Auburn, WA – Washington state police reform laws prohibited officers from helping to catch an armed carjacker who stole a woman’s car at gunpoint last week, according to police.
Although police in Washington are still allowed to pursue suspects accused of violent crimes – such as armed carjacking – the new laws require them to confirm the person behind the wheel is the actual suspect before they can initiate a chase.
“Without anyone observing the driver, identifying the driver or any other possible occupants in the vehicle, there was no probable cause for anyone in the vehicle regarding this robbery case,” the Auburn Police Department (APD) said in a Facebook post. “Due to the recent legislative changes regarding vehicle pursuits and use of force in Washington State, we were not legally allowed to pursue the vehicle.”
The incident began at approximately 2:30 p.m. on Aug. 31, when the APD received a report that a woman had been carjacked at gunpoint near the APD substation on Lea Hill, according to the department.
Her 2016 Lexus RX was quipped with LoJack, a tracking app, and the woman was also able to identify the suspect using a series of photos, the APD said.
A King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) helicopter used the tracking technology to locate the stolen car and spotted it backing into an apartment complex in the 900-block of 12th Street Southeast at approximately 3 p.m.
Two males got out of the vehicle, but neither could be identified, the APD said.
One of the males got into another car and the second male walked off across the parking lot, according to police.
“As patrol units began to converge on the area, Guardian One [helicopter] said a patrol unit had just driven by the Lexus as it pulled out of the apartment complex parking lot,” the APD said. “The Lexus had come close to one of our patrol vehicles and drove around our officers.”
The APD officers continued their efforts to track the stolen vehicle in order to identify the individual behind the wheel, but they ended up falling too far behind and couldn’t keep up with it.
The helicopter ultimately needed to refuel.
“We’re about out of gas, so if no one’s gonna work on it, we’re just gonna let it go,” someone inside the KCSO helicopter said over the radio moments before they stopped following the Lexus.
Since police were unable to confirm the occupants inside the stolen vehicle were the carjackers, they only had probable cause for possession of a stolen vehicle, which is a non-violent offense.
Without probable cause for a violent offense, they were prohibited from pursuing the stolen car.
Under HB 1054, all jurisdictions are subject to the same state legislature-determined pursuit policy which severely limits when a law enforcement officer can engage in a vehicle pursuit, Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney explained in a Facebook post on July 21.
The new law only allows a vehicle pursuit if there is “probable cause to believe that a person in the vehicle has committed or is committing a violent offense or a sex offense,” according to the sheriff.
“The key part of this legislation is the state has moved the legal bar to pursue for a violent offense to ‘probable cause’ rather than ‘reasonable suspicion,’” Sheriff Fortney explained. “For example, if a deputy sheriff was to respond to an armed robbery and the suspect vehicle was described as a blue F150 and a deputy saw a blue F150 driving at a high rate of speed in the same area as the robbery occurred, a law enforcement officer could still try to make a traffic stop this vehicle, however if the suspect vehicle decides to flee we can no longer pursue it under House Bill 1054.”
He said that under the new law, officers can’t pursue suspected violent offenders who have just committed an armed robbery until they take the time to first establish probable cause. For example, they may need to first contact the victim or a witness and get a statement about exactly what crime has been committed and what specific person is responsible in order to establish probable cause prior to engaging in the vehicle pursuit.
“While this may seem like a small detail, it will have substantial impacts on the ability for law enforcement officers to pursue vehicles fleeing from the scene of a crime,” the sheriff wrote. “Often times, it is simply impossible to have all of this figured out while responding to a call and coming across a suspect vehicle fleeing.”
And under HB 1310, the new use-of-force law, law enforcement officers cannot detain possible suspects they see fleeing the area of a crime unless they have confirmed that the crime occurred and they know that the person fleeing is the actual suspected offender.
“For example, under the current law, if a man was to break into your house while you were inside, you confront him and he runs away, and you call 911 to provide a description of the suspect as ‘a white male, in his 30s, wearing a red shirt and black shorts, leaving on foot,’” Sheriff Fortney wrote in another Facebook post on July 20.
“It has always been considered reasonable that if a law enforcement officer arrived to the area and saw a suspect matching this description, that we had the legal authority to stop him and if he ran, we were allowed to use reasonable force to chase him and detain him. This would be allowed under the current ‘reasonable suspicion’ threshold,” he wrote. “Under HB 1310, this is no longer allowed.”
“A deputy sheriff no longer has the authority to use force to apprehend the suspect in the above scenario,” the sheriff explained. “With the new threshold being ‘probable cause,’ a deputy sheriff will have to have articulable facts, that are confirmed by a victim or witness, that a specific crime has occurred and the person we are seeking is the one responsible.”
“That means we can no longer stop and detain a fleeing suspect matching a description who is running from the area of a crime that just occurred,” he added.
“We must first make contact with the reporting party or a witness, confirm the facts of the crime, develop probable cause and then we can go back and look for that individual,” Sheriff Fortney continued. “As you can imagine in the dynamic world of policing in 2021, most of the time it is nearly impossible to have all of those facts sorted out while responding to the initial 911 call, and this ultimately allows a suspect the ability to flee the area without being stopped.”
“I want the community to know that this type of scenario is not a rarity in police work and the new legal standard of ‘probable cause’ to use force in an investigative detention will have substantial impacts. This type of similar scenario occurs regularly in Snohomish County, and this new standard is the same for all types of crimes, including violent crimes,” he added.
Sheriff Fortney explained that the result would be countless hours of detective work to track down offenders and make arrests of suspects who fled the scenes of their crimes.
Also under HB 1310, law enforcement officers aren’t able to help EMS detain a person having a mental health crisis.
Sheriff Fortney said officers cannot use force to detain a person in crisis for transport to the hospital unless there is an imminent threat of bodily injury to a person.
“As a result, sheriff deputies will have to walk away from many crisis incidents far more often than in the past,” he wrote. “This will also largely impact our ability to assist Fire/Aid and Designated Crisis Responders.”
The sheriff also warned community members in another Facebook post on July 23 that deputies who responded to calls about people openly using drugs would no longer be making arrests until after two prior incidents where the suspect was offered documented referrals for recovery services.
Those referrals could be as simple as a pamphlet or as complex as actually helping a person enter into a detox program, Sheriff Fortney explained.
Only on the third offense would deputies make an arrest and then the person would be offered services again inside the Snohomish County Jail.
It was clear that law enforcement agencies wanted the community to understand that they didn’t choose these changes.
“It is important that we share these significant changes with you,” the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department wrote. “This is not about what we WILL no longer do – this is about what we CAN no longer do under the new laws. Please know that if a crime has occurred, we will still respond to your call for help. The way we handle the call may be different than before, but the values and mission of our department will remain the same.”