Morton resident Rick Yearout is requesting that the Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office press criminal charges against Morton Police Chief Roger Morningstar for failing to enforce the mask mandate — a request Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer says has no legal standing.
The request comes after Yearout was prevented from voicing criticism of Morningstar at a contentious city council meeting in September after asking to be placed on the agenda. He left the meeting before the public comment portion of the gathering.
In Yearout’s legal argument — spelled out in a seven-page letter that includes recent photos of a maskless Morninstar at local events — he argues that Morningstar “is making a willful decision to not support the laws of the State of Washington,” and is therefore violating his oath of office.
He points to Washington Administrative Code (WAC) 246-100-070, which states “an order issued by a local health officer … must be enforced by all police officers, sheriffs, constables, and all other officers and employees of any political subdivision within the jurisdiction of the health department.”
But Meyer said the WAC isn’t applicable, since the mandate was issued at the state level, not by a “local health officer.” Even if the WAC was relevant, Meyer said, “law enforcement is given broad discretion, and they’re given discretion for a reason.”
Yearout’s references to Morton’s municipal code also aren’t applicable to the prosecuting attorney’s office, Meyer said. Since the county or state isn’t a party, the office has “zero jurisdiction or authority to prosecute” them.
Meyer and Yearout both said the mask mandate is, in fact, a law. And some sheriffs have faced repercussions for not enforcing it. This summer, a judge OK’d a petition to recall Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza, for example. The same thing happened to Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney. But those consequences are voter-led efforts, not criminal charges, Meyer noted. And recalls can’t even occur in the case of someone such as Morningstar, who wasn’t elected in the first place.
Meyer also noted that the mask mandate and other restrictions have been introduced with soft language by state leaders, who have sought voluntary cooperation and set up an expectation that criminal charges would not be pressed against violators.
“If you listen to some of (Inslee’s) speeches, they softened that language because they understand the different discretion that law enforcement is given,” Meyer said. “If we take Mr. Yearout’s letter literally, he’s asking that we charge every single person in that picture.”
Meyer also points to the Department of Labor and Industries’ relatively loose language around police officers and masks, saying the guidelines don’t necessitate that Morningstar wear a mask while on-duty.
“Should he? Perhaps, but that is not the question posed,” he wrote.