The Washington state Supreme Court recently robbed law enforcement of a tool that has aided apprehension of many criminal fugitives and has protected both police officers and the public.
Outraged police, prosecuting attorneys and legislators are demanding an immediate session of the Legislature to restore police powers before some predator gets away or an officer gets shot, courtesy of our state’s highest court.
The concern is justified. So is a special legislative session.
The issue is whether police may run a fast computer check for outstanding arrest warrants when they stop someone for a minor traffic infraction. In a 7-2 decision (State vs. Travis Lee Rife) the court said this longstanding practice is not authorized by law. Justices Philip A. Talmadge and Barbara Durham, the two dissenters, noted that the decision reverses years of prior high court rulings.
Annette Sandberg, chief of the Washington State Patrol, worries that if the ruling stands, it will place lives in danger.
Here’s why: Often, people who get stopped for minor traffic infractions are a menace in major ways. Some are packing illegal firearms. Some are high on drugs. Some have a long criminal record. Some are wanted for major crimes. An officer never knows whether a pulled-over motorist is merely a sloppy driver - or a serial rapist, a hot-tempered cop-killer or one of the FBI’s 10 most wanted.
It is routine, Sandberg said, for officers during a traffic stop to run computer records checks on vehicle and driver’s license numbers. Officers who don’t take this step sometimes have wound up shot - or have allowed a wanted predator to get away and kill again.
During 1996 alone, the Washington State Patrol nabbed 10,000 wanted fugitives during traffic stops.
Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was caught thanks to a computer records check during a traffic stop.
The Supreme Court’s ruling suppressed heroin found on a jaywalking suspect. For its next act, Sandberg fears, this court might declare that some traffic cop shouldn’t have looked into an errant driver’s car and noticed “the bloody tennis shoe from the little kid the guy just killed.”
Sandberg and many others hope the Legislature promptly will place into state law a resounding authorization for warrant checks. Discussions are under way now. As soon as lawmakers finish drafting an appropriate bill, Gov. Gary Locke could convene the Legislature to enact it. He jolly well should.
, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Webster/For the editorial board