The state Supreme Court has thrown out the 2009 conviction of a man observed selling drugs on the street in Belltown by a team of Seattle police officers, saying the wrong officer took the man into custody.

In the ruling involving the arrest of Gregorio Ortega, the unanimous high court said police and prosecutors stretched a well-established precept of common law — and the state statute born from it — requiring police to have a warrant to arrest someone for a misdemeanor crime unless the arresting officer personally witnesses the illegal act.

In this case, the team of officers, responding to complaints of street-corner drug dealing in Belltown, set up surveillance on a corner from a second-story office window in March 2009.

An officer using binoculars said he witnessed Ortega making several exchanges that made the officer believe he was selling drugs.

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According to the ruling and briefs in the case, the officer directed two other officers on the street to apprehend Ortega.

They did and found nearly $800 in cash and drugs on Ortega, according to court documents.

However, state law is clear that, with very few exceptions, a police officer cannot make a misdemeanor arrest unless the arresting officer witnesses the illegal act, or the officer has a warrant.

The idea is that misdemeanor crimes generally pose less of a threat to society, and therefore the interest of the accused carries more weight.

The court, in an opinion written by Justice Stephen Gonzalez, found that the observing officer did not have the right to pass his arresting authority to other officers in this instance.

There are several exceptions to the rule — written into the statute by the Legislature — one being when an officer witnesses a traffic violation and has another officer stop the vehicle, the opinion said.

The court noted, however, that police could have sidestepped this issue by having the street officers briefly detain Ortega without arrest or a search, pending the arrival of the officer who actually observed the transaction.

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or