Blue Byline

A cop's perspective of the news and South Sound matters

Revolving door of justice is both illusion and reality

Post by Brian O'Neill on June 12, 2012 at 11:39 am with 5 Comments »
June 12, 2012 6:45 pm

Justice, as it is sometimes said, can be a revolving door.

Picture courtesy of

This frustrating aspect of police work materialized for me many years ago when, as a young officer, I responded to a large fight inside a tavern. The brawl was in full tilt when we arrived. Fists, chairs and bottles were flying. Bloody people were limping out the door, but the battle inside raged on. We waded in and, over several difficult minutes, regained control.

The hardest to stop was, of course, the instigator. He was a mean drunk, and it took several of us to hold him down long enough to slap on the cuffs. During this scuffle one of the cops pulled or tore a muscle. The drunk continued to struggle as we extricated him from the bar and transported him to the jail. Despite the problems he had created, no one wanted to fill out a statement.

We arrested the instigator for fighting in public and for felony assault (due to the officer’s injury) and took him to jail. Once inside the booking room this idiot went through an amazing transformation. He was suddenly quiet and respectful with the jailers, obviously aware that bad behavior would greatly increase his time in the holding area. So he sailed through the booking procedure, posted bail and was out on the street before I finished writing my report.

If that were not enough, the felony assault charge related to the officer’s injury during the struggle was declined by the prosecutor’s office. The ordeal was, to put it politely, an unpleasant one.

For this and other reasons, the revolving door image initially fit my estimation of our justice system. The plea bargains, reduced sentences and dropped charges which mock our sense of right and wrong led many of us to conclude, “Arrest them all and let God sort ‘em out.”

I’ll admit that there is some basis for this cynical view, but experience has taught me there are other reasons why the entry door at the jail sometimes leads directly to the exit. If you’ll pardon the cop scenario, consider the following example:

An armed subject enters a suburban home, accosts the homeowner and steals property. News outlets soon blitz the public with speculations about motive, weapons and salacious details. In time, a dramatic arrest ramps up the story again. Finally, unbelievably, the charges are either reduced or dropped altogether. The media cycle is complete.

If that sounds familiar, that’s because it has happened – several times, in fact. Rather than scratch our heads and wonder at the injustice of it all, or the fact that society just “ain’t what it used to be,” we would do better to look for a reasonable explanation.

While we all may believe we understand what constitutes a crime, our common perceptions do not always match up to the actual criminal statutes. Home invasion robberies, like the above example, are typically charged as a Burglary 1st degree (if a firearm is present). Burglaries require, by definition, that the entry be unlawful, i.e. the subject entered the residence without permission. If a weapon were present, the law requires that it was unlawfully possessed and displayed. If items were taken, the ownership would not be in dispute.

Returning to the scenario, let’s plug in a few details. Let’s say the arrestee had received past permission to enter (common in “drug rip-offs”). The arrestee lawfully carried a firearm, which he did not display. Lastly, the item taken could either have been either narcotics (prompting the victim to silence), or an object the ownership of which was in dispute between the two parties.

This case would not get filed, regardless of the public outcry or the muttering of police investigators. The reality is that the public can afford to operate under misperceptions, but the prosecutor’s office can not. Nor can it afford to file cases that don’t meet our criminal statutes or current case law. Those are tough choices but the right ones.

We all have our responsibilities in this system. Cops need to make solid arrests and write decent reports.  Citizens need to adequately fund courts and jails. Prosecutors need to charge and prosecute criminals. That is the only way to make sure the bad guys don’t walk away.

Until we all cover our own responsibilities the door of justice will, now and then, continue to revolve.

Leave a comment Comments → 5
  1. rivitman says:

    The county’s publicly available linx system allows you to follow a case from arrest to trial outcome, including the ability to purchase all documents for a tiny cost.

    This I have done, in curiosity over how the county and courts deal with firearms theft. So I am not mistaken, in error, or off base in my analysis. The sample was not large though. But revealing.

    The Sheriff’s dept does outstanding work. The prosecutors office? Meh. The courts? Pfft.

    Lock up your firearms. Because the system post arrest is unwilling to lock up those that steal guns for any meaningful amount of time. “Hard time for armed crime” which calls for a minimum 1 year sentence for each gun stolen is meaningless when the prosecutor will plead away all but one charge. Five stolen guns should net a five year term. But 4 will be dropped and with time served, (mostly on electronic monitoring while awaiting a trial that doesn’t happen) a few months, mostly in work release is all a defendant in the lower end of the sentencing grid will get.

  2. Brian O'Neill says:

    Sounds like you have done your homework, rivitman. While I agree that the Pierce Co. Sheriff’s Office is a very professional organization, I would still argue that the Pierce Co prosecutors are a similarly aggressive bunch.

    In addition to filing cases with Pierce County, I have also sent in cases to Snohomish County, King County, and the US Attorney’s Office. With the exception of the King County gang prosecutors (who are as hardcore as you would hope they’d be), the office of the Pierce County Prosecutor is well known for its simple processing standards and aggressive prosecution.

    Thanks for your comment.

    In the case you mention above I can only surmise that the theft of the firearms occurred during one incident (rather than each being stolen separately). I am not sure how “mandatory” those sentences are when such is the case. Either way, my impression over the last several years has made me a big fan of Pierce County’s prosecutorial staff.

  3. rivitman says:

    Thank you. You are correct that in that particular case, all guns were stolen in one burglary.

    But under RCW 9A.56.300, each gun stolen is a separate offense.

    Since the perpetrator was thus armed on exit from the premises. The actual burglary was elevated to Burg 1, a class A felony, as the statutes allow.

    Most of them were sold off, which netted a trafficking in stolen property charge. More were held, which netted a possession charge.

    Multiple firearm theft charges were dropped to one.

    The Burg 1 was dropped to burg 2

    The rest of the charges were dropped and the offender took a plea deal of 15 months (with credit for time served on home detention). Actual behind bars time about 4 months, work release somewhat less, and out with no DOC supervision.

    So I profoundly sympathize with police officer frustration at seeing the same faces all the time, or seeing a good arrest go for naught. The county invested a lot of Sheriff’s detective time, and Prosecutor’s time, and all the departments and resources that go with it. For a rather poor result IMO. Fortunately, due to solid police-work, and an alert victim, all the weapons were recovered.

    Firearm theft and trafficking in stolen guns is not always being dealt with effectively past the initial arrest. Again, my sampling is small, just three cases. But I still wonder. Perhaps my take on gun crimes is overblown in the big picture, but they sure get a lot of attention these days.

  4. Brian O'Neill says:

    If the details you report are correct, the case you mention is disturbing. There yet may be hidden details that prompted the prosecutor’s office to go with a plea deal rather than trial, such as problems with evidence or search warrants, or the defendant’s criminal history (which is always a factor under sentencing guidelines).

    There are many complex issues in such cases, and it would be, in my opinion, unfair to pass judgment without all the facts. Having said that, I’m running out of excuses on this one.

  5. rivitman says:

    e-mail and I’ll send you the cause number and you can see for yourself. I’ll understand if you don’t, it’s tedious reading

    It looks clean to me, but I suppose there could be undocumented aspects to the case. Not being an attorney, and never having been personally involved in a criminal case, I have no idea if any sort of informal communications take place.

    And if law enforcement is happy with the prosecutor’s office, I guess that’s good enough for me, as uneasy as this particular case makes me, for both personal and political reasons.

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