Washington State Supreme Court Tries, Fails To Protect The Rights Of The State's Residents

from the no-points-for-effort dept

A correct conclusion was almost reached by the Washington Supreme Court… but it was foiled by the fact that only eight justices reviewed the case. Here's the backstory to the decision that almost was, via Nick Sibilla of Forbes.

The case began more than three years ago in Shoreline, Washington when a late-night shouting match between Solomon McLemore and his girlfriend prompted a bystander to dial 911. When the officers arrived and repeatedly demanded to be let in, the yelling stopped though no one answered the door. After 15 minutes and still no response, police heard glass shattering and, suspecting domestic violence, began forcing their way inside. As the officers broke down the door, McLemore told police that they were infringing on his rights and that they needed a warrant. Officers also heard McLemore tell his girlfriend to tell police that she was ok.

Once inside, police determined that the woman was not injured and promptly threw McLemore in handcuffs. But McLemore wasn’t charged for domestic violence. Instead, police arrested McLemore for “obstructing a law enforcement officer,” which involves “willfully hinder[ing], delay[ing], or obstruct[ing] any law enforcement officer in the discharge of his or her official powers or duties.” For refusing to open his door to police, McLemore was convicted for obstruction and sentenced to 20 days of house arrest.

The issue before the court should have been a foregone conclusion, but the court's headcount helped prevent that from happening.

Here's the question: is a citizen obligated to grant the government access to their residence in the absence of warrant? The answer should obviously be, "No." It certainly shouldn't be obstruction charges. It's not that there aren't exceptions to the warrant requirement. It's whether or not citizens have a legal duty to assist officers with their warrantless entry.

The officers definitely had a legitimate exception at their disposal. A report of possible domestic violence gives officers all the permission they need for a warrantless entry under the community caretaking function. Entering the apartment to ensure any possible victims weren't in need of medical care or other assistance is justifiable. McLemore, however, refused to allow the officers to enter without a warrant.

But a valid warrant exception doesn't automatically place a burden on homeowners to allow officers inside. McLemore's refusal to open the door and, once officers were inside, refuse to help officers sort out the domestic situation shouldn't be a crime. That was the conclusion originally reached by the nominal "majority" of the split court [PDF].

Criminalizing the refusal to open one's own door to a warrantless entry would be enormously chilling and inconsistent with our deeply held constitutional values.

[...]

Even under the more limited protections afforded by the Fourth Amendment than our own constitution, "[w]hen law enforcement officers who are not armed with a warrant knock on a door, they do no more than any private citizen might do. And whether the person who knocks on the door and requests the opportunity to speak is a police officer or a private citizen, the occupant has no obligation to open the door or to speak."

[...]

Under the limited construction of the statute required by our constitution, a defendant's conduct that amounts to passive delay will not sustain an obstruction charge.

That was the correct conclusion to reach. It would have brought the state in line with the rest of the country. As the ACLU noted in its amicus brief, Washington is the only place where "an individual can be convicted for peacefully refusing a warrantless home intrusion."

Less than a day after the court had decided to join the other 49 states in decriminalizing non-criminal behavior, the court recounted its votes and decided the tie was actually a loss for state residents.

It is hereby ordered that that the lead opinion of Gonzalez, J., filed April 18, 2019, in the above entitled case is changed as indicated below.

On page 17, line 2 of the slip opinion, beginning with "We", strike all material down to and including "opinion." on line 3 and insert:

We in the lead opinion would hold the city presented insufficient evidence to sustain McLemore's conviction and remand to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. However, we recognize this opinion has garnered only four signatures. "Therefore, there being no majority for the reversal of the judgment of the trial court, it necessarily stands affirmed, and the order of this court is that the judgment appealed from be and it is hereby affirmed." Peterson v. City of Tacoma. 139 Wash. 313, 313, 246 P. 944 (1926).

Thanks to this reversal of its own reversal, cops can continue to arrest people for exercising their rights. That's no way to run a judiciary. Equally concerning is the fact that four justices apparently decided the lousy status quo wasn't worth upending. A reversion to an "enormously chilling" standard shouldn't be an acceptable conclusion, but that's all Washington residents have left until this is appealed to the highest court in the nation.

Filed Under: 4th amendment, obstruction, solomon mclemore, warrant, washington


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  1. icon
    ECA (profile), 2 May 2019 @ 4:53pm

    KNOCK KNOCK

    Hmmm,
    do I hear a scream..
    YES I can break into the governors mansion...

    Last one in has to pay for this party...


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