OLYMPIA, Wash. – Washington lawmakers violated the state Constitution when they used an unusual procedure to make it easier to prosecute police for negligent shootings, a Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled Friday.
The state attorney general’s office immediately appealed.
Lawmakers approved the measure in March. It was intended to overhaul a controversial law that forces prosecutors to prove the officers acted with malice – the only standard of its kind in the country.
But the way lawmakers changed the law was dubious, and it quickly prompted a lawsuit from frequent initiative sponsor Tim Eyman.
The measure, Initiative 940, was first proposed by activists outraged over questionable police shootings in Washington and across the country. They gathered nearly 360,000 signatures – enough to pose it as an initiative to the Legislature.
Under the state Constitution, there are three ways the Legislature can respond to such an initiative: approve it as-is, in which case it becomes law; reject or ignore it, in which case it goes to the ballot the following November; or propose an alternative, which must appear alongside the original initiative on the ballot.
In this case, lawmakers passed Initiative 940, as well as a compromise measure to amend it with changes called for by police groups and supported by activists.
The maneuver wasn’t allowed under the Constitution, Judge Christine Schaller ruled. The Seattle Times reported that she ordered the secretary of state’s office to put the original initiative on the November ballot.
“The ruling is hugely important for the initiative process,” Eyman said. “She told the Legislature that when an initiative qualifies and you have to consider it, you can’t change it and block the people from voting on it.”
The compromise on I-940 was designed to keep it off the ballot, thus avoiding a costly and potentially divisive campaign. The activists with De-escalate Washington who proposed the initiative agreed to make some changes to win the support of law enforcement groups, who said they wanted to ensure the measure protects police who make honest mistakes.
Leslie Cushman, communications chairwoman for De-escalate Washington, said the organization was disappointed with the ruling, but that it would work hard to pass I-940 at the ballot box. Then, she said, activists will resume cooperating with police groups to make the changes they sought. That means securing the two-thirds supermajority in the Legislature needed to amend an initiative within two years of passage.
“We know it’s going to pass. Our polling’s been tremendous,” Cushman said. “We did incredible work with law enforcement during the legislative session. We don’t want to put any of that at risk.”
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