Archive for Courts

Sex trafficking survivors push for bill they say would help victims start over

By | January 27, 2016 | 0 Comments

Stephanie Harris was working as a prostitute for two years before she met the man who would become her pimp. He wouldn’t let her eat or go home until she met her quota for the day. Sometimes, she was left on Aurora Avenue in Seattle for 16 to 18 hours at a time.

“After I left my pimp, I really did attempt to clean up my act,” Harris told lawmakers at a hearing of the House Public Safety Committee on Tuesday. She turned herself in to police and faced charges that had accumulated during her time on the streets.

“But I found what was happening is I couldn’t find a job, I couldn’t get an apartment,” she said. “I had a kid that I was trying to fight and get back, but those charges just didn’t look good for me.”

Harris asked lawmakers to pass House Bill 2668, which would allow people to vacate their convictions if they can show their crimes were a result of being a victim of trafficking or being compelled into prostitution. Once a court vacates a conviction, it no longer shows up on a criminal record.

The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, said the proposal builds upon a bill signed into law two years ago allowing a person to vacate prostitution convictions if he or she was a victim of trafficking.

Orwall said that she’s heard from both private attorneys and those working at the city and county levels that they’ve had trouble moving forward on that 2014 law.

“We are back again today because a lot of the survivors have tried to use this new law and have ran into some problems,” Orwall said. “So we thought we would try and see what we could do to make this usable.”

Survivors of trafficking testified in favor of the bill on Tuesday.

Amber Walker and Jeri Moomaw testifying.

Amber Walker and Jeri Moomaw testifying.

Because of her criminal convictions, Amber Walker said she has encountered several barriers while trying to rebuild her life. She said traffickers used drugs to “enslave” her.

“When I was in the life, I certainly wasn’t getting drugs through charity. They were given to me in exchange for my body. I was introduced to drugs by my traffickers to keep me under control,” Walker said.

Walker said that many of the people that trafficked her for sex also trafficked her to sell drugs. “They said I looked innocent and that police will never suspect me,” she said.

Jeri Moomaw is a trafficking survivor and now works with Washington Engage, an anti-human trafficking nonprofit. She says one of the hardest things is getting reintegrated into regular life.

“It’s really sad to get a call from a fellow survivor who is doing amazing, that’s crying and crying saying, ‘I can’t get a job that pays a living wage because of my convictions,’” she said.

Moomaw said she would also like to see a change in the process required to vacate a conviction. Right now, if a survivor is trying to vacate their prostitution conviction they must fill out a form re-telling their “trauma.” She thinks that filing out an affidavit should be the only requirement.

“I found out that the form that has you line out all of your trauma is public record,” she said. “So potentially somebody could attain that public record and that could end up on Google.”

Heidi Sargent, assistant city prosecuting attorney with the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, said the office in recent years has shifted the emphasis on prosecuting those who are buying sex.

But still, she says the office recognizes there is a lot of prostitution-related crime besides prostitution itself.

“We haven’t gotten to the point yet of addressing that and that would be a difficult thing to do,” she said. “We find that [the bill] is very good step forward and would remove some very serious barriers and would help break the cycle.”

As for Harris — she hopes that the bill will help people like her older sister leave prostitution.

“If you talked to my sister right now she would say,’what’s the point? I’ve been in over half my life, look at this list of charges.’ She’s been under the control of pimps since she was 14. So why get out now,” Harris said though tears.

All of those who testified Tuesday were in support of the bill.

Categories: Courts, Criminal Justice

Washington Prisoners Mistakenly Released Early

By | December 22, 2015 | 0 Comments

Some Washington felons may be headed back to prison after a computer error mistakenly allowed them to be released early.

Gov. Jay Inslee announced Tuesday that 3,200 Washington prisoners were let go before their sentences were complete. For the last 13 years, a Department of Corrections computer software program incorrectly calculated credit for “good time” served.  The error affects about three-percent of all state inmates during that time period.

The governor says he’s ordered immediate action to correct the long-standing problem, and ordered an external review to determine how this happened and why it took so long to address, even though the problem was discovered in 2012.

“These were serious errors with serious implications,” Gov. Inslee said. “When I learned of this I ordered DOC to fix this, fix it fast, and fix it right.” The Governor’s office says it was alerted to the mistake last week.

Department of Corrections new Secretary, Dan Pacholke, called the situation an “unforgivable error.”

