the state to deal with the impacts of the Blake decision," Chavez said.

Peters said the Prosecuting Attorney's Office, the Office of Public Defense and the courts have so far not been given any additional resources to meet the impact of the Blake decision.

"It's a grave concern especially, especially considering all of the cases that are on backlog due to COVID-19," Peters said. "It's a huge amount of workload that nobody would have expected a year ago."

She said her office is working to balance the workload in the best interest of the public.

Another part of the cost that the county will have to address are refunds for legal financial obligations. These are fines or restitution that the court may have imposed on top of criminal sentences.

Russel Brown, executive director for the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said Thurston County expects it will need close to $8 million to process refunds.

Brown made the remark during a House Appropriations Committee meeting on Monday as he shared public testimony for Senate Bill 5476, which would reinstate criminal penalties for drug possession. On April 15, the Senate passed SB 5476 on a 28 to 20 vote.

The Thurston County's clerk's office confirmed with The Olympian that at least $7.4 million would need to be refunded in cases with possession charges. However, it will be up to a judge to decide what amount will be refunded, said Chief Deputy Clerk Tawni Sharp in an emailed statement.