Washington State Supreme Court Rules Drug Possession Law Unconstitutional In 5-4 Decision

The Washington state Supreme Court has ruled that the state's felony drug possession law is unconstitutional. The court's decision potentially upends years' worth of convictions, imprisonment and related fines, leaving prosecutors, lawyers and legislators unsure how to proceed.

A Democratic state legislator has introduced a replacement law to re-criminalize drug possession. But some legal and drug reform advocates would prefer it remain an inactive relic from War on Drugs.

The court issued its decision on February 25 in the case of State of Washington v. Shannon Blake. The case involved a 2016 drug possession charge.

When Spokane police discovered a bag of methamphetamines in the coin pocket of Blake's jeans, she said didn't do meth, that the bag wasn't hers and she didn't realize it was in her jeans. The jeans had allegedly been gifted to her two days prior by a friend who had purchased them from a second-hand store.

However, Washington's drug possession statute doesn't require a person to knowingly possess drugs in order to be charged. As such, during her trial, the state didn't have to prove that the drugs were hers. Instead, she had to prove that they weren't. That, her lawyer argued, denied her due process because she had to prove her innocence rather than the state having to prove her guilt.

Washington state Supreme Court drug possession law
On February 25, the Washington state Supreme Court declared the state's drug possession law unconstitutional, potentially upending years worth of convictions, imprisonment and related fines.In this photo illustration, a person is arrested in handcuffs as an investigator wearing gloves holds a small plastic bag containing a white powder. Roman Didkivskyi/Getty

Blake's lawyer, Richard Lechich, argued to the state Supreme Court that the law should be interpreted in a way that requires prosecutors to prove that a person knowingly and intentionally owned drugs. If the law isn't interpreted this way, he argued, than it violates the constitutional tenet that people are innocent until proven guilty, Crosscut reported. Crosscut is a Washington news website run by Cascade Public Media.

The Supreme Court agreed with Lechich's reasoning and declared the law unconstitutional in a 5-4 decision. The court said that legislators knew for decades that the law contained no mention of intent but they had never changed it.

"Attaching the harsh penalties of felony conviction, lengthy imprisonment, stigma, and the many collateral consequences that accompany every felony drug conviction to entirely innocent and passive conduct exceeds the legislature's powers," the court wrote in its decision.

However, state lawyers say the court's decision could retroactively affect anyone charged under that law. That includes thousands of inmates who were given enhanced sentences under it, parolees rearrested under it, as well as anyone who has had to pay fees and fines related to it.

Washington and its counties may have collected anywhere from $24 million to $47 million in related fines over the last 20 years which might need to be paid back, Juliana Roe, policy director of the Washington State Association of Counties told Crosscut.

The state's court system is also backlogged due to COVID-19. As such, re-evaluating past sentences and current convictions could take a long time. The state would need to come up with creative solutions to quickly re-process the past cases. Previously arrestees and convicts would need to contact a lawyer to quickly resolve their cases.

Shortly after the ruling was issued, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs said that law enforcement officials should dismiss cases and void warrants for simple drug possession. The Seattle Police Department instructed its officers to stop confiscations and arrests for the charge as well.

Democratic State Senator Mark Mullet called the court's decision an "overreach." He has entered a new drug possession law that explicitly mentions knowing intent. If the new law is adopted, people who have been freed or had their cases dropped since the court's ruling wouldn't be able to be re-arrested or re-incarcerated for their past offenses.

However, Anita Khandelwal, director of the King County Department of Public Defense, has called Mullet's bill "a huge step backward."

The law has primarily hurt people of color and the poor, she told the aforementioned publication. Instead, she said legislators would do better to discuss how to build more housing and offer drug addiction treatment for those in need.

Regardless, the ruling didn't immediately legalize all drugs in Washington state. The court's ruling applies only to simple possession, meaning that possessing large quantities of drugs or cultivating, selling and distributing them still remain illegal.

The state is currently considering legislation that would decriminalize the possession of all drugs. Oregon became the first state to pass such a law via voter referendum in 2020.

Newsweek contacted the Oregon attorney general's office for comment.