County Proposal Would Expand Right to Counsel Before Warrantless Searches

by Erica C. Barnett

(This article previously appeared on PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement) 

The King County Council is considering draft legislation that would give adults the right to consult with a defense attorney before being searched by officers with the King County Sheriff’s Office, a right the county and the city of Seattle extended to youth in 2020 and that state legislators expanded statewide last year.

King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, a Republican who’s running for Congress in the 8th Congressional District, claimed in a letter to King County Department of Public Defense Director Anita Khandelwal that the draft bill would “tie the hands” of police, “take away hundreds of hours of deputy time,” and “harm public safety and ultimately cost lives.”

“If police are required to call a defense attorney every time they talk to a subject, criminal investigation would grind to a halt,” Dunn’s letter says.

The bill, which is still in draft form (and has changed since Dunn wrote his letter), would require officers to seek a person’s consent for a search and to provide access to a defense attorney before searching them or their belongings. A person could also decline a search outright and walk away without consulting with a defense attorney.

The new requirement wouldn’t apply when police have a warrant; when police have a “reasonable suspicion” that the person has committed or is about to commit a crime; or when police have reason to believe delaying a search would result in a loss of evidence or harm to the public or police, among several other exemptions. 

Anita Khandelwal, director of the King County Department of Public Defense, said the proposed legislation would help ensure that people understand their constitutional rights when an officer is asking them to waive those rights. 

“Studies show that most adults, regardless of race, aren’t aware that they have the right to refuse a search, do not feel free to refuse police requests to search, and frequently ‘interpret questions or suggestions as orders when they come from a person of authority,’” she said.

In Seattle, Khandelwal said, Black people are stopped five times as often as white people, and Native Americans are stopped nine times more frequently.

Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, the head of the council’s Law, Justice, Health and Human Services committee, is the most likely sponsor for the legislation. On Thursday, he said he was still considering whether to sponsor the bill, and criticized Dunn for releasing an early draft that had been circulating among council members in a letter that incorrectly implied that it was “leaked.”

“If he had just asked the public defender to share it with him, they would have,” Zahilay said. “It’s not some secret conspiracy.”

The intent behind the bill, Zahilay continued, is to address the imbalance of power and information between officers and people who may not understand that they have the right to say no to being searched, or who may be intimidated by police. 

“People already have the right to consent or decline a search, and this gives them an added level of protection of being able to talk to a public defender,” Zahilay said. The law providing young people the right to speak to an attorney has been in place for more than a year, Zahilay added, and council members “haven’t heard of any complaints or issues” about the law creating an undue burden on officers.

County Councilmember Claudia Balducci, the former head of King County’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, noted that the county is currently searching for a new sheriff and is considering the recommendations of an advisory committee to improve public safety across the county.

“I would rather us have a bigger plan that looks at all sides of the issue before we start making big changes, and I’d rather have the new sheriff on board,” Balducci said, but if the legislation is introduced, “I will honor that process. … I wouldn’t say I won’t consider this until we have a bigger plan in place.”

Erica C. Barnett is a feminist, an urbanist, and an obsessive observer of politics, transportation, and the quotidian inner workings of City Hall.

Featured image: Screenshot of King County Council taken by Erica C. Barnett.

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