15499Lack of Jurisdiction
- Nov 12 9:03 PMI love it! The imposters in black robes are all stirred up!
November 9, 2007
Thousands of petty criminals could have their convictions thrown out
and millions of dollars in fines refunded because Spokane County
District Court judges overstepped their authority for more than a
decade by improperly handling city cases, an appeals court ruled
The decision, which overturns two otherwise simple drunken driving
convictions, has such far-reaching implications that it could trigger
what's believed to be the largest legal debacle of overturned Spokane
Municipal Court cases in city history.
Unless the decision is overturned by the Washington Supreme Court,
the ruling would invalidate every DUI and domestic violence
conviction, and all contested speeding and parking tickets issued
between 1995 and Jan. 1, several legal and court officials said.
"It's potentially a huge, huge impact and we're trying to deal with
it in an orderly fashion," said Sara Derr, who serves as the District
Court presiding judge.
Local attorney Breean Beggs who brought the lawsuit that generated
the ruling questions why the city didn't do more to avert the
crisis it now faces.
"It was preventable," Beggs said. "The city had the opportunity over
the last two years to resolve this particular case in a way that
would not have resulted in this ruling and there would be no
jeopardy to these other cases."
The flaw came in how the judges were elected, according to the 2-1
decision by the state Court of Appeals Division III.
State law mandates that Spokane residents alone elect the judges who
handle municipal cases, such as trespassing, shoplifting, speeding
and DUI within city limits.
But in Spokane, an agreement was struck between the city and county
to assign District Court judges who are chosen by voters in
countywide elections to preside over the city's municipal court
caseload. Beggs successfully argued it violated state law because
voters outside Spokane city limits were allowed to choose city judges.
"We conclude that the way in which the Spokane municipal judges are
elected is contrary to state law," appellate judge Dennis Sweeney
wrote in Thursday's opinion. Judge John Schultheis concurred, but
judge Stephen Brown dissented.
City officials, lawyers and judges scrambled for most of the day to
determine how to proceed, city spokeswoman Marlene Feist said.
City Prosecutor Howard Delaney "plans to seek some clarification on
the decision from the court of appeals," she said. "He is also trying
to take some immediate steps on the most pressing issues, such as
outstanding misdemeanor warrants. And he has asked jail officials how
many inmates are currently being held on convictions from municipal
Spokane County sheriff's deputies and city police have stopped
executing misdemeanor warrants involving city cases related to
alleged crimes prior to Jan. 1.
Judge Derr said the ruling "essentially says that we have no
authority to handle city cases until this year. We are attempting to
comply with the order of the court, to the best of our ability and as
quickly as possible."
The court instituted technical changes this year that brought it
under compliance with state law, she said.
Although there's a legal 30-day "reconsideration period" for the
ruling, court officials are not going to wait, Derr said. However,
court clerks are not going to start issuing refunds for fines and
fees today, Derr added.
"Until we have information on those fees and fines, we ask everybody
to be calm we'll certainly get to everybody," Derr said.
The trigger case began in 2005 when Spokane residents Henry Smith and
Lawrence Rothwell challenged their DUI convictions under the argument
that District Judge Patti Connolly Walker lacked jurisdiction to
decide their case because they were both arrested in Spokane city
Judge Walker, who was elected in a countywide race, denied their
motions. Smith and Rothwell appealed the case to Spokane Superior
Court Judge Rebecca Baker. She likewise ruled that Walker had
With the help of Beggs, an attorney for the public interest law firm
Center for Justice, Smith and Rothwell appealed their case to the
State Court of Appeals Division III.
Along with conviction reversals, the case could have "unimaginable"
effects that could take years to unravel, said Superior Court Judge
Sam Cozza. For instance, if a DUI conviction is reversed, court
records must be changed, any subsequent convictions would be altered,
and the state would have to change the offender's driving record.
Last year alone, Spokane Municipal Court handled 25,104 traffic
tickets, 608 DUIs, and more than 10,000 misdemeanor crimes, including
serious traffic charges, according to the state Office of the
Administrator for the Courts.
"Those are all kind of thrown into a state of uncertainty," Judge
In addition to evaluating the local impact of the appellate court
ruling, Derr's office has sent a query to the Administrative Office
of the Courts in Olympia to assist with an analysis of the fiscal
"As we speak, we are running queries in our system. We'll be meeting
all day" today, Derr said. "We need to minimize the risk to the
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