Police accuse King County prosecutors of declining cases, not charging felons

May 7, 2019, 5:52 AM
(KIRO 7 image)
(KIRO 7 image)

Repeat criminals let out of jail – only to terrorize new victims with the same crimes. Several South King County police departments say it’s a growing problem. Some are pointing the finger at the King County Prosecutor’s Office for policies that they say let felons slip through the cracks.

“Stop, you’re under arrest!” Auburn police dash camera video shows suspect, Mitchell O. Nelson, running away from an officer.

He was accused of stealing a purse from a Taco Time, trying to carjack three people at a Dairy Queen drive thru and succeeding on the fourth try.

“What what did he say to you?” an officer asks the victim. “He said get out of the f—ing car!” she replied.

Nelson is then accused of taking police on a high-speed chase. When police boxed him in, dashcam video shows he rammed the stolen car into a police sergeant’s vehicle, then fought with officers while resisting arrest.

“Stop fighting, stop fighting, stop fighting, stop fighting!” you hear an officer yell.

Auburn police finally arrested him. Court documents show King County prosecutors did not file on several charges, including assault of a law enforcement officer. A few weeks later, Nelson was out of jail.

“That has happened many times,” said Commander Steve Stocker of the Auburn Police Department. “We’ve gotten into a pursuit with them, which is very dangerous. We arrest them, put them in jail, and sometimes a week later we’re in another pursuit with them in a stolen car.”

A few months later, police said he again tried to steal a car in Federal Way. Nelson then barricaded himself in a couple’s home.

After a 12-hour standoff, police say Nelson eventually opened fire on officers – who shot back and killed him.

“I don’t know what to say about that, you know? I know officers have said there’s another example of someone, where if he was in custody like he should have been, he might be alive today. So that’s unfortunate for him, but also unfortunate for the officers. Because you have an officer now whose been involved in an officer involved shooting. And an officer could’ve gotten hurt,” Stocker said.

The Auburn Police Department is far from alone in cases like this – struggling to keep up in the fight against re-offending felons.

Black Diamond Police Commander Larry Colagiovanni said he’s fed up.

“How often would you say you find your officers arresting repeat offenders,” KIRO7’s Deedee Sun asked.

“I’m going to say almost every time. I can’t think of a case off the top of my head where it’s been a first-time offender,” Colagiovanni said.

Colagiovanni retired from police work in Florida and came here to be closer to family a couple of years ago.

He’s still working, because he loves the job, but says the job is different here.

“I can’t even begin to tell you how much of a surprise it was coming from the other side of the country. It was a shock and it still is a shock to me how cases are prosecuted here, or not prosecuted,” Colagiovanni said.

He’s talking about the King County Prosecutor’s Office, which handles the charging of all felony-level criminals.

He and other agencies say the prosecutor’s office is declining to file many charges on repeat felons.

“Some of the cases we’ve sent over there that have been declined have just been crazy. Crazy,” Colagiovanni said.

He said he’s been fighting with the prosecutor’s office on a case involving Nathan A. Peterson, someone who also has a long criminal history.

“Honestly, that was the most infuriating example to me,” Colagiovanni said.

Documents show last August, Black Diamond Police arrested Peterson in a stolen car, with a stolen gun, more than $2,000 of counterfeit cash, digital scales and notebook listing apparent narcotic sales. Plus, police found more than 10 grams of meth and nearly six grams of heroin.

“My big concern was, this is a drug dealer – clearly a drug dealer,” Colagiovanni said. “I really wanted the gun charge. Because that’s the person that will kill a cop. That’s the person that will kill a citizen. They’ll do whatever they have to do to protect themselves. I could not get them for the life of me to file that charge.”

Out of five recommended charges, the King County Prosecutor’s Office filed Peterson with just one – possession of a stolen vehicle.

“I was furious,” Colagiovanni said. “I’ve never seen anything like this. Thirty years I’ve been a cop next month, I’ve never seen anything like this trying to get cases filed.”

“I feel frustrated for my guys. Because they work really hard on these cases, they make really good cases. Only to have the case declined,” Colagiovanni said.

The commander is still working to get that gun charge. Meanwhile, Peterson was released from jail on personal recognizance.

In November, he was arrested for trafficking stolen property, and possessing drugs in Auburn. After this arrest, prosecutors added a “VUSCA (drug possession) with intent to distribute” charge on the previous Black Diamond case.

Documents showed that Peterson was again let out of jail – this time, on a temporary release to visit his sick grandmother – and never returned.

He was recently arrested, a third time in seven months. This charge was again for possession of a stolen vehicle in Auburn.

