A “poverty defense” would hurt Seattle retailers

Feb 5, 2021
Written by Renée Sunde, President & CEO

Seattle City Council members have informally begun considering an idea that is bound to hurt the city’s retailers, many of whom are struggling to survive the COVID-19 pandemic.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold wants to change the city code to expand the affirmative defenses that a defendant can assert. She would add a “basic need defense,” allowing a defendant to claim that they committed an alleged crime to meet a basic need. Essentially, a defendant could claim that their poverty led them to commit the crime. In cases of theft, the defense would only apply if the value of the stolen merchandise was less than $750. It is important to note that this defense could be asserted against a wide range of crimes, including assault, theft, and public indecency.

Giving the defendant the right to assert this new defense would not require the jury or judge to accept it.

However, this legislation would send a message to people inside and outside Seattle that they might get away with a criminal act if they can assert that their poverty led them to commit the crime. Nothing would prevent a defendant from asserting this defense over and over again. This proposal would allow a defendant to assert the defense even when they stole the goods and resold them.

City Attorney Pete Holmes told the Council that his office does not prosecute crimes committed to meet basic needs. He did not endorse this codification of his current office policy.

Organized and disorganized retail crime already are running rampant in Seattle. Indeed, a survey of 88 businesses by the Ballard Alliance found that 75% had experienced criminal activity in the past year and they reported 7,000 incidents of crime, costing those businesses over $500,000. Many stores have resorted to hiring off-duty police officers.

If enacted, this proposal would not only send a message to criminals. It would also discourage Seattle police from responding to calls if they believed that even fewer people they arrest would be convicted.

As suggested in an opinion piece, one better approach would require defendants to seek treatment or enroll in services to avoid prosecution or receive a reduced sentence.

While Councilmember Herbold has not introduced legislation to enact this proposal, her Public Safety and Human Services Committee has held a hearing on it, clearing the way for potentially quick action. The committee is scheduled to meet again next week.

Do you have an opinion on this proposal? If so, I encourage you to contact John Engber, Director of the Retail Industry Coalition of Seattle, at 206-850-1557 or [email protected]. He represents retailers in Seattle for Washington Retail and can voice your concerns to the Council.