State supreme court rules sheriff, not county commission chair, can authorize use of tear gas

Sheriff thanks prosecutor after high court rules in favor of himself and other sheriffs


The Washington state Supreme Court has ruled that the Lewis County sheriff does not need to seek county commissioner authorization before deploying tear gas during a riot.

The decision upholds a 2022 ruling in Lewis County Superior Court that found the requirement interferes “with the sheriff’s core functions,” which include quelling riots.

In its objection, the state  argued the use of tear gas is a tool or a tactic, not a core function of the sheriff, and that the Legislature can assign new functions to the chair of the county commissioners.

The statute was part of a wide array of police reforms adopted during the 2021 legislative session, which went into effect on July 25, 2021. It stated that, “In the case of a riot outside of a correctional, jail or detention facility, the officer or employee may use tear gas only after: (a) Receiving authorization from the highest elected official of the jurisdiction in which the tear gas is to be used and (b) meeting the requirements of subsection (2) of this section.”

The statute was challenged by prosecutors, sheriffs and county commissioners in Lewis, Columbia, Ferry, Garfield, Grant, Skamania and Spokane counties. The state supreme court ruled 5-4 in Snaza v. State.

In the original filing, Lewis County Sheriff Rob Snaza claimed the rule “effects a partial forfeiture of his office by improperly depriving the sheriff of the authority that has historically been, and under the current law, is within the sole purview of the sheriff.”

Snaza said Thursday the ruling doesn’t mean the sheriff’s office will deploy tear gas, but it does have the authority to if necessary.

“I’m glad that we were able to prevail,” Snaza said. “It gives the authority to the sheriff, as an elected official.”

Snaza credited Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer and the prosecutor’s office for their work on the case.

Law enforcement will still be required to “exhaust alternatives to the use of tear gas, obtain authorization from a supervising officer, announce to the subjects the intent to use tear gas, and allow sufficient time and space for the subjects to comply.”

Tear gas can also only be used in instances of riot, a barricaded subject or a hostage situation.

The court’s dissenting opinion noted that “there are statutes on the books now limiting the sheriffs’ discretion in other ways.”

“The sheriff’s office has never had unfettered discretion to use any means it chose to suppress riots,” the dissent notes. “The historical record shows that the Legislature limited sheriffs’ discretionary decisions about how to quell riots from the time of statehood.”