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State Supreme Court overturns drug conviction

Case did not meet rule on arresting officer

OLYMPIA – The state Supreme Court on Thursday overturned the conviction of a man who was arrested on drug charges because the officer who saw the alleged crime was not the arresting officer.

Under state law, unless a specific statutory exception applies, only an officer who is present during the offense may arrest a suspect for a misdemeanor or a gross misdemeanor. Exemptions include traffic infractions where an officer can ask another to arrest the driver.

Gregorio Ortega was arrested in March 2009 in Seattle after an officer on the second floor of a building observed Ortega and another man purportedly appear to make three drug transactions. The officer in the building maintained radio contact with officers in a car nearby, described Ortega’s activities and instructed them to arrest him. The officers found crack cocaine and cash on him, the court wrote.

In a unanimous ruling, the court reversed a Court of Appeals ruling in 2011 that upheld his 2009 conviction of possession of cocaine with intent to deliver, because it said the circumstances of his arrest went against state law.

“But for the unlawful arrest, there would have been no search, and the evidence found incident to that arrest should have been suppressed,” wrote Justice Steven Gonzalez, who wrote the majority opinion.

Justices Charles Johnson, Susan Owens, Mary Fairhurst, James Johnson and Debra Stephens, and Justice pro tem Tom Chambers signed on to the majority opinion.

Chief Justice Barbara Madsen wrote a separate opinion in which she “reluctantly” concurred with the majority. She wrote that she did not take issue with the majority’s analysis of state law and what is required for a warrantless arrest for a misdemeanor, “but rather from the fact that the statute precludes an arrest under the circumstances here.”

She wrote that the type of team surveillance that was used in this particular case was “undoubtedly an otherwise effective tool for law enforcement to counter sometimes near-epidemic drug transactions, particularly in urban areas.”

“It is also a more cost-effective enforcement mechanism than is required either by placing more individual officers in places where potential drug transactions can be witnessed or by seeking an arrest warrant in the case of gross misdemeanor drug offenses,” she wrote.

Madsen said that her concern is that the result in this case is likely not what the Legislature intended with the statute, and she said she wrote her separate opinion “to encourage the legislature to consider an amendment to the statute if this is the case.”

Justice Charlie Wiggins signed on to Madsen’s concurrence.


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