State Capitol Building in Olympia. File photo

State Capitol Building in Olympia. File photo

Divisive bills on pursuits, gun purchases edge closer to House votes

And a comprehensive remaking of state’s approach to drug possession advances toward action in the Senate.

  • By Jerry Cornfield
  • Wednesday, March 1, 2023 1:30am
  • News

OLYMPIA — Controversial bills to ease the rules governing police chases and to require a permit to buy a gun have inched closer to critical votes in the state House.

And a much-negotiated approach to enforcement of Washington’s drug possession laws is on a path to consideration in the state Senate as well.

The three closely watched pieces of legislation emerged from committees late last week. They are now among hundreds of bills facing a March 8 deadline to be passed out of their respective chamber of origin in order to remain alive this session.

Vehicle pursuit

House Bill 1363 would allow a law enforcement officer to initiate a chase with reasonable suspicion a person in a vehicle has committed or is committing a crime. A 2021 law set a higher threshold of probable cause in order to engage in a pursuit.

Under the bill, the crimes for which a pursuit can be undertaken are limited to a violent offense, a sex offense; domestic violence-related offenses, driving under the influence of alcohol or trying to escape arrest. Provisions would expire July 1, 2025.

It passed the House Transportation Committee on a 22-6 vote.

Supporters contend there’s been a rise in criminal acts since the 2021 law took effect, including a surge in auto thefts.

“I feel it is our obligation to try to increase public safety. This bill takes a step in that direction,” said Rep. Timmons, D-Bellingham, adding it “deserves further consideration and deserves further conversation.”

Opponents argue pursuits are inherently dangerous to officers, the pursued and innocent bystanders. There have been hundreds fewer pursuits since the change and it’s resulted in fewer injuries and deaths to bystanders.

“The bill we have on the books is a public safety law,” said Rep. Sharlett Mena, D-Tacoma, one of six Democrats to vote against the bill.

Gun purchases

House Bill 1143 would require a person obtain a permit to purchase a firearm from the Washington State Patrol, and extends the waiting period to obtain a gun to 10 days.

To get a permit, a person must undergo a background check and provide proof they completed a certified firearms safety training program within the past five years. These programs must include live-fire training and discussion of subjects such as safe handling and secure storage of guns. Law enforcement officers and active-duty military members are exempt from having to complete the training.

The Democrat-controlled House Appropriations Committee advanced the bill without Republican votes. Supporters called it common sense to require an individual know how to safely use a weapon before buying one.

Rep. Skyler Rude, R-Walla Walla, said it infringes on one’s ability to freely exercise their rights to keep and bear arms chiseled in the state and U.S. constitutions.

“This is a very bad bill. Please vote no,” he said.

This is one of several bills Democratic lawmakers are pushing this session to curb incidents of gun violence which have climbed in recent years. A ban on the manufacture and sale of assault weapons is angling for a vote in the House and a bill enabling legal action against firearm makers and retailers is on course for action in the Senate.

Blake overhaul

Senate Bill 5536, a sweeping response to the state Supreme Court’s erasure of Washington’s law making simple drug possession a felony, advanced out of the Senate Ways and Means Committee last week.

Thirteen Democrats and Republicans backed it. Eleven others either opposed or had no recommendation.

In response to the 2021 ruling known as the Blake decision, the Legislature rushed in to make possession a misdemeanor but require cops refer people to treatment before arresting them. Those rules expire July 1.

This legislation would make possession a gross misdemeanor and encourage cops and prosecutors to steer individuals to services. Those arrested could avoid prosecution if they agree to enter a pre-trial diversion program. And a person could get a conviction for simple drug possession vacated by completing treatment. It also lays out roughly $154 million in spending in the next budget for treatment and services for those with a substance use disorder.

Amendments adopted by the committee add a requirement for judges to sentence a person convicted of simple possession to at least 21 days in jail if they fail to comply with substance use disorder treatment as a condition of probation. It also requires the Washington State Patrol to complete testing of drugs in possession cases within 45 days, which is not happening now due to a backlog of requests.

Senators in both parties consider this a work in progress, with much fine-tuning ahead.

“There is nothing that is going to be perfect in this space and we are trying to find what will work the best for our communities,” said Sen. June Robinson, D-Everett, the prime sponsor.

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