You could be let off for stealing or assault if you’re poor or homeless in proposed Seattle City code

SEATTLE officials are considering changing the city’s criminal code to excuse misdemeanor crimes if the offense can be linked to poverty, mental health, and addiction.

The idea, referred to as the poverty defense, has not been written – but would allow for people accused of crimes including theft, trespassing, and assault to be found not liable for their alleged crimes, KUOW reported.

The proposed legislation would exclude misdemeanors related to domestic violence and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, the outlet reported.

The changes were first proposed in October by Lisa Herbold, a member of the Seattle City Council, and discussed at a committee meeting on Tuesday, KOMO reported.

Supporters of the legislation said a jury would hear a defendant’s reasoning for committing the crime and decide if it was to meet a basic need to survive, KOMO reported.

“It’s giving people an opportunity to tell their stories and giving judges and juries the opportunity to hear those stories and make a decision based on the values of our city,” Herbold told the committee, KOMO reported.


Anita Khandelwal, King County’s Director of Public Defense, helped develop the proposal and said Seattle would follow the county’s example in creating a public fund to pay restitution to victims of theft.

“In a situation where you took that sandwich because you were hungry and you were trying to meet your basic need of satisfying your hunger; we as the community will know that we should not punish that. That conduct is excused,” Khandelwal said.

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes wrote in a letter sent to the city council on Oct. 30 that prosecutors are already providing some of the protections offered by the poverty defense, outlets reported.

"I have worked to move the City Attorney’s Office away from prosecuting property crimes that appeared to be committed out of survival necessity," Holmes wrote.


He added that prosecutors seek to send people to diversion programs that provide needed services and avoid a criminal conviction.

Holmes suggested in his letter that the proposal should focus specifically on nonviolent crimes like theft and trespassing.

“Random attacks on strangers are simply unacceptable,” he said. “We have to address that.”

Other critics have lambasted the proposal, claiming that it could lead to more criminal offenses, KOMO reported.

Scott Lindsay, a former mayoral Public Safety Advisor who unsuccessfully ran against Holmes for city attorney, slammed the proposed changes as a “green light for crime.”

“If you are engaged in 100 different misdemeanors that are in our criminal justice system code, you are not going to be held liable," Lindsay said, according to KOMO.

Former Seattle City Council member Tim Burgess has also opposed the proposal and branded it a “defense lawyer’s dream,” KOUW reported.

“It sends this powerful signal that as city government, we don’t really care about this type of criminal behavior in our city,” he said.

Jacqueline Helfgott, director of Seattle University’s Crime & Justice Research Center, told the Seattle Times that the proposal would effectively decriminalize up to 90 percent of misdemeanor crimes if strictly followed.

The Seattle Police Department vehemently opposed the proposed legislation in a statement to the newspaper.

“Seattle Police Department officers will continue to focus on holding individuals accountable who commit one of the thousands of assaults or thefts that occur in our community each year,” the statement read.

Mothers for Police Accountability, a police reform group, criticized the proposal in a statement to the Seattle Times.

The group wrote it worried a person committing assault would be acquitted “by simply asserting that they were suffering from anxiety or depression or the ‘triggering’ of some past trauma or some other symptom of a mental disorder, including alcoholism and addiction.”

KTTH Radio host Jason Rantz told Fox News he worried the proposal would lead to recidivism in local crime.

"And, the fear is, of course, you know, 'Does this only apply to Seattle residents?’” Rantz said.

He added: “And, if not, does that mean someone can come from outside of the region who is destitute, who is low income, [and] break a whole bunch of laws knowing that if you do it in Seattle, you're not going to get in any trouble?"

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