By Teresa Groves – Senior Attorney, Puget Law Group
In February of this year, in the Blake decision, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that our state’s drug possession statute, RCW 69.50.4013, is unconstitutional. In doing so, the Court invalidated convictions for thousands of people who have either plead or otherwise were found guilty under this law – going back over 60 years to when the law was enacted.
As prosecutors, courts, and defense attorneys navigate the herculean task of dealing with the ramifications of Blake, many people who are eligible to have their convictions vacated are waiting in Washington prisons. And on April 12, Governor Inslee exercised his power to commute the sentences of fifteen of these people. Others who remain in prison on simple possession charges must file a petition with the Governor’s office to be eligible for similar relief.
The commutations today were aimed at only a small fraction of the people affected by Blake – those who are being held in prison solely on drug possession convictions. While, as of this evening, twelve of the people whose sentences were commuted have been released from prison, many others for whom the length of their prison sentences are affected by old convictions for possession of drugs will wait even longer.
For example, an individual may be currently serving prison time for theft and have a longer prison sentence because he was previously convicted of drug possession. When his drug possession conviction is eventually vacated, he will be entitled to a shorter sentence. A person like this may even be eligible for immediate release but is nonetheless still in prison as he waits for the courts and prosecutors to get to his case among the thousands of others affected by Blake.
The individuals who were released today will still have to apply to or wait for the courts to actually vacate their convictions and clear their records of these charges.
The implications of Blake are far reaching and evolving. It remains to be seen whether courts will be convinced to refund fines and interest on fines people have paid under the unconstitutional law. Courts will also have to decide whether people who have lost their right to possess firearms solely because of a conviction for drug possession and who have been charged at some point with possessing firearms in spite of the prohibition will also have those convictions overturned.
We will continue to keep you updated as matters related to the Blake decision develop.