“It’s this constant cycle of just – put them back in, ‘You gonna promise to show up in court?’ ‘I promise judge.’ Release them. Does it again. And they’re literally victimizing people. And this is just little old Black Diamond. I can’t imagine the bigger cities. Just – super frustrating,” Colagiovanni said.

All these cases so far are examples of downgraded charges. Other cases are declined altogether.

As a result, the crimes never show up on the suspect’s criminal histories as felonies.

KIRO 7’s Deedee Sun filed public disclosure requests with several South-King County police departments – Kent, Auburn, Renton and Black Diamond.

Auburn PD data showed that in about six months (September 2018 – March 2019), King County formally declined 26 cases.

“A felony on someone who’s got maybe 15, 20 convictions on felonies already, they commit another felony. We put hours into that case, send it to the prosecutor’s office and we get a decline, and have to file it in our city prosecutor’s office as a misdemeanor. And there is nothing more frustrating than that for our officers. And I think for the community once they hear those stories,” Stocker said.

The city of Kent’s chief prosecutor, Tami Perdue, said she’s received nearly 300 felony-level crimes since 2016, where officers believe for one reason or another, King County will decline the case.

She says officers bypass county and take it straight to her for the charges to be filed in city court.

“I saw a large uptick in cases that should have been filed as felonies, particularly cases such as ID theft or multiple theft,” Perdue said.

But the most severe charge a city can file is a gross misdemeanor.

“So a potential of 364 days in jail, and/or a $5,000 fine,” Perdue said.

“Is what’s happening making the community less safe?” Sun asked

“The reality is, certainly it is,” Perdue said. “So I have to warehouse them in our jail. To keep our community safe for as long as I can,” she said.

Kent says it’s struggling to handle the volume criminals.

“I don’t see us being able to keep up – with not only what is technically our workload, but taking on someone else’s work load as well,” Perdue said.

Police departments say the problem of felons getting released — only to re-offend — is getting worse.

“It really does seem like it’s been quite – more frequent in the last few years,” Stocker with Auburn police said.

“Does it feel like the King County Prosecutor’s Office is taking away the authority of the police department?” Sun asked Black Diamond.

“Authority, no. Morale, yes. Yeah absolutely,” Colagiovanni said.

“What do you think needs to change?” Sun asked.

“I think the prosecutor’s office needs to do their job,” Colagiovanni said.

Sun took these concerns to the King County Prosecuting Attorney, Dan Satterberg.

“These jurisdictions say what’s happening with felony declines is making our community less safe. What do you have to say to that?” Sun asked.

“There has not been any sort of directive in this office to decline more cases. We’ve always filed about the same number of cases over the last 10 years or so involving property crimes,” Satterberg said.

Satterberg said King County does operate under a so-called philosophy that explains some of the dropped charges.

“So prosecutors really have two choices in philosophies of filing. We file conservatively,” Satterberg said.

“A case may come to us with four or five counts, and we might charge one or two to get a plea, so we don’t have to go to trial. The trials are incredibly expensive, take forever,” Satterberg said. “We have a system set up to incentivize an early plea,” he said.

He says it’s true that property crime offenders are often released on personal recognizance – or PR – before trial.

“Our judges, it’s part of our culture. And the court rule says people are presumed to be given PR or low bail. So our judges do that. But it’s also how the sentencing law in our state works, where violent crime is treated very harshly with very long sentences, and property crime – not so much,” Satterberg said.

Sun specifically asked Satterberg about this case with Nelson (who allegedly stole a purse, carjacked someone, and took police on a chase before ramming the stolen car into a sergeant’s police vehicle) and asked why the violent crime charge – the assault on an officer – got dropped, and the charges fell to only property crimes.

“They might be added later if the person doesn’t plead guilty. We’re going to file the most serious case that we can prove up front. If you don’t plead to it, we’re going to file everything else,” Satterberg said.

The police departments say all say they’re talking with King County about options, but meanwhile, just keep trying their best.

“We’re citizens also, and we live in the communities. And we’re people and human beings, and we hate to see this crime,” Stocker said. “It does wear on us. And it does frustrate us. But it doesn’t deter us from doing our job correctly,” he said.

Satterburg also said his department is also still struggling with funding. He said 12 years ago, the King County Prosecutor’s Office had 14 more lawyers, at a time when King County had 300,000 fewer people.

Satterberg said he is aware of the level of frustration police departments and communities are feeling, and he said that could lead to policy change.

By Deedee Sun, KIRO 7

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Police accuse King County prosecutors of declining cases, not charging felons