A misdemeanor pot conviction out of Auburn is overturned by the state Supreme Court on grounds Auburn had no pot-possession law on its books

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Washington’s Supreme Court on Thursday threw out marijuana charges against a man in Auburn, saying the city didn’t have the authority to prosecute him under state law.

When Dustin Gauntt was arrested in late 2008, the city had not adopted any ordinances criminalizing misdemeanor possession of marijuana or use of drug paraphernalia. Gauntt was charged in municipal court with those violations of state law and convicted.

He appealed, and both a King County Superior Court judge and the state Court of Appeals agreed with him. The Supreme Court put the matter to rest Thursday, unanimously ruling that Auburn did not have the authority to prosecute him. Cities have the task of prosecuting misdemeanors committed within their jurisdictions, Justice Tom Chambers noted, but they must have their own laws to enforce.

“At the time Gauntt was arrested, the city of Auburn had not explicitly adopted either of the two statutes he was charged under, nor had it explicitly made the conduct itself a misdemeanor by ordinance,” Chambers wrote.

Auburn City Attorney Daniel Heid said he was disappointed with the ruling. He argued that when the Legislature required cities to shoulder the costs of prosecuting misdemeanors in their jurisdictions, it implicitly authorized them to prosecute such violations of state law. The high court disagreed.

Nevertheless, Heid said he expected the effect of Thursday’s ruling to be limited. Since the appeals-court ruling in the case, some cities that had been relying on a legal analysis similar to Auburn’s, including Sequim, changed their laws to state that any misdemeanors under state law would also be crimes within the city.

“I can see the frustration on the part of the city of Auburn, that the state would pass laws that the state is not going to enforce on its own, but that cities have to go through an extra step before they can enforce those,” said Candice Bock, a lobbyist with the Association of Washington Cities. “That said, I think most cities have taken steps to address this.”

Bock said her organization would be speaking with city attorneys around the state to see if there’s a need for follow-up legislation.

It was not immediately clear whether the ruling might provide an avenue for those previously convicted of misdemeanor offenses in such cases to have their convictions vacated.

“If the city didn’t have jurisdiction to prosecute, there could be an argument that the conviction should be set aside,” said Gauntt’s attorney, David Kirshenbaum. “That’ll have to be decided by a different judge on a different day.”