During a press conference in the governor’s office he said, “I’ve apologized to the governor personally on behalf of the Department of Corrections. I want to offer the same apology to the public.”

State officials say the problem dates back to a July 2002 ruling by the Washington Supreme Court. It requires DOC apply “good time” credit earned in county jails. Offenders with sentencing enhancements are supposed to be exempt from that, but the DOC computer applied it anyway. 

The amount of days prisoners did not serve ranges from “a couple of days” to 600, but the governor’s chief legal counsel, Nick Brown, says the median number is 49.

The state is working with local law enforcement to identify those inmates who need to go back and complete their sentences, either in prison or work release. So far, that’s seven people.  Five are already in custody. Brown expects that number to increase, but says most of the offenders impacted will not be re-incarcerated because of a previous Supreme Court ruling. Their time back home in the community will count day for day.

DOC learned of the problem in 2012 when a crime victim’s family did their own calculations on their offender’s release. The state says the sequencing fix was launched at that time, but for reasons that will be investigated, it was repeatedly delayed. Only when DOC’s new chief information officer discovered the problem, was leadership notified.

Secretary Pacholke says he just learned of the error last week, and does not know if the previous administration had any knowledge of it.  “How that did not rise up in the agency to the highest levels is not clear to me,” Pacholke said.

“That this problem was allowed to continue for 13 years is deeply disappointing to me, totally unacceptable and, frankly, maddening,” Inslee said.

The software is expected to be updated and fixed by early January. Until then, Gov. Inslee halted all further releases of inmates with sentencing enhancements until a hand calculation is done, the numbers are verified, and the release is personally approved.

Two retired federal prosecutors, Robert Westinghouse and Carl Blackstone from the firm of Yarmuth Wilsdon PLLC, were hired to conduct an independent review.

“I have a lot of questions about how and why this happened, and I understand that members of the public will have those same questions,” Gov. Inslee said. “I expect the external investigation will bring the transparency and accountability we need to make sure this issue is resolved.”

Offenders with questions can call 360-725-8213.

Resources available on the DOC website:

Washington Supreme Court won’t reconsider charter school ruling

By | November 20, 2015 | 0 Comments

The Washington Supreme Court released an order Thursday saying it will not reconsider its September ruling invalidating the state’s charter school law.

The court ruled Sept. 4 that charter schools are unconstitutional and cannot receive public money because they are not “common schools” governed by elected school boards. State Attorney General Bob Ferguson and a number of other charter school advocates asked the court to reconsider.

Voters approved charter schools through a 2012 initiative. Nine charter schools are open in Washington.

Read the court order here.

Hours before the Supreme Court released its order on Thursday, dozens of charter school students, parents and administrators appeared before a state Senate committee asking for legislation that would allow the schools to continue operating in Washington.

Several students told legislators at a Senate Ways and Means Committee hearing that they are excelling in charter school.

Katie Wilton, a ninth grader at Summit Olympus in Tacoma, said she was “shocked and devastated” to learn her school could be shut down. “We must fix this mess,” she said.

Other students said they appreciate the racial and cultural diversity in charter schools, the flexible learning environment and supportive teachers. Administrators for Summit said they pay their teachers slightly above the public school rate for that district and provide annual four percent pay raises.

TVW taped the hearing. It will be posted at this link.

Death penalty case before the Washington Supreme Court, TVW will air live

By | May 4, 2015 | 0 Comments

The Washington Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday in the death penalty case of Conner Schierman, who was convicted and sentenced to death for stabbing four people, including two young children, and burning their bodies in a Kirkland house fire.

In 2010, a King County Superior Court jury recommended that Schierman be executed for killing Olga Milkin, 28; her two sons Justin, 5, and Andrew, 3; and her sister, Lyubov Botvina, 24.

The victims lived across the street from Schierman in Kirkland. Milkin’s husband was overseas serving with the National Guard in Iraq when his family was killed.

According to court documents, Schierman claims he drank three or four bottles of vodka and went into an alcoholic blackout, then woke up in the house with the bodies. He then went to a mini-mart to buy gasoline, which he used to douse the house and set it on fire.

Attorneys for Schierman are asking the Washington Supreme Court to reverse the death sentence, claiming the trial court violated Schierman’s constitutional rights and the state presented improper evidence.

The state is asking the court to uphold the conviction and sentence. Read full court documents here.

