Washington’s Supreme Court threw out marijuana charges against a man in Auburn on Thursday, saying the city didn’t have the authority to prosecute him under state law.
When Dustin Gauntt was arrested in late 2008, the city had not adopted any ordinances criminalizing misdemeanor possession of marijuana or use of drug paraphernalia. He was charged in municipal court with those violations of state law and convicted.
He appealed, and both a King County Superior Court judge and the state Court of Appeals agreed with him. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Auburn did not have the authority to prosecute him. Cities are tasked with prosecuting misdemeanors committed within their jurisdictions, Justice Tom Chambers noted, but they must have their own laws to enforce.
“At the time Gauntt was arrested, the city of Auburn had not explicitly adopted either of the two statutes he was charged under, nor had it explicitly made the conduct itself a misdemeanor by ordinance,” Chambers wrote.
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Auburn City Attorney Daniel Heid said he was disappointed with the ruling. He argued that when the Legislature required cities to shoulder the costs of prosecuting misdemeanors in their jurisdictions, it implicitly authorized them to prosecute such violations of state law. The high court disagreed.
Nevertheless, Heid said he expected the effect of Thursday’s ruling to be limited. Since the appeals court ruling in the case, some cities that had been relying on a legal analysis similar to Auburn’s changed their laws to state that any misdemeanors under state law shall also be crimes within the city.
“I can see the frustration on the part of the city of Auburn, that the state would pass laws that the state is not going to enforce on its own, but that cities have to go through an extra step before they can enforce those,” said Candice Bock, a lobbyist with the Association of Washington Cities. “That said, I think most cities have taken steps to address this.”
Bock said her organization would see if there’s a need for follow-up legislation.