The Spokane City Council copied state restrictions on unauthorized private militias – or any group acting like one in public – into city law Monday night, allowing for the prosecution of violators in municipal court.
Though it does not create any new restrictions on top of what already exists in Washington, the council’s action allows city attorneys to review and prosecute alleged violations.
Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell, who has highlighted challenges to enforcing the state law, would be cut out of the process.
Barring a veto from Mayor Nadine Woodward, who has not yet commented on the legislation, the law will take effect in 30 days. Spokane city law will now mirror a decades-old, but rarely enforced, regulation in Washington State Law.
The law does not apply only to actual self-described militias, according to at least one legal analysis by Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection.
Except for militias and military organizations recognized by the state, the law mandates that no one “shall associate themselves together as a military company or organize or parade in public with firearms.”
Violating the law is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 or a jail sentence of up to 90 days.
Regulations on militias and paramilitary organizations seldom come into play, but saw a resurgence in interest last year after armed people lined streets in Spokane and elsewhere during Black Lives Matter protests.
Other cities in Washington saw a similar armed response by private citizens to protests in the summer, prompting a renewed scrutiny of the state’s laws regarding paramilitary groups. Some state legislators may look this year to buttress the existing regulations on militia and paramilitary organizations.
The city’s law was proposed and drafted well before the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol last week, but a sense of urgency was palpable.
Councilwoman Lori Kinnear said Monday it was “imperative” the council act.
“We need to show strength, we need to show that we’re not complacent regarding militias … they will come to Spokane, they will demonstrate and they will intimidate,” Kinnear said.
Seeking to assuage community concerns, Councilwoman Karen Stratton unsuccessfully proposed delaying the vote by three weeks to allow feedback from communities of color and glean further clarity on legal technicalities, such as the definition of a militia.
Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson agreed the city needs “to have input from our communities of color” and discussions with police about enforcement, but noted the proposal already exists in state law.
Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs pledged to have city attorneys and police leadership meet to answer questions and address concerns about the law’s enforcement.
In November, Haskell wrote that militias “are not subject to prosecution for mere presence” and that the rights of both organized and unorganized militias are constitutionally protected.
“Private citizens have constitutional rights to be armed in public and to freedom of movement and assembly, as does anyone else,” Haskell wrote.
Haskell argued that prosecutors would have to prove a person was a member of an unrecognized militia, acting in coordination with others while armed in public.
Beggs disagreed, arguing it is the defendant who would have to prove they are enrolled in a militia or military organization that is recognized by the state. Otherwise, by default, their armed parading would be illegal.
“It’s not interfering with people’s rights to firearms, it’s how they use them and what the impact is on the public if there are groups of people with firearms acting in an organized manner,” Beggs said.
That’s backed up by the Georgetown analysis of Washington’s militia regulations, which state “a private militia that attempts to activate itself for duty, outside of the authority of the state or federal government, is illegal.
“Groups of armed individuals may engage in unauthorized militia activity even if they do not consider themselves to be ‘members’ of a paramilitary organization,” the analysis states.
In Spokane this past summer, police said they did not ask armed private citizens to assemble downtown.
“Quite frankly, the message to them is: Don’t do that again. We don’t want you, and we don’t need you down there, causing more chaos,” Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said following a May 31 protest that resulted in looting at a downtown Nike store. “That’s just not what we need.”
Councilman Michael Cathcart was the only vote against the law, which he argued, with proactive enforcement, would “likely mean the violation of individual rights.”
Beggs, who spearheaded the bill’s passage, noted the city has codified several state laws in its own books, which allows misdemeanor infractions to be prosecuted in Spokane Municipal Court.
Woodward has not taken a stance on the law, according to city spokesman Brian Coddington.
Should she choose to veto the law, it appears the City Council would have the five votes necessary to override it.
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