The decision not to file charges for things like shoplifting, fare evasion and trespassing is meant to allow prosecutors to focus on crimes that impact public safety — like driving under the influence, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office said. Felonies are not affected.
Citing a staffing shortage, King County prosecutors announced they will not file charges in 1,500 misdemeanor cases from 2017 to focus resources on prosecuting more serious violations, like driving under the influence and misdemeanor assault.
In Seattle, misdemeanor and gross-misdemeanor cases are handled by the Seattle City Attorney’s Office and prosecuted in Seattle Municipal Court. Other municipal courts serve the same function in cities across the county.
The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office (PAO) is responsible for filing all felony charges in the county, which are the most serious criminal offenses. But it also files lower-level misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors in King County District Courts, located in areas without dedicated municipal courts.
Prosecutors file around 8,000 misdemeanor and gross-misdemeanor charges a year, and have roughly 20 attorneys assigned to prosecute those cases in district courts.
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“The PAO decided to dismiss these cases and prioritize filing driving while under the influence cases (DUIs) and fresh cases, rather than spend resources filing old cases,” said a statement released by prosecutors on Monday. “Of the cases returned, more than half involved minor shoplifting, bus fare evasion and trespassing.”
None of the defendants whose cases were referred back to law-enforcement agencies faced any jail time, and most would not have been subject to fines, according to the office. In cases where fines were a possibility, they did not exceed $100.
The decision has no bearing on serious violent offenses like rape or murder, or lesser felonies such as residential burglary.
“The King County budget, which supports the law, safety and justice programs, continues to face pressure from the 1 percent cap on annual growth on property tax established by the Washington Legislature. As a result, the PAO has fewer deputy prosecuting attorneys today than 10 years ago,” the statement says.
The issue became public after someone claiming to be a law-enforcement officer “for a municipal agency within King County” posted about the change on Reddit.
“Imagine being a cop who works their was [sic] off to actually combat the rampant property crime we have here, only to see all of your cases get dumped. You want non-proactive policing, this is how you get it,” the poster wrote.
On Tuesday, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, which represents 1,300 police officers and sergeants, weighed in with a critical tweet: “Feeling sorry for hard working TAX paying King County residents who become victims of crime. Police ID/arrest suspect(s) only for @KCProsecutor to drop charges. Shameful! How many hits must the community/police take before officials face “REFORM”? #budget $”
In 2010, The Seattle Times reported Prosecutor Dan Satterberg estimated that 220 deputy prosecutors would remain after a second round of layoffs, 40 fewer than when Satterberg took office three years earlier.
It was not immediately known how many prosecutors are currently employed by King County.
In deciding which misdemeanor cases would not be filed, prosecutors have consulted with police departments “so that cases involving chronic offenders will be filed,” the PAO said in its statement.
“The PAO regrets the need to decline these misdemeanor crimes and will continue to review all referred cases and prioritize those that most impact public safety,” the statement says.