Whitman County officials are worried about the ripple effects of a recent Washington State Supreme Court decision they fear could increase drug use and other crimes.
In State v. Blake, the Supreme Court struck down the state’s felony drug possession law because it does not require proof that the defendant knowingly possessed the drug. It ruled that arrests for simple possession are unconstitutional.
Whitman County Prosecutor Denis Tracy told the Whitman County Commissioners on Monday this decision means all cases going back 50 years for simple possession of a controlled substance will be vacated and the charges dismissed.
He said people arrested for other crimes may also see their sentence reduced if that sentence was based in part on their history of drug possession.
“That sentence will be invalid and have to be redone,” he said.
Tracy said this situation has already happened in Whitman County. One person convicted of robbery and another convicted of rape saw their sentences reduced.
Tracy fears State v. Blake will lead to more people using drugs, including juveniles, as well as more overdoses. Furthermore, he fears it will lead to an increase in crimes associated with drug use, such as petty theft, vehicle prowls and burglaries.
“It’s a huge concern,” he said.
Whitman County is also concerned about the workload this will place on the local court system. With charges being vacated, Tracy said, defendants can be refunded all the money they paid in fines, costs and fees.
It is unclear whether the state or the county will have to pay back that money to the defendant, he said.
Whitman County Clerk Jill Whelchel said dealing with all of the clerical work as a result of this decision will overload her staff. On Monday, she asked the commissioners to consider funding another staff member to address this problem.
Tracy said there is a motion for reconsideration in front of the State Supreme Court. The Legislature is also putting forth bills to counter the decision.
According to a March 26 news release from Rep. Joe Schmick (R-Colfax), House Bill 1562 would allow local governments to enact laws and ordinances relating to possession of controlled substances and counterfeit substances.
House Bill 1561 would expand offenses and penalties for manufacture, sale, distribution, and other conduct involving controlled substances and counterfeit substances.
Sen. Mark Schoesler (R-Ritzville) has sponsored a bill making it unlawful for someone to knowingly possess a controlled substance.
Tracy hopes the Legislature will continue fighting the Supreme Court decision.
“If the Legislature doesn’t do anything, shame on them,” he said.
Tracy said he hopes the Whitman County Commissioners will pass an ordinance to make possession of controlled substances illegal in the county if needed.
Commissioner Art Swannack said the Board of Commissioners have briefly discussed this issue and agreed it is willing to pass an ordinance.
“There’s just nothing good about this one,” Swannack said of the Supreme Court decision.
He said the consequences of possessing hard drugs such as methamphetamine are too great.
“These are drugs that, one time you mess up, you’re dead,” he said.