City Attorney: PubliCola Picks Tom Carr

By PublicolaPicks October 19, 2009


City Attorney Tom Carr has made his share of mistakes, several of them with serious, lasting consequences. He spearheaded the disastrous “Operation Sobering Thought,” a club crackdown that resulted