Several South King County cities have won a lawsuit blocking changes in the inquest hearing process for officer-involved deaths, according to a decision Aug. 21.
The cities of Federal Way, Auburn, Kent and Renton, along with the King County Sheriff’s Office and several individual law enforcement officers, joined the City of Seattle and family members of the deceased in a lawsuit against King County Executive Dow Constantine in January 2020.
The lawsuit asked the court to assess whether the Executive overstepped his authority when he created new rules for the King County Coroner’s Inquest process, according to a joint news release by the South King County cities.
Involved cities challenged nearly every aspect of the inquest system, including: police policies and training should not be part of inquests; disciplinary history of officers should not be allowed; expert testimony should be limited; and inquests should not be presided over by administrators (retired judges).
The King County Sheriff contends that the King County Charter exempts it from inquests.
The Aug. 21 ruling by the independent court found that the rules proposed by Constantine “are invalid because they are in excess of the authority granted to the Executive by Charter and County Code,” according to court documents.
The court also found that the new rules are “invalid because they violate the appearance of fairness doctrine.”
State law authorizes, and the King County Charter mandates, the investigation of any death involving a member of law enforcement in the course of their duties.
Inquests are fact-finding hearings conducted before a six-member jury. Inquests are designed to provide transparency into law enforcement actions so the public may have all the facts established in a court of law. Inquest jurors answer a series of questions to determine the significant factual issues involved in the case, and it is not their purpose to determine whether any person or agency is civilly or criminally liable. State law requires a jury of no more than six, and no less than four.
Six inquests have been on hold in King County for two years, frustrating families and making it harder for witnesses to recall details, the Mirror previously reported. The Kent, Federal Way and Auburn police departments each have an inquest case on hold.
These invalid procedures now include allowance of pre-written discovery, issuance of pre-hearing “discovery” subpoenas, introduction of evidence regarding compliance with officers’ training and policy, limitation of the chief law enforcement officers’ testimony about training and policy compliance, and allowance of outside expert witness testimony.
These are invalid because the inquest administrator cannot be an “at-will” employee of the King County Executive, according to court documents. The process by which the executive orders were drafted and the hearing procedures themselves “appear unfair,” according to court documents.
While the inquest process was established in state law in 1854 to review the death of any individual, King County uses the process only in incidents involving uses of deadly force by police officers.
“The new rules established by Executive Constantine went well beyond the purpose of the inquest process, and created an expensive, time consuming trial-like atmosphere far removed from determining cause of death,” according to the joint news release from the South King County cities. The included South King County cities determined that an impartial judicial review of the process was appropriate.
Pausing the inquest process does not stop the criminal prosecution of a police officer who is found to have violated the law as criminal prosecution is separate from any inquest process or outcome.
Kent Mayor Dana Ralph said while she supports reforms that better the community, those reforms must respect the constitutional rights of all involved.
“Today, a judge agreed with that sentiment, and now we must begin the work to create a system that is fair, accountable and transparent for everyone. I am committed to working with legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle to create a system that is consistent across the state,” Ralph said.
Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell said the four involved cities have a commitment to their combined 400,000-plus residents.
“Clearly the Executive exceeded his authority and I look forward to a process which will be fair to all parties and seeks the truth in achieving justice for everyone involved,” Ferrell said.
“The rule of law matters,” Ferrell told the Mirror. “It’s important that we strictly adhere to what the law is designed to do.”
The judge who ruled has also asked the Washington State Supreme Court to review the matter.
Six King County victims with inquest hearings on hold
• Damarius Butts
Seattle Police Department
Date of Incident: April 20, 2017
Butts, of Kent, died from multiple gunshot wounds after a reported shootout with Seattle Police on April 20 when he fled after allegedly robbing a 7-Eleven store, 627 First Ave., in downtown Seattle.
• Isaiah Obet
Auburn Police Department
Date of Incident: June 10, 2017
Police say the officer shot Obet after the 25-year-old man entered a home armed with a knife and later tried to carjack an occupied vehicle.
• Charleena Lyles
Seattle Police Department
Date of Incident: June 18, 2017
Lyles, 30, was shot seven times in her Seattle apartment by two Seattle Police officers. Officers fired after they said Lyles threatened them with a knife.
• Eugene Nelson
Kent Police Department
Date of Incident: Aug. 9, 2017
Nelson, 20, died from multiple gunshot wounds after he allegedly tried to flee in a vehicle while dragging an officer in the 23600 block of 104th Avenue Southeast.
• Robert Lightfeather
Federal Way Police Department
Date of Incident: Oct. 30, 2017
Lightfeather, 33, died of multiple gun shot wounds from a shooting at South 316th Street and Pacific Highway South outside the Elephant Car Wash. Federal Way police responded to a 911 caller who reported seeing a man pointing a gun at two men.
• Curtis Elroy Tade
Kirkland Police Department
Date of Incident: Dec. 19, 2017
Reporter Steve Hunter contributed to this story.