TVW will air the arguments live on Tuesday from 9 a.m. until 2:30 p.m., with breaks for lunch and recess. It will be webcast at this link.

Categories: Courts

State Supreme Court will wait until special session adjourns before deciding on sanctions

By | May 1, 2015 | 0 Comments

The Washington Supreme Court will wait until the conclusion of special special before deciding if the Legislature should face sanctions for failing to come up with a plan to fund public schools.

Chief Justice Barbara Madsen wrote in an order this week that the “court’s consideration of contempt sanctions and other remedial measures will continue to be held in abeyance” until the adjournment of special session, which began on April 29 and is scheduled to last 30 days.

Madsen ordered lawmakers to provide the court with an update the day after special session ends.

Legislators adjourned the regular session on April 24 without an operating budget in place. They are currently in negotiations on a budget plan that will fund the state for the next two years and put more money into basic education.

The state Supreme Court found the Legislature in contempt in September for failing to submit a plan detailing how the state will pay for basic education through 2018. It did not impose sanctions at the time — instead giving the Legislature the chance to purge the contempt if lawmakers came up with an education funding plan by the end of the 2015 legislative session.

Categories: Courts

Joel’s Law headed to governor’s desk

By | April 23, 2015 | 0 Comments

Joel’s Law, which enables families to petition courts to review a designated mental health professional’s decision not to detain a person with mental illness, is headed to the governor’s desk after passing both chambers earlier this week.

Joel Reuter

Joel Reuter

Joel Reuter, who died in a shootout with Seattle police in 2013. Reuter had been treating bipolar disorder successfully for several years, but made a turn for the worse after starting chemotherapy for lymphoma. He died after exchanging gunfire with police officers.

His parents, Doug and Nancy Reuter, have been coming to Olympia from Texas for the past two sessions to lobby the Washington State Legislature last year to pass the law. Lawmakers in both parties pledged to get the law passed this session.

The Senate version of the bill sponsored by Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, passed both chambers this week.

Nancy and Doug Reuter

Nancy and Doug Reuter

“This gives families a voice when it comes to ensuring their loved ones are given the care they need when suffering from a mental health crisis,” said Rep. Brady Walkinshaw, D-Seattle, the sponsor of the House version of the bill. Walkinshaw represents the district where Joel Reuter lived.

Joel’s law is not yet on Gov. Jay Inslee‘s bill signing calendar.

Categories: Courts, Healthcare

State Auditor Troy Kelley pleads not guilty to 10 counts in federal court

By | April 17, 2015 | 0 Comments
State Auditor Troy Kelley surrounded by media as he leaves the U.S. District Court after pleading not guilty to 10 counts. (Photo by Venice Buhain.)

State Auditor Troy Kelley surrounded by media as he leaves the U.S. District Court after pleading not guilty to 10 counts. (Photo by Venice Buhain.)

State Auditor Troy Kelley entered a not guilty plea to 10 counts connected to tax evasion and obstruction in U.S. District Court in Tacoma on Thursday.

U.S. District Court Judge J. Richard Creatura set the trial date at June 8, and released Kelley on his own recognizance. Creatura allowed Kelley to travel to South Korea for scheduled Washington National Guard duty and throughout Washington for his children’s sports events.

Amid calls for his resignation from Democrats, Republicans and Gov. Jay Inslee, Kelley maintained his innocence and announced he would be taking a leave of absence from his position starting May 1.

“I take this action to allow my office to the important work without distractions and to allow me to participate fully in my defense,” he read from a statement in front of reporters at a press conference. “I fully expect to resume my duties when these old legal matters are finally put to rest.”

Kelley read from the prepared statement before leaving through a back door, on advice from his lawyers.

State Auditor Troy Kelley, behind the podium, addresses reporters as his attorneys (l-r) Rob McCallum and Mark Bartlett, look on. (Photo by Venice Buhain)

State Auditor Troy Kelley, behind the podium, addresses reporters as his attorneys (l-r) Rob McCallum and Mark Bartlett, look on. (Photo by Venice Buhain)

“I’m very confident — very confident — that I will be able to prove my innocence. I look forward to doing that in an open court of law,” he read.

He maintained that he will clear his name and his activities at the company are in line with current real estate practices.

“It’s not our intent to settle the case, unless there’s a dismissal of the indictment,” one of his attorneys Rob McCallum told reporters.

