In 2016, Shannon Blake was arrested in Spokane, Washington, after police found drugs in the pocket of her jeans. Blake denied knowing that the drugs were there, saying that the pants had come from a thrift store and it was her first time wearing them. Whether or not that story is to be believed isn’t actually relevant.
Due to Washington State’s strict liability law, it didn’t matter if Blake was telling the truth or not. Prosecutors did not have to prove that she did. The drugs were found on her person, therefore she was presumed guilty and had to prove her own innocence, an exact reversal of how courtroom law is supposed to work.
Blake’s lawyer, Richard Lechich, took her case to the Washington Supreme Court, and on February 25th, that court handed down a 5-4 decision that the strict liability law violates the constitutional right of people charged with drug-related crimes.
“Attaching the harsh penalties of felony conviction, lengthy imprisonment, stigma, and the many collateral consequences that accompany every felony drug conviction to entirely innocent and passive conduct exceeds the legislature’s powers,” the court wrote in its decision.
Now, the state is in a complicated situation that is exactly why legislatures everywhere should try their utmost to avoid legal overreach. The court’s decision may vacate the law criminalizing simple drug possession (meaning possession of personal use amounts only) entirely, retroactively. This could mean revisiting the convictions of every person accused of felony or misdemeanor drug possession going back decades, vacating sentences and returning fines paid.
Democratic State Senator Mark Mullet has proposed a new drug possession law to replace the one invalidated in the Shannon Blake case, this one explicitly including intent. But even if it is put quickly into place, double-jeopardy would protect anyone whose prior convictions have been dissolved by the Supreme Court ruling from being re-sentenced.