KOMO report reveals Seattle's two sets of laws

Mar 21, 2019

Seattle has two sets of laws – lax laws for the homeless and tough laws for everyone else


In a break-through report, Eric Johnson and other investigators at KOMO News present a disturbing and graphic portrayal of how Seattle’s elected officials appear to have lost control of parts of the city.  The report, titled “Is Seattle Dying,” aired over the weekend and is available on the KOMO News website.

The hour-long report is scheduled to re-air on KOMO TV on Saturday, March 23rd at 10:00 p.m., and on Sunday, March 31st at 3:00 p.m.

The reports finds that, after San Francisco, Seattle has the worst homeless problem in the nation, with a higher homeless rate than New York, Chicago, Denver, and other U.S. urban centers.  According to The Seattle Times, there are about 400 tent camps located in city parks, underpasses and other public spaces.

At the policy level, the problem is rooted in Seattle’s unspoken practice of maintaining two sets of laws; one of weak or zero enforcement for the homeless, and strict penalties for all other residents.

Many residents believe police have been issued secret “stand-down” orders not to enforce city public health and safety ordinances violated by the homeless.  In public statements, city officials deny this, and no formal “stand-down” order appears in public records.

Similarly, City Attorney Pete Holmes has apparently directed his office to reduce or drop enforcement actions on camping in city parks, open drug use, urinating in public, and dumping garbage in neighborhood parks and other public lands.

He has also directed his legal staff not to act on referrals filed by police, issuing formal “decline memos” telling arresting officers that criminal cases they are investigating should be dropped.

City prosecutors have been quietly instructed to not bring reported health and safety violations to the attention of the courts, though no formal “do not prosecute” order has been announced by the City Attorney’s office.

Following are examples of City of Seattle ordinances that are being selectively enforced. 

Seattle Municipal Code:

Title 18.12.250 – Camping.  It is unlawful to camp in any park except at places set aside and posted for such purposes by the Superintendent (Ord. 106615, section 13, 1977).

Title 18.12.257 – Liquor offenses.  It is unlawful in a park to consume, or to posses an open container holding, or to open a container holding liquor without a permit (Ord. 1134336, section 15, 1987).

Title 18.12.260 – Littering and trash deposit.  It is unlawful to throw or deposit any refuse or other material in any park, except in designated receptacles (Ord. 106615, section 14, 1977).

Title 15.48.040 – Sitting or lying down on public sidewalks.  A person shall not sit or lie down upon a public sidewalk, or upon a blanket, chair, stool, or any other object during the hours of 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. downtown or in a neighborhood commercial zone.

Title 12A.08.040 – Criminal trespass.  A person is guilty of criminal trespass if he or she knowingly enters or remains unlawfully in a building.

Title 12A.08.030 – Reckless burning.  A person is guilty of reckless burning if he intentionally causes a fire or explosion and thereby recklessly places a building of another in danger of destruction or damage.

Other violations include, camping close to public schools, engaging in open drug use, human trafficking, property theft and other criminal activity, distribution of unbagged garbage, used needles, exposed sewage and attracting disease-bearing rodents in public areas, long-term damage to the natural environment, blocking access by fire and medical emergency crews, and erecting unpermitted residences on unstable slopes, slides zones, and other unsafe areas.

City Attorney Holmes announced he “can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” but that is not the policy officials follow in enforcing city laws against other residents.  For most Seattle residents, failure to pay taxes or obey city ordinances can lead to arrest, fines, prison time and loss of vehicles, homes and businesses.

An unannounced policy of refusing to arrest homeless offenders indicates that, behind the scenes, Seattle officials follow two sets of laws – a lax and indulgent response to behavior by the homeless, and rigorous enforcement against everyone else.

Further, Seattle leaders have failed to recognize that the cause of most homelessness is rooted in alcohol addiction, drug dependency and mental illness, conditions that lead to harmful and self-destructive behaviors, degrade the community, and condemn people to living in dirt and misery.

A 2018 study, “The politics of ruinous compassion: How Seattle’s homeless policy perpetuates the crisis – and how to fix it,” by Discovery Institute Fellow Christopher F. Rufo highlights the failures of current policies and proposes practical solutions.

In an update, KOMO News reports that City Attorney Holmes, Police Chief Carmen Best, all the members of the City Council, and all the members of the King County Council, except Councilmember Kathy Lambert, refused requests to discuss Seattle’s growing homeless problem.