Despite having probable cause to arrest a Whatcom County man for threatening to kill a woman, her children and his mother, Bellingham Police were unable to initiate a pursuit when he showed up at his mother's home early Friday because of the new police reform laws that went into effect in Washington state.
"While apprehending him was crucial, and obviously incredibly important to the victims, the new law prevented our officers from doing so," Lt. Claudia Murphy told The Bellingham Herald in an email. "This is one of the unintended consequences stemming from the passage of the law."
On May 18, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a dozen bills that were intended to improve law enforcement accountability in the state. Among the reform actions, House Bill 1054 prohibits law enforcement officers from pursuing a suspect in a car unless they have committed a violent offense, a sex offense, an escape offense or is suspected of driving under the influence. The reform laws went into effect Sunday, July 25.
Enoka Herat of the American Civil Liberties Union for Washington state countered Murphy, saying that the incident is an example that the law is working as it should.
The ACLU worked with the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability on the new policing laws.
"Vehicle pursuits are inherently dangerous. They put the officer, the person they are pursuing, and the general public — other drivers, pedestrians, etc. at risk," according to Herat, the police practices and immigration counsel at the ACLU-WA.
"That's why many large departments in Washington have restricted pursuits even more than 1054, and yet they continue responding to domestic violence situations. In this case, officers had identified the person and his license plate, knew where he lived, and were able to apprehend him in a way that didn't put other drivers at risk," Herat told The Herald.
"Last summer, in the wake of George Floyd's murder and Manny Ellis' killing locally, thousands of people across Washington and across the country called for changes to policing," Herat said. "Since voters passed I-940 two years ago, to improve crisis training for law enforcement, vehicle pursuits have been the second leading cause of police killings in Washington. These laws sought to reduce police violence in Washington and we are already seeing a change."
Whatcom County man arrested
On Friday, June 30, Timmy Frank Poirier, 41, was arrested outside a Skagit County gun store nearly 12 hours after Whatcom County law enforcement received initial reports and nearly 6 1/2 hours after Bellingham officers attempted to stop the car he was driving but were unable to pursue.
Bellingham Police booked him into Whatcom County Jail on suspicion of three counts of felony harassment (domestic violence) and one count each of attempting to elude police and second-degree malicious mischief (domestic violence).
The Ferndale Police Department on Thursday developed probable cause to arrest Poirier on suspicion of felony harassment, Murphy told The Herald, after he threatened to kill a woman, her two young children and his mother.
Due to the ongoing threats, the victim went to an undisclosed location in Bellingham for safety, Murphy reported.
But Poirier texted her that he would find her and kill her, according to Murphy, with one text reading "I will break down your door in front of our poor kids and shoot you." Poirier, who is known to own a handgun and shotgun, also reportedly made threats to harm others where the victim was staying and his parents.
Bellingham Police were called at approximately 11:37 p.m. Thursday to the 1000 block of West Bakerview Road after Poirier showed up where the women and children were staying, Murphy reported. He was seen by his mother, who locked herself in a room to hide.
When officers arrived, they found the tires on the victim's car had been slashed and words etched into the side of her car, according to Murphy.
Poirier also sent another text message saying that if he got pulled over by police there would be a shooting, Murphy reported.
At 3:38 a.m. Friday, the victim called 911 to report that Poirier had phoned her, making another threat to kill everyone where she was and saying he was going to go to his mother's home and "blow her head off," according to Murphy.
Officers went to the mother's home and the undisclosed location where the woman had been staying in anticipation of Poirier's arrival and, if he showed up, they planned to attempt to safely arrest him once he pulled out of the the driveway.
At 4:34 a.m., officers saw Poirier's Chrysler 300 pull into the driveway of his mother's home and park. Once he left the driveway, officers attempted to make a traffic stop using their emergency lights, Murphy said, but Poirier refused to stop and sped away from the scene.
"None of the crimes Poirier committed fall under the definition of 'violent offenses'," listed under RCW 9.94A.030, Murphy told The Herald, meaning officers could not initiate a pursuit and Poirier was able to get away. "Officers had probable cause to arrest Poirier for felony harassment DV and malicious mischief 2nd DV, neither of those qualify under the new law as offenses for which law enforcement can pursue."
At 7:30 a.m., a passerby outside the mother's home found a handgun on the side of the road a short distance from the mother's home, Murphy reported. The Sig Sauer 9mm was found to be registered to Poirier and purchased in 2015.
Poirier called his mother and made further threats to kill her at approximately 10:15 a.m., Murphy said, and continued to make threats against the victim.
Several other law enforcement agencies using different methods attempted to arrest Poirier, Murphy reported, but it wasn't until he was located by the Skagit County Sheriff's Office returning to his car from Skagit Arms, a local gun dealer, that he was arrested and returned to Whatcom County.
"Had officers been able to pursue when Poirier initiated flight, there is a good chance he would have been in custody hours before he was able to make it Skagit County and into a gun store," Murphy wrote.
The new law
Violent offenses defined in RCW 9.94A.030 include Class A felonies, such as murder, most rapes, homicide that's a result of child abuse or assault with a deadly weapon; first- and second-degree manslaughter; indecent liberties by forcible compulsion; second-degree kidnapping; second-degree arson; second-degree assault; second-degree assault of a child; first-degree extortion; second-degree robbery; drive-by shooting; vehicular assault while DUI/reckless; and vehicular homicide while DUI/reckless, Murphy wrote.
Police are allowed to pursue a victim in a car if probable cause has been established for at least one of those violent offenses or escape, defined under Chapter 9A.76, or reasonable suspicion for a DUI, according to Murphy.
In Friday's arrest, Murphy said it wasn't what officers didn't know that prohibited them from pursing Poirier, it was that the crimes they had established probable cause for didn't rise to the level where pursing him was permissible under the new state law.
"This is one of the unintended consequences stemming from the passage of the law," Murphy wrote. "Domestic violence crimes are exceedingly volatile and very dangerous to the survivors at the time they make a report. And as evidenced by Poirier, he continued to make threats, stalk, follow and harass even after he knew police were looking for him."
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence or sexual assault, you can contact the following local resources for free, confidential support:
— Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault Services: 24-hour Help Line: 360-715-1563, Email: email@example.com.
— Lummi Victims of Crime: 360-312-2015.
— Tl'ils Ta'á'altha Victims of Crime: 360-325-3310 or nooksacktribe.org/departments/youth-family-services/tlils-taaaltha-victims-of-crime-program/
— Bellingham Police: You can call anonymously at 360-778-8611, or go online at cob.org/tips.
— WWU Consultation and Sexual Assault Support Survivor Advocacy Services: 360-650-3700 or wp.wwu.edu/sexualviolence/.