Sonia Joseph wipes away a tear in this December 2017 photo prior to entering the inquest hearing at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent into the fatal shooting of her son Giovonn Joseph-McDade by a Kent police officer in June 2017. File photo

Sonia Joseph wipes away a tear in this December 2017 photo prior to entering the inquest hearing at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent into the fatal shooting of her son Giovonn Joseph-McDade by a Kent police officer in June 2017. File photo

South King County cities win lawsuit over changes to inquest hearings

Court says King County Executive overstepped his authority regarding rules for investigating officer-involved deaths.

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.


Talk to us

Please share your story tips by emailing editor@auburn-reporter.com.

To share your opinion for publication, submit a letter through our website https://www.auburn-reporter.com/submit-letter/. Include your name, address and daytime phone number. (We’ll only publish your name and hometown.) Please keep letters to 300 words or less.

More in News

The site of the former Heritage Apartments in downtown Auburn on Monday. Robert Whale, Auburn Reporter
Heritage Apartments owner is expected to start on replacement this summer

On Dec. 26, 2017, a fire destroyed the Heritage Apartments building in… Continue reading

File photo
Driver trapped in semi-truck that crashed into tree | Fire blotter

Between April 5 and April 11, the Valley Regional Fire Authority responded… Continue reading

Volunteers for the city of Auburn's Adopt-a-Street Program recently during a momentary pause from their labors. Courtesy photo, City of Auburn
.
Adopt-a-Street Program tweaks rules to allow volunteers to be one-event cleaner-uppers

You may see them from time-to-time along Auburn’s streets, groups of people… Continue reading

Brush fire continues to burn off Southeast Green Valley Road

Brush fire off Southeast Green Valley Road prompts Level-2 evacuation order

King County District Court, South Division, Auburn Courthouse is located in the City of Auburn at 340 E. Main St. in the Auburn Justice Center. This facility provides court services for the cities of Auburn and Covington. File photo
Auburn ponders states of its aging public facilities

Consultant offers multiple recommendations.

T
Auburn studies criminal penalties for illegal camping on public property

After tramping through a dozen or so of Auburn’s homeless encampments, they… Continue reading

File photo
Ex-boyfriend threatens woman with taser | Auburn police blotter

Between April 6 and April 13, Auburn Police responded to the following… Continue reading

File photo
Machete-wielding homeless man charged with assault

The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office has charged a 42-year-old homeless man… Continue reading

Auburn's Poet Laureate, James Rodgers (photo credit: James Rodgers)
Talking National Poetry Month with Auburn’s poet laureate James Rodgers

Some April poetry events include a Jack McCarthy poetry reading and a youth poetry contest

Most Read