Mayor Jenny Durkan said dismissing the warrants would address an inequity that has disproportionately affected people of color and allow police to focus on more serious matters.
Seattle city attorneys asked a court on Tuesday to quash more than 200 misdemeanor arrest warrants, in what officials described as low-level, nonviolent cases older than five years that have left people – particularly those of color – looking over their shoulder.
The motion, filed in Seattle Municipal Court, includes 107 people charged or convicted of prostitution offenses and 73 of third-degree driving with a suspended license, a violation often referred to as “driving while poor.”
At a City Hall news conference to announce the move, Mayor Jenny Durkan said more than 40 percent of the 208 warrants have fallen on people of color, including 35 percent on African Americans, though they make up 7 percent of the city’s population.
“It’s a hard truth, we know that throughout the history of our country and in this city that our criminal-justice system has disproportionately affected communities of color and that it reflects the institutional racism and bias that is present in America,” Durkan said.
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Many of those driving with a suspended license couldn’t afford to pay for previous traffic offenses or impound fees, Durkan said.
“How long should these people have to continue to look over their shoulder when they walk down the street, ride a bus or drive a car?” the mayor added.
Removing the warrants would make the community safer, Durkan said, giving police more time to focus on serious crimes.
The mayor was flanked by City Attorney Pete Holmes, Police Chief Carmen Best and City Councilmember M. Lorena González, chair of the council’s public-safety committee.
Calling the move “one installment,” Holmes said his prosecutors would continue to examine old cases “hanging over the heads” of too many people, seeking to strike a balance between public safety and social justice. Overall, there are more than 10,000 pending warrants, he said.
Quashing warrants that have don’t affect public safety will allow people to “emerge from the shadows” without fear of a sudden arrest that could disrupt their lives and harm the community, Holmes said.
“If you haven’t re-offended after 5-plus years of a warrant being issued, I’m comfortable asking the Court to dismiss your warrant,” Holmes said in a news release.
Most of the warrants stem from cases where defendants were found guilty and failed to appear for a subsequent court hearing.
Among the other cases chosen for dismissal were offenses involving graffiti, attempts to obtain a controlled substance and minors in possession of alcohol, covering a period between February 1996 and July 2013.
No felonies were included, nor serious offenses such as domestic violence, driving under the influence, assault with sexual motivation and charges involving firearms.
Best, in lending her support to the move, said the city has a “moral obligation” to examine its law- enforcement efforts.
The City Attorney’s Office isn’t worried that other defendants will fail to appear in hopes they can eventually avoid legal consequences, spokesman Dan Nolte said Tuesday.
He noted the court already has a quarterly process to administratively dismiss some pending cases after seven years.
“I don’t imagine today’s move on post-conviction warrants will have a different effect on appearances than existing procedure already does,” Nolte said in an email.
It would require “loooong term thinking” for a person to commit a nonviolent, low-level misdemeanor offense, then be “tempted to not show for court because they know that if they stay beneath the radar, don’t apply for jobs/housing that requires background checks, and don’t get so much as a speeding ticket in the subsequent five years, they might have their warrant quashed,” Nolte wrote.
“If a person does think in that way, and ends up avoiding a criminal-justice contact in the subsequent 5 to 22 years, then that can probably be considered a win for public safety,” he said.
In a similar action, Seattle Municipal Court judges agreed in September to vacate convictions and dismiss charges for misdemeanor marijuana possession prosecuted before pot was legalized in Washington state.
Holmes filed a motion in April asking the court to take the historic step for all convictions and charges between 1996 and 2010 “to right the injustices of a drug war that has primarily targeted people of color.”
All seven of the court’s judges signed an order Sept. 11 setting out a process for nixing the cases. As many as 542 people could be affected. The Seattle court doesn’t handle felony cases.