Auburn man's marijuana conviction overturned

Washington's Supreme Court late last month overturned a man's conviction on marijuana charges, ruling that the City didn't have the authority to prosecute him under state law in municipal court.

According to court records, Auburn police officers spotted Dustin Gauntt in late 2008 driving within the city limits, smoking what appeared to be marijuana in a pipe. Officers stopped his vehicle, confirmed their suspicions about the pot and issued him a citation for possession of marijuana and use of drug paraphernalia.

The City subsequently charged Gauntt with one count of possession of less than 40 grams of marijuana and one count of unlawful use of drug paraphernalia. Before trial, he fought to dismiss both charges, arguing that while the City had adopted ordinances prohibiting marijuana possession and use of drug paraphernalia, it had not adopted the mandatory minimum penalties for these crimes provided by the state statute under which he was charged.

While the City agreed that its code did not provide for the mandatory minimum penalties, it contended that it still had authority to prosecute the crimes and seek these penalties under the state statute. The trial court denied the motion to dismiss and a judge found Gaunt guilty of both charges.

Gauntt filed an appeal in superior court, again contending that the City had no authority to prosecute the crimes under state law because the state statute had not been adopted by the City. The Superior Court, the Appeals court and finally the state Supreme Court in a unanimous decision, agreed.

Supreme Court Justice Tom Chambers noted that while cities have the responsibility to prosecute misdemeanors committed within their jurisdictions, 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 has since changed its law to state that any misdemeanors under state law also constitute crimes within the city.

City Attorney Dan Heid said he was disappointed, but doesn't expect the ruling to have far reaching implications

"The City has already previously adopted an ordinance that takes care of this case, so it's not like it will affect many, if any, people," said Heid. "We charge either under adopted state law by reference or city ordinance by reference. There are a couple of statutes that indicate that the City has the responsibility and obligation to charge somebody with a violation."

Heid said that when the Legislature required cities to bear the costs of prosecuting misdemeanors in their jurisdictions, it implicitly authorized them to prosecute such violations of state law. The high court disagreed.

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