November 17, 2007 in Opinion

A technicality mess

The Spokesman-Review
 

Civil liberties lawyers champion the protection of fundamental constitutional rights and the pursuit of justice. They don’t much like to talk about “technicalities” as a means of getting criminal defendants off the hook.

But thanks to a technicality, an untold number of misdemeanor convictions – many of them for drunken driving – may be invalidated, leaving Spokane County’s criminal justice system with a mess on its hands. For the time being, the case is on hold because the commissioner of the state appeals court that issued the ruling has granted a stay while the question is appealed.

It boils down to this: In 2005, city police cited two drivers for driving and being in control of a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol. The judge who sentenced them had been elected in a countywide election, not the city-only vote that state law prescribes for municipal court. Therefore, she had no jurisdiction to preside over the case.

Never mind that city voters backed District Court Judge Patti Connolly Walker in about the same proportion as the full county turnout in the 2002 election. Never mind that the problem has now been rectified by basing the city-county agreement for municipal court services on a different provision of state law. Never mind that one of the three justices on Division III of the state Court of Appeals dissented, arguing that although the judicial election process for Spokane municipal court may be flawed, Walker nevertheless acted with “de facto authority.”

If this were a simple matter of a couple of drinking motorists getting their records cleared and their driving privileges restored, the case wouldn’t merit this much attention. But the consequences go way beyond that. The 2-1 decision threatens every conviction in Spokane municipal court for the 10 or more years during which the problematic arrangement existed.

After the opinion, District Court quickly received 30 motions for the release of inmates. The stay buys court officials time for responding to such actions, but more than 100 inmates of the city-county jail or Geiger Corrections Center could make similar moves eventually.

Meanwhile, law enforcement officers have stopped executing misdemeanor warrants in cases covered by the ruling. Mass revisions to driving and criminal records could affect subsequent cases where criminal history influenced sentencing decisions.

Just in 2006, Spokane municipal court handled 608 DUI cases, 25,104 traffic tickets and more than 10,000 misdemeanors.

With this decision coming on the heels of the trial and conviction of Fred Russell, whose drunken driving led to a vehicular homicide incident that claimed three lives and three serious injuries, residents of this area don’t need any more reminder of the link between an effective criminal justice system and public safety.

Without question, Spokane’s city and county officials set the stage for this problem when they signed off on a defective court agreement.

But if the present case leads to unlocking the jail doors for dozens or even hundreds of criminals on the basis of a technicality, the outcome can’t be called justice.

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