On March 21, the Washington Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a misdemeanor drug dealer and upheld the state law that says the arresting officer must have personally witnessed the crime in alleged misdemeanor cases. The decision does not change arrests in the cases of accused felony drug crimes but could impact some sting operations the police have set up in sections of downtown Seattle.
Current police procedure involves observation by a group of officers who witness drug deals. Those officers then signal other officers, who were not observing from the post, to arrest the suspect. In the unanimous decision, the court expressed their concern about the legality of the practice under current state law and suggested a possible change in law to permit these types of arrests.
In the case in question, the officers could not actually see the drugs the man was suspected of dealing. He was taken into custody for drug-traffic loitering, which means he was waiting to conduct a drug transaction in a public place. Once in custody for the misdemeanor, law enforcement searched him and found cocaine and nearly $800 in cash on his person and charged him with a felony. He received a 90-day jail term.
The law exempts suspected drunken driver arrests from personal observation but none of the other exemptions applied to this case. The justice who wrote the majority opinion indicates that the courts did not want to change the boundaries of police powers. A second justice wrote that surveillance is often effective and agreed that changes to the law to allow arrests could resolve the issue.
In some cases, the authorities can overstep their legal boundaries during an arrest. A criminal defense attorney might be able to challenge an arrest based on illegal police procedures.
Source: Seattle Pi, "High court constrains Seattle police anti-drug surveillance," Levi Pulkkinen, March 21, 2013