The Lewis County Sheriff’s Office (LCSO) has issued a directive to its deputies limiting them from pursuing drivers suspected of driving under the influence in a move office leaders say is intended to encourage deputies to pause and fully consider the threat to public safety before they initiate a DUI-related pursuit.
The directive was issued by Sheriff Rob Snaza June 2.
“Effective immediately, until further notice, initiating a pursuit under 307.3.1 (a) (2) ‘reasonable suspicion that a person in the vehicle has committed or is committing an impaired driving offense under RCW 46.61.502,’ is no longer authorized under agency policy,” according to the directive. Under extreme circumstances, supervisors may override this directive when vehicle operation prior to, and/or absent of, law enforcement involvement demonstrates a clear and imminent threat to public safety. As a reminder of state law and agency policy, deputies and supervisors must continually assess pursuit initiation and involvement by weighing the safety risks of failing to apprehend or identify the suspect versus the safety risks of the vehicle pursuit under the circumstances. Thank you for your understanding and cooperation. Stay safe!”
The directive, which was first made public Thursday by sheriff candidate Tracy Murphy, addresses a subsection of RCW 10.116.060, a police reform law that went into effect in July 2021.
That legislation prohibits peace officers from engaging in vehicular pursuits unless there is probable cause to believe a person in the vehicle has committed or is committing an escape or a violent or sex offense; or reasonable suspicion that a person in the vehicle has committed or is committing a DUI offense.
“One of the concerns when this (law) first came out was the potential of ‘well reasonable suspicion for DUI.’ What does that mean? And looking at the legislative intent, the way they did a lot of other things, I would think that means they were trying to keep it in there in case there's a vehicle being called in that's being operated so dangerously, there's a threat to public safety and we need to stop that vehicle from others being hurt,” said sheriff’s office Field Operations Bureau Chief Dustin Breen.
Under the sheriff’s office’s new directive, deputies can no longer use reasonable suspicion of DUI alone as a reason to engage in a pursuit.
“Pursuits now always have to be authorized by a supervisor,” Breen said. “We’re just taking a different step on that ‘reasonable suspicion’ part and adding more in there that, really, what we want to see (from) the deputies being involved is, those vehicles are being operated in that reckless manner with that issue to public safety before we get involved, and that we're using the appropriate tactics. We’re looking more at our training. We're looking more at our policies. And that's why this wasn't a blanket policy change was put as a directive. As we look at things … we want to make sure that we kind of put a pause or make things — yeah, maybe it's a little bit more restrictive for the time being, but we want to make sure we're doing the right thing for the right reasons.”
The directive does not impact how the LCSO handles traffic stops, Breen said; only how deputies respond if the vehicle fails to yield.
“If it's a suspected DUI that we believe firmly that this individual is a risk to the community, we will definitely pursue that individual,” Lewis County Sheriff Rob Snaza told The Chronicle on Thursday.
He added, “If they're showing all those signs of an impaired driver, we will pursue. This is just a reminder (to deputies), ‘Hey, listen, make sure you have all the facts.’”
The reason why the directive instructs deputies to look at how drivers act before law enforcement get involved, Breen said, is because drivers often change their driving behavior when a police vehicle pulls up behind them.
“Obviously, if there's a vehicle out there being operated in a manner where we think it's going to injure somebody or hurt somebody and that's happening prior to law enforcement involvement, yeah, we want to get in there and stop it,” Breen said. “Otherwise, we continually have to evaluate, is the pursuit worth it? Or is this the person we let go and get later … Or that the risks (to) the public safety is now becoming so great that we have to do something else.”
The sheriff’s office issued the new directive the day after a deputy’s vehicle was damaged during the high-speed pursuit of a Morton man who was later charged with DUI.
That pursuit spanned 36 miles of U.S. Highway 12 and reached speeds over 100 mph. Law enforcement’s use of spike strips and a box maneuver ultimately failed to stop the suspect’s vehicle, and law enforcement ultimately performed a pursuit intervention technique (PIT) maneuver to force the suspect’s vehicle off the road.
The suspect, Aaden J. Ray, 20, has since been charged with one count each of attempting to elude a pursuing police vehicle, second-degree assault, hit-and-run to an attended vehicle, DUI and possession of a controlled substance.
Three of those charges stem directly from Ray’s alleged actions during the pursuit.
When asked if the sheriff’s office issued the directive in response to that incident, Breen said, “We evaluate all uses of force that come through our agency, and kind of look at potential training issues, concerns or things that come up with that nature. I'm not going to say that it was 100%, directly, that was the only reason for it … It's not because the vehicle got damaged. We constantly have to look at everything that's going on and (ask), are we doing the right thing for the right reasons?”
The directive was first released to the public by Murphy’s official campaign Facebook page on Thursday. Murphy had commented on the directive in a Facebook post the day prior and the campaign received “a ton of interest, questions, and correspondence” related to the directive in response, according to the campaign.
"I would like to say that the deputies involved in this situation did an outstanding job of stopping this individual, and keeping the citizens of Lewis County safe, at a risk to themselves,” Murphy wrote in the Wednesday Facebook post referencing the directive and the June 1 pursuit. “I understand that a couple of the deputies’ vehicles were damaged during the pursuit — which is the cost of doing law enforcement business. I am just glad that none of them were hurt. This situation is a fine example of working within the parameters of the law to get the job done."
Murphy wrote that it was "unfortunate" and "unacceptable" that the new sheriff's office directive was issued the following day.
Murphy added, “I want to end my comment reiterating that the deputies in this specific situation did an outstanding job. Thank you for what you do.”
He was unavailable to comment Thursday afternoon.
Murphy is a detective sergeant with the Centralia Police Department. He and Snaza are both running as Republicans.