News broke this week that Seattle police have apologized to a 70-year-old man who was arrested last year after he refused an officer’s command to put down his golf club, which the man explained he uses as a walking stick. You can watch the in-car video of the account here. The police have apologized to the man, gave him back his walking stick, and the Seattle City Attorney dismissed the criminal case. What struck me about the case was why criminal charges were filed, and why did the man decide to accept the prosecutor’s plea offer in the case?
A timeline of the case is helpful. According to court records (which are available to the public here and here), the incident took place on July 9, 2014. The man was booked into the King County Jail by the officer for charges of Unlawful Use of a Weapon to Intimidate Another and Obstructing a Public Officer. The Seattle City Attorney’s office reviewed the officer’s report and believed at least one of the charges was justified, so it filed a criminal charge of Unlawful Use of a Weapon to Intimidate Another against the man (the prosecutor decided that the charge of Obstructing a Public Officer was not warranted). This charge of Unlawful Use of a Weapon to Intimidate Another and Obstructing a Public Officer is a gross misdemeanor and carries a maximum penalty of 364 days in jail and $5,000 fine. A person convicted of this offense will lose their concealed pistol license (even though the facts of the case had nothing to do with a firearm). The elements of Unlawful Use of a Weapon to Intimidate Another are listed under Seattle Municipal Code 12A.14.075, which are:
“A person is guilty of unlawful use of weapons to intimidate another if he or she carries, exhibits, displays or draws a firearm, dangerous knife, any knife with a blade that is open for use, other cutting or stabbing instrument or a weapon apparently capable of producing bodily harm in a manner, under circumstances, and at a time and place that either manifests an intent to intimidate another person or warrants alarm for the safety of other persons.”
On July 10, 2014, arraignment (the first court appearance) was held (presumably while the man was still in custody). A court appointed-attorney (i.e. a public defender) was present to assist the man at this first appearance, although the documents suggest he was assisted by a Rule 9 intern (a law student who has not passed the bar and is supervised by a licensed attorney). The prosecutor offered a diversion agreement stating that if the man stayed out of trouble for two years, forfeited the golf club, and agreed to possess no weapons including firearms, the charge of Unlawful Use of a Weapon to Intimidate Another would be dismissed. You can view the actual agreement here:
Normally, a person who is actually guilty of a crime would be thrilled to have a diversion agreement plea offer where they have a chance to get the charge dismissed. But if someone is actually innocent, why would he or she accept this offer? A lot of things can factor into that decision, but keep in mind, just to get a trial date requires a defendant to appear in court on numerous occasions. And even if you are innocent it doesn’t necessarily mean that a jury will agree with you. It’s noteworthy that the man chose to accept this plea agreement at his first court hearing without an opportunity to speak to an attorney (or at least speak to the attorney for very long) or go over the police reports with an attorney and investigate the case (which would involve interviewing the officer and other witnesses). The fact that he accepted this plea agreement while he was still in custody suggests he may have accepted the plea offer just to get out of jail (who wouldn’t do that, right?).
None of the above seemed to be an issue for the City of Seattle Attorney’s Office. They charged the case, made the plea offer, and allowed the man to accept the plea offer at the first court appearance. It wasn’t until City Attorney Pete Holmes was contacted and asked to personally investigate the case that his office’s stance changed. On September 19, 2014, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office asked the court to dismiss the charges against the man (before he had completed the terms of his diversion agreement). However, on the dismissal order, the prosecutor wrote the reason for the dismissal was “satisfactory completion of all conditions of the dispositional continuance.” In other words, the prosecutor was not dismissing because charges never should have been filed but dismissing because the office believed the man had completed the terms of the diversion agreement (so they refused to admit fault). You can see the dismissal order here:
I commend Seattle Police for apologizing to the man and returning his golf club to him. But the question remains: why was this individual booked into jail, why was he charged with a crime, and why was he allowed to accept a plea offer on the crime at the first court appearance after speaking to an intern?