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High Court To Seattle Police: “You Had To Be There” For Misdemeanor Arrest

Temple of Justice, Washington Supreme Court, Olympia
Flickr Photo/Aidan Wakely-Mulroney/

If you’re not a police officer, imagine you are one.

Picture yourself perched on the second floor of a building in Belltown. You see someone selling drugs. You radio a fellow officer on the ground and tell him to arrest a guy on a misdemeanor charge of drug loitering. Your partner searches him and finds crack.

A new opinion from the Supreme Court of Washington says the arrest and search would be unlawful, because the officer who made the arrest was not the same officer who saw the drug deal.

Seattle Police spokesman Sean Whitcomb says the Seattle Police Department uses several methods to conduct drug arrests, including the method officers used in March 2009 to arrest Gregorio Ortega in Belltown on suspicion of drug traffic loitering. One officer observed the alleged activity from a distance and another made the arrest.

“Now we’re learning that we have one less tool at our disposal,” Whitcomb said, adding that he and fellow officers are concerned about the ruling. “We’re going to look at it; see what it means for us. But, obviously, it’s not good news in the short term.”

With a few exceptions, state law prevents officers from arresting for misdemeanors they did not personally see. Ortega’s attorney told the Supreme Court in oral arguments that the law can only be changed by the state Legislature. Chief Justice Barbara Madsen wrote in her concurring opinion that she encourages the Legislature to do just that.