Bills to 'fix' 2021 police reforms advance in Olympia

Legislation eases police pursuit rules, tightens drug enforcement
March 10, 2023 at 1:36 p.m.
A version of a bill introduced by Rep. Alicia Rule that lowers the threshold for police pursuits passed out of the state Senate on March 8.
A version of a bill introduced by Rep. Alicia Rule that lowers the threshold for police pursuits passed out of the state Senate on March 8. (Andy Bronson/Cascadia Daily News)

Staff Reporter

Before the start of this year’s legislative session, Rep. Alicia Rule, a Democrat from Blaine, said she would “fix” a 2021 law that hampered law enforcement’s ability to pursue suspects.

“I will hold tight to that and keep working on that,” Rule promised at a September 2022 public forum on law enforcement in Bellingham. She said criminals believe they can flout the law because police won’t pursue them.

“We’ve emboldened criminals,” she said. “I see those folks having the opportunity to continue to victimize people.”

Democrats wouldn’t bring Rule’s House Bill 1363 to the floor for a vote before the March 8 deadline, but the Senate version went straight to a floor vote without a committee hearing on cutoff day and narrowly passed, 26–23.

Democrats were divided on Senate Bill 5352, with 16 in favor and 13 opposed, the Associated Press reported.

Sen. Sharon Shewmake, a Bellingham Democrat, voted for the bill, which lowers the standard for police pursuit from “probable cause” of a crime to “reasonable suspicion.” Anacortes Democrat Liz Lovelett, the senator from the 40th Legislative District, voted “no.”

Under SB 5352, pursuits would still be limited. A driver must be suspected of a violent offense, an escape or driving under the influence. They also must pose a serious risk of harm to others.

Drug enforcement

Another bill that beat the cutoff deadline would reverse a 2021 law that effectively decriminalized drug possession in the state. Senate Bill 5536 passed in another contentious vote, with members of both parties divided on the issue.

This bill would replace legislation passed two years ago that required police to give people suspected of drug possession referral cards for treatment, rather than booking them into jail. Law enforcement and government officials have blamed this 2021 law on increased open drug use in public spaces.

SB 5536 elevates possession of a controlled substance to a gross misdemeanor and requires minimum sentences for defendants who don’t follow through with a drug treatment plan. The bill also provides for more community-based treatment facilities.

“This bill gives chances,” said Sen. Keith Wagoner, a Republican from Sedro-Woolley, during the Senate debate. “It gives first chances, second chances and third chances for people to correct their ways and get back into life.”

“And I believe it’s gonna give back security in our neighborhoods and our cities that we haven’t seen for a long time,” Wagoner added.

Shewmake said she voted for SB 5536 despite its provision for mandatory jail time.

“Addiction is messy,” Shewmake said in an interview. “I don’t think someone should have to go to jail for that, and my hope is that the House takes that out. But what we have right now is untenable, so we needed to put some accountability … in there.”

The police pursuit and drug possession bills are now under consideration in the House, where they must pass by April 12.

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