Law & Order

Seattle’s “Poverty Defense” Will Allow People To Commit Crimes

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With increases in crime, Seattle is considering changes to the law that would let the criminals completely off the hook and make you pay restitution to the victims.

Known as the “poverty defense”, it would be a legal defense to almost all misdemeanor crimes if you are mentally ill, addicted to drugs, or poor. If put into law, the ordinance would legalize misdemeanor crimes with the exception of DUI and domestic violence. In order to be exempt from prosecution for committing a crime, a person just needs to show any of the following:

  • Symptoms of addiction without being required to provide a medical diagnosis;
  • Symptoms of a mental disorder; or
  • Poverty and the crime was committed to meet an “immediate and basic need.” For example, if a defendant argued they stole merchandise to sell for cash in order to purchase food, clothes or was trying to scrape together enough money for rent. The accused could not be convicted.

“In a situation where you took that sandwich because you were hungry and you were trying to meet your basic need of satisfying your hunger; we as the community will know that we should not punish that. That conduct is excused,” said Anita Khandelwal, King County’s Director of Public Defense. The ordinance would also excuse assaulting someone to steal their sandwich. In addition to exempting criminals from prosecution, you will be forced to pay restitution to their victims if Khandelwal gets her wish of having Seattle create a public fund for restitution for victims of theft.

“If you are engaged in 100 different misdemeanors that are in our criminal justice system code, you are not going to be held liable”

Scott lindsay, former seattle mayoral public safety advisor

There is no limit to the number of crimes a person commits, as long as they use the poverty defense. “If you are engaged in 100 different misdemeanors that are in our criminal justice system code, you are not going to be held liable,” said Scott Lindsay, a former mayoral Public Safety Advisor. “I’m not aware of any legislation like this anywhere in the United States (or) even globally,” he stated. “All cities have criminal codes to protect their citizens from criminal acts. This would essentially create a legal loophole that swallows all those codes and creates a green light for crime.” “If somebody stole a bunch of cell phones and intended to resell them to pay their rent, it would apply to that defense,” said Asha Venkataraman, a council’s Central Staff member.

Angélica Cházaro, a law professor who is with Decriminalize Seattle, supports the poverty defense and called it “the unfinished business of the ‘defund SPD’ movement”. Cházaro also complained that Seattle’s 20% budget cut to SPD, and the prohibition to hire any net-new police officers, did not go far enough and that it was important to “keep up the pressure” on the city council to sure they don’t “give in” to SPD hiring increase requests.

In June of this year, Puget Sound Indexer published FBI statistics for property crime in the 30 largest metropolitan areas. Seattle ranked #1 on the list.