SOUTH BEND — Last chances are hard to come by, and many Pacific County residents were given one when they were accepted into drug court and had an opportunity to turn their life around. The success has primarily been due to consequences for failure hanging over participants’ heads.
The recent ruling by the Washington State Supreme Court justices in State v. Blake that the state’s possession law, as currently written, is unconstitutional has resulted in simple possession charges being tossed out statewide. The ruling has meant that those who are presently in drug courts for only simple possession are no longer required to participate under their agreements.
Uncertainty with dropouts
The Pacific County Drug Court is still assessing the situation, but according to Pacific County Prosecutor Ben Haslam, most of the participants who were in the program for only simple possession charges have dropped out. Only one remains in the program with its supervision and structure to help candidates overcome addiction and remain clean and sober.
“Our drug court is still operating,” Haslam said. “We still have a number of participants, [but] some of our participants were in there solely because of possession convictions, and the current status of the law is that those convictions are unconstitutional. Essentially, we lose the ability to hold anything over their head to help ensure they stay in compliance with the program.”
Halsam and the court have offered to allow participants to stay in the program to help them remain sober and get their lives back on track even without them being required to be there. The reality is that since they didn’t have to be there anymore, most chose to participate no longer, Haslam admitted.
“We have a number of other people who are there because of other convictions for other crimes, and so nothing has changed for them,” Haslam said. “We will continue to utilize drug court and to offer it to appropriate candidates. Drug addiction affects a lot more than just possession crimes.”
One of the biggest fears for Haslam, and most law enforcement agencies inside the county, is increased use and inability to help addicts fight addiction. Long Beach Police Department Chief Flint Wright mentioned in an interview for a previous Observer article that one of the potential issues arising from State v. Blake is that he’s had addicts on his department’s door begging for help.
“It got sad, bad down here, and this is a true statement,” Wright said. “We had people coming to our back door, knocking on our back door saying ‘I’m an addict, I’m trying to stay clean, but the drugs down here are so prevalent I can’t. You’ve got to make arrests.’ People were coming to us saying that.”
Haslam has similar fears, given that his office and courts around the state now have no authority to punish anyone who is in possession of drugs. The only ability they have is to seize the drugs and book them as evidence, but they can’t take any further action.
“I am very concerned that this will lead to increased use, and we know that these drugs kill people and they are extremely harmful to the community,” he said. “We are very concerned that this decision will lead to increased use, increased overdose, and increased crimes that occur around drug use whether it’s dealing with addiction or so forth. Lots of concerns in that regard.”
It’s not only drug court that’s being affected
As part of the justices’ ruling, it is likely that all drug possession convicts, since the now null-and-void law was written over 60 years ago, will have to be vacated and dismissed. Additionally, the fees and fines associated with the convictions would potentially have to be returned.
“Past convictions, that’s obviously going to be hundreds or thousands for us, probably thousands,” Haslam said. “The supreme court is still technically in a period of time where they could reconsider their decision, but I’m not terribly optimistic about any change. We are kind of waiting for word; we will get a mandate from them probably in the next couple weeks that makes it actually kind of final.”
“Once that occurs, and if nothing changes on reconsideration, we are looking at this going all the way back to when our statute first came into effect, which I believe was 1971. So 50 years of cases. Those fines that have been collected and paid to the clerk, the clerk then disperses most of it to the state and the county doesn’t keep very much of it, and there is the potential that those fines will have to be refunded.”
A class-action lawsuit has been filed against King and Snohomish counties and the state by former defendants working with the Washington Defender Association for what former defendants will be entitled to as far as fines and fees. Haslam is hoping the lawsuit will give other counties, like his, direction.