One might think that having your felony charges dismissed would be a cause for celebration, but for members of Lewis County’s Drug Court program, the atmosphere the day they learned of a recent state Supreme Court decision that meant Lewis County was dismissing their possession of a controlled substance charges was anything but celebratory.
“There were definitely a lot of emotions at the meeting with the participants who would be affected,” said Drug Court Manager Stephanie Miller.
“There was shock, fear, crying, and I would say definitely a lot of confusion.”
Lewis County Drug Court, now in its 16th year, allows those faced with certain drug-related felony convictions the option to enroll in a court-supervised, long-term rehabilitation program with the promise that their charges will be formally dismissed upon graduation.
Of Drug Court’s 47 participants, 17 were ejected from the treatment program after the Washington state Supreme Court issued a ruling on Feb. 25 that struck down the state’s felony drug possession law and subsequently required the county prosecutor to formally dismiss all possession of a controlled substance charges filed under that statute.
“The people who were affected were in all different phases of the program, various stages of their own recovery journey,” Miller said. “We tried to work with them to figure out the best way to individually support people. They can absolutely still go to treatment … so there’s still lots of support in the community. They just lost the accountability of the court.”
And for many, such as Drug Court graduate Brant Byrd, that accountability was key to getting clean.
“I struggled with drug addiction and I could not get through it on my own. I could not do it. I wanted to, and I couldn’t,” he said.
Byrd entered Drug Court after he was charged with possession of an uncontrolled substance and took two years to finish the program, which he said was an essential step in his recovery.
“There’s so many different (treatment) places. There’s so many available to people. It’s just getting them there, and that’s where the courts help,” he said. “Getting just those simple charges could help them go get an assessment and get into treatment and find a new way to live.”
Local law enforcement have expressed frustration and concern that, without the accountability of a felony charge in court, drug use within the community will rise and lead to other more serious crimes.
“A majority of crimes that are committed are committed by individuals who have drug addiction,” said Lewis County Sheriff Rob Snaza, citing instances of burglary, theft, domestic violence and assault that were motivated by or associated with a defendant’s drug addiction. “And how are we addressing the root cause of all this? That’s going to be the challenge, because … if you no longer have that leverage, how do you get out of addiction? How do you get treatment?”
Centralia Police Chief Stacey Denham said that his officers were “shocked and disappointed” when they learned of the Supreme Court decision.
“It’s making it very difficult for my officers only because my officers are very proactive and they have an absolute passion for their community and helping their community and protecting it, and they feel that this is affecting their ability to do that,” he said.
While most felony drug charges, such as possession with intent to deliver, manufacture of a controlled substance and delivery of a controlled substance, are unaffected by the ruling, law enforcement cannot arrest or charge anyone for possession of a controlled substance.
The charge is considered a Class C felony in Washington, which carries a maximum sentence of up to five years in prison and fines up to $10,000, along with a loss of voting rights while incarcerated or in community custody.
The possession charges that landed Byrd in Drug Court were formally dismissed when he graduated from the program, and while he said he’s been contacted recently about previous possession convictions that have been dismissed from his record as a result of the ruling, he said he’s less concerned about his own past convictions than he is worried for the Drug Court participants who just lost a crucial piece of accountability.
“For me and the guys that I was in recovery with who went to Drug Court, and are successful and have made it through and continue on — it’s not about that, and we’re not thinking of ourselves,” he said. “We’re thinking, ‘oh my God, what if (Drug Court) wasn’t there for us? None of us would be sitting around this table having coffee and trying to better ourselves.’”
Miller said that Drug Court participants whose charges weren’t dismissed had similar reactions to the announcement.
“The reality is it didn’t just affect the people whose cases ended up being dismissed from the program, but it certainly affected the people who are still in the program, and they wondered ‘what would we do with that decision,’ and most of them were glad that they didn’t have to make that decision and that they would be able to continue with their Drug Court program,” Miller said.
The Feb. 25 Supreme Court decision (State v. Blake) stemmed from a 2016 possession of an uncontrolled substance conviction where a Spokane woman was found guilty, despite not knowing she had drugs on her person at the time of her arrest. The court ruled 5-4 in Blake’s favor, striking down the statute that led to her conviction until it is amended.
Sixteen state senators, including Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, have sponsored a bill (SB 5468) that would add the word “knowingly” to the statute’s language, so that it would read “it is unlawful for any person to knowingly possess a controlled substance,” and immediately reenact the statute with the amended language.
The bill was introduced on March 1 and referred to the Committee on Law and Justice, but there is concern that it won’t make it to the floor before the legislative session ends in April.
For the time being, Denham said that in lieu of arresting people on felony drug possession charges, Centralia police officers will take opportunities to arrest people for possession of drug paraphernalia — a misdemeanor charge.
“When we look at it, we look at how we’re best going to serve our community, how we’re going to best protect our community, because these types of crimes … usually lead to different types of crimes like burglary and theft of motor vehicles, things of that nature,” he said.
“We’ll work within the confines of the law and move forward,” Snaza said. “And we’re not going to give up on our communities. We’re going to continue to fight and go after those who continue to commit crimes.”