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February 26, 2021

Split Washington Supreme Court rules state’s strict liability felony drug possession law violates due process

The Washington Supreme Court issued an interesting split decision yesterday concerning the state's drug possession law.  Here is how the majority opinion in Washington v. Blake, No. 96873-0 (Wash. Feb. 25, 2021) (available here), gets started and a few key passages:

Washington’s strict liability drug possession statute, RCW 69.50.4013, makes possession of a controlled substance a felony punishable by up to five years in prison, plus a hefty fine; leads to deprivation of numerous other rights and opportunities; and does all this without proof that the defendant even knew they possessed the substance.  This case presents an issue of first impression for this court: Does this strict liability drug possession statute with these substantial penalties for such innocent, passive conduct exceed the legislature’s police power?  The due process clauses of the state and federal constitutions, along with controlling decisions of this court and the United States Supreme Court, compel us to conclude that the answer is yes—this exceeds the State’s police power....

The question before us today is whether unintentional, unknowing possession of a controlled substance is the sort of innocent, passive nonconduct that falls beyond the State’s police power to criminalize.  Because unknowing possession is just as innocent and passive as staying out late with a juvenile or remaining in a city without registering, we hold that this felony drug possession statute is just as unconstitutional as were the laws in Lambert, Papachristou, and Pullman.

To be sure, active trafficking in drugs, unlike standing outside at 10:01 p.m., is not innocent conduct.  States have criminalized knowing drug possession nationwide, and there is plenty of reason to know that illegal drugs are highly regulated.  The legislature surely has constitutional authority to regulate drugs through criminal and civil statutes.

But the possession statute at issue here does far more than regulate drugs.  It is unique in the nation in criminalizing entirely innocent, unknowing possession.

February 26, 2021 at 08:55 AM | Permalink

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