Kelley has been under public scrutiny since March, when federal investigators raided his Tacoma home, and requested information from the State Auditor’s Office.

It emerged that the federal investigators were looking into financial activities related to The Post Closing Department, Kelley’s former real estate transaction business in California. They also had requested information related to Jason JeRue, who worked with Kelley at the California company, and then took a part time remote job at the Auditor’s office in 2013.

The charges filed this week are related to alleged activities Kelley conducted at Post Closing Department. According to the indictment filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office on Thursday, Kelley withheld more than $2 million that he was supposed to return to clients and that he moved the money between accounts and between states. The indictment also alleges that when the companies filed a lawsuit to get the money back, Kelley lied under oath. The indictment also alleges that Kelley filed false income tax returns, and then lied to Internal Revenue Service agents who questioned him about it in April 2013.

U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman Emily Langlie declined to comment on whether charges were forthcoming against JeRue.

Each count is punishable between 3 and 10 years in prison, according to the U.S. Attorneys Office.

Kelley, a Democrat, was a state legislator elected to the State Auditor’s Office after Auditor Brian Sonntag decided not to run.

The State Auditor’s Office is consulting with the State Attorney General’s Office to find out whether Kelley will be paid during his leave of absence, according to spokesman Thomas Shapley.

McCallum and Kelley’s other attorney, Mark Bartlett, told reporters that it was unusual for a criminal case to be filed in connection to a settled civil case.

“I have never ever seen a criminal case brought related to civil deposition or civil filings,” Bartlett said.

Bartlett said that Kelley believed that the case was behind him before he ran for the state auditor’s office.

“That tells you more about what was in Troy Kelley’s mind than anything else. He clearly didn’t think he’d done anything wrong,” Barlett said.

“If he had thought he did anything wrong,the last thing he would have done is run for office.”

Family members say Joel’s Law could have saved murdered Spokane woman

By | January 19, 2015 | 0 Comments

If the Washington State Legislature passes “Joel’s Law” this year  — a bill that offers a way for families to appeal to the courts if their family members have been denied involuntary mental health commitment  — it comes too late for the friends and family of Sheena Henderson of Spokane.

Sheena Henderson’s father, Gary Kennison, said the law might have been able to prevent his son-in-law, Chris Henderson, from coming to  his wife’s place of work, where he fatally shot her and killed himself last July.

“We now have two children who are growing up without parents. Christopher, who committed this act, wasn’t a bad person,” Kennison said in a Monday morning hearing in the Senate Human Services, Mental Health & Housing committee.

Chris Henderson’s mental condition had been deteriorating in the months before the shooting, and he had been briefly hospitalized and his guns confiscated. But he was released from the hospital days before the shooting after assuring authorities he was no danger, and he collected his gun from the Spokane Police Department the day before the fatal shooting.

“There was no avenue whatsoever for us to go back and appeal that decision…. So I believe that Joel’s Law, had it been in place, it would have given me a tool to protect my daughter and she would have been here today,” Kennison said.

“Joel’s Law,” which is filed this year under Senate Bill 5269 and House Bill 1258, is named after Joel Reuter, who died in a shootout with Seattle police in 2013.

His parents, Doug and Nancy Reuter, came to Olympia from Texas to lobby the Washington State Legislature last year to pass the law. The bill passed the House unanimously, but was never brought to a floor vote in the Senate.

Joel Reuter had been treating bipolar disorder successfully for several years, but made a turn for the worse after starting chemotherapy for lymphoma. He died after shooting at police officers.

Joel’s family returned this session. Doug Reuter testified on Monday that he believes the designated mental health professionals are given too much leeway in making commitment decisions.

“They answer to nobody. The unilaterally decide who gets help and who does not get help,” Reuter said.

Nancy Reuter (left) and Doug Reuter speak to reporters after a hearing on "Joel's Law," named after their son.

All families want is the ability to make an appeal, he said.

“This will not only provide an avenue for family members to have someone else — a judge — look at all the evidence to determine whether they are a danger to themselves or others. And it gives the (designated mental health professional) a chance to review their files all at the same time,” Reuter said.

Reuter also criticized the fiscal notes from last year, saying the costs are overestimated they assumed ongoing mental health treatment, when the bill only addresses commitment.

One change in this year’s bill is a provision to give the mental health professional 24 hours to respond to the family’s appeal before the appeal is heard by a judge.

However, Shankar Narayan, legislative director of the ACLU of Washington, expressed concern over the rights of those who would be detained against their will.

“This is a human being, a person who’s interests might be different from their family members,” said Narayan after the morning hearing.

Mike De Felice, a public defender who works with mental health cases in King County Civil Commitment Court, said the changes could tie up designated mental health professionals in court, when they should be in the community making assessments.

De Felice and Narayan both made the argument that the best place for the investment is in community mental health.

“Olympia needs to fund outpatient treatment in the community, and we can avoid them coming into involuntary treatment,” De Felice said.

Legislators in both chambers and both parties pledged to get the bill passed.

“I have been working very closely with the Reuter family, and other parents with a similar story, who were unable to get help for their son after numerous attempts,” said Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Pierce County, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, in a prepared statement. O’Ban is also the chairman of the Senate Human Services, Mental Health & Housing committee.

Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo, said that since the issue was brought to the forefront last session, legislators have been hearing from families in similar situations.

“Across the state, legislators are now realizing that it’s becoming an epidemic,” Ortiz-Self said at a Monday afternoon press conference.

Doug Reuter said after the morning hearing that after the bill died in the Senate last year, he and his wife did not expect to return to Olympia for this session, but that Speaker Frank Chopp convinced them to return for another attempt to pass it.

“I thought everyone would forget Joel,” he said.

Categories: Courts

Bill would reduce drug possession charge from felony to misdemeanor

By | January 16, 2015 | 0 Comments

Drug possession would no longer be a felony in Washington state, under a bill being considered in the state House.

Possessing one ounce or less of a controlled substance would become simple misdemeanor. The maximum penalty for drug possession now, as a Class C felony, is five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. House Bill 1024 would reduce penalties to a maximum of 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Rep. Sherry Appleton, Poulsbo Democrat and prime sponsor of the bill, told a House committee Friday that reducing the charge would save the state millions and allow offenders to move on without the barrier of a felony. “We’re still going to hold people accountable,” she said.

A felony makes it difficult for offenders to find jobs, housing and more, Mary Clare Kersten of Sensible Washington told the committee. “Addiction is a illness and it should rightfully be combated with treatment instead of punishment,” she said. “A felony is a label we can’t shed,” she said.

Some worry the bill would encourage addiction. James McMahan Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs said the measure sends the wrong message. “It’s probably time we send the message ‘it’s OK to be sober,’ ” he said.

Appleton says reducing the charge would save the state in prison costs that could be used to fund education and other priorities. Candice Bock says some of that cost would land on cities — about $4.5 million next year.

Voters in California approved a similar measure last year. Lawmakers here tried to pass a similar bill last session, but it did not make it out of the same House committee.

Categories: Courts, Criminal Justice

DSHS seeks legislation for mental health competency services

By | January 7, 2015 | 0 Comments

The state Department of Social and Health Services will seek legislation this session that would allow it to provide some competency rehabilitation services outside of state psychiatric hospitals. The move comes after a federal judge ruled in December that wait times for criminal defendants in jail to be evaluated for competency to stand trial were too long and unconstitutional.

Jane Beyer, Assistant Secretary of Behavior Health and Service Integration at DSHS, told a joint legislative committee on Wednesday that the department acknowledged that some of the wait times were “inappropriate.”

“We do not agree with people waiting in jail as long as they are waiting in jail, and that’s why the governor in his budget had the funding request for additional evaluators and additional forensic beds at state hospitals,” she said.

Inslee’s proposed budget includes $8.8 million to open a new 30-bed forensic ward at Western State Hospital, five beds at Eastern State Hospital and additional staff to address court-ordered competency restoration services.

Currently, restoration services for people found by the court to be incompetent to stand trial are only offered at state psychiatric hospitals. Beyer said DSHS will ask for legislation that would authorize it to offer some of those services in other facilities, possibly modeled after crisis diversion centers in Fife and the Tri-Cities.

“There are individuals who have been charged with a misdemeanor or other low-level, non-violent felony that are willing to take medication,” she said. “I think we can appropriately balance public safety and clinical needs so we can provide competency restoration in places other than state hospitals.”

Otherwise, Beyer said the state will be “confronted with another ward and another ward at the state hospitals” at a cost of tens of millions of dollars in the future.

A trial has been scheduled for March 16 in the lawsuit against DSHS, which was brought by disability rights groups and ACLU of Washington.