Auburn, WA – Washington state police reform laws
prohibited officers from helping to catch an armed carjacker who stole a
woman’s car at gunpoint last week, according to police.
Although police in Washington are still allowed to pursue suspects
accused of violent crimes – such as armed carjacking – the new laws
require them to confirm the person behind the wheel is the actual
suspect before they can initiate a chase.
“Without anyone observing the driver, identifying the driver or any
other possible occupants in the vehicle, there was no probable cause for
anyone in the vehicle regarding this robbery case,” the Auburn Police
Department (APD) said in a Facebook
post. “Due to the recent legislative changes regarding vehicle pursuits
and use of force in Washington State, we were not legally allowed to
pursue the vehicle.
The incident began at approximately 2:30 p.m. on Aug. 31, when the
APD received a report that a woman had been carjacked at gunpoint near
the APD substation on Lea Hill, according to the department.
Her 2016 Lexus RX was quipped with LoJack, a tracking app, and the
woman was also able to identify the suspect using a series of photos,
the APD said.
A King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) helicopter used the tracking
technology to locate the stolen car and spotted it backing into an
apartment complex in the 900-block of 12th Street Southeast at
approximately 3 p.m.
Two males got out of the vehicle, but neither could be identified, the APD said.
One of the males got into another car and the second male walked off across the parking lot, according to police.
“As patrol units began to converge on the area, Guardian One
[helicopter] said a patrol unit had just driven by the Lexus as it
pulled out of the apartment complex parking lot,” the APD said. “The
Lexus had come close to one of our patrol vehicles and drove around our
The APD officers continued their efforts to track the stolen vehicle
in order to identify the individual behind the wheel, but they ended up
falling too far behind and couldn’t keep up with it.
The helicopter ultimately needed to refuel.
“We’re about out of gas, so if no one’s gonna work on it, we’re just
gonna let it go,” someone inside the KCSO helicopter said over the radio
moments before they stopped following the Lexus.
Since police were unable to confirm the occupants inside the stolen
vehicle were the carjackers, they only had probable cause for possession
of a stolen vehicle, which is a non-violent offense.
Without probable cause for a violent offense, they were prohibited from pursuing the stolen car.
Under HB 1054, all jurisdictions are subject to the same state
legislature-determined pursuit policy which severely limits when a law
enforcement officer can engage in a vehicle pursuit, Snohomish County
Sheriff Adam Fortney explained in a Facebook post on July 21.
The new law only allows a vehicle pursuit if there is “probable cause
to believe that a person in the vehicle has committed or is committing a
violent offense or a sex offense,” according to the sheriff.
“The key part of this legislation is the state has moved the legal
bar to pursue for a violent offense to ‘probable cause’ rather than
‘reasonable suspicion,’” Sheriff Fortney explained. “For example, if a
deputy sheriff was to respond to an armed robbery and the suspect
vehicle was described as a blue F150 and a deputy saw a blue F150
driving at a high rate of speed in the same area as the robbery
occurred, a law enforcement officer could still try to make a traffic
stop this vehicle, however if the suspect vehicle decides to flee we can
no longer pursue it under House Bill 1054.”
He said that under the new law, officers can’t pursue suspected
violent offenders who have just committed an armed robbery until they
take the time to first establish probable cause. For example, they may
need to first contact the victim or a witness and get a statement about
exactly what crime has been committed and what specific person is
responsible in order to establish probable cause prior to engaging in
the vehicle pursuit.
“While this may seem like a small detail, it will have substantial
impacts on the ability for law enforcement officers to pursue vehicles
fleeing from the scene of a crime,” the sheriff wrote. “Often times, it
is simply impossible to have all of this figured out while responding to
a call and coming across a suspect vehicle fleeing.”
And under HB 1310, the new use-of-force law, law enforcement officers
cannot detain possible suspects they see fleeing the area of a crime
unless they have confirmed that the crime occurred and they know that
the person fleeing is the actual suspected offender.
“For example, under the current law, if a man was to break into your
house while you were inside, you confront him and he runs away, and you
call 911 to provide a description of the suspect as ‘a white male, in
his 30s, wearing a red shirt and black shorts, leaving on foot,’”
Sheriff Fortney wrote in another Facebook post on July 20.
“It has always been considered reasonable that if a law enforcement
officer arrived to the area and saw a suspect matching this description,
that we had the legal authority to stop him and if he ran, we were
allowed to use reasonable force to chase him and detain him. This would
be allowed under the current ‘reasonable suspicion’ threshold,” he
wrote. “Under HB 1310, this is no longer allowed.”
“A deputy sheriff no longer has the authority to use force to
apprehend the suspect in the above scenario,” the sheriff explained.
“With the new threshold being ‘probable cause,’ a deputy sheriff will
have to have articulable facts, that are confirmed by a victim or
witness, that a specific crime has occurred and the person we are
seeking is the one responsible.”
“That means we can no longer stop and detain a fleeing suspect
matching a description who is running from the area of a crime that just
occurred,” he added.
“We must first make contact with the reporting party or a witness,
confirm the facts of the crime, develop probable cause and then we can
go back and look for that individual,” Sheriff Fortney continued. “As
you can imagine in the dynamic world of policing in 2021, most of the
time it is nearly impossible to have all of those facts sorted out while
responding to the initial 911 call, and this ultimately allows a
suspect the ability to flee the area without being stopped.”
“I want the community to know that this type of scenario is not a
rarity in police work and the new legal standard of ‘probable cause’ to
use force in an investigative detention will have substantial impacts.
This type of similar scenario occurs regularly in Snohomish County, and
this new standard is the same for all types of crimes, including violent
crimes,” he added.
Sheriff Fortney explained that the result would be countless hours of
detective work to track down offenders and make arrests of suspects who
fled the scenes of their crimes.
Also under HB 1310, law enforcement officers aren’t able to help EMS detain a person having a mental health crisis.
Sheriff Fortney said officers cannot use force to detain a person in
crisis for transport to the hospital unless there is an imminent threat
of bodily injury to a person.
“As a result, sheriff deputies will have to walk away from many
crisis incidents far more often than in the past,” he wrote. “This will
also largely impact our ability to assist Fire/Aid and Designated Crisis
The sheriff also warned community members in another Facebook post on
July 23 that deputies who responded to calls about people openly using
drugs would no longer be making arrests until after two prior incidents
where the suspect was offered documented referrals for recovery
Those referrals could be as simple as a pamphlet or as complex as
actually helping a person enter into a detox program, Sheriff Fortney
Only on the third offense would deputies make an arrest and then the
person would be offered services again inside the Snohomish County Jail.
It was clear that law enforcement agencies wanted the community to understand that they didn’t choose these changes.
“It is important that we share these significant changes with you,”
the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department wrote. “This is not about what we
WILL no longer do – this is about what we CAN no longer do under the
new laws. Please know that if a crime has occurred, we will still
respond to your call for help. The way we handle the call may be
different than before, but the values and mission of our department will
remain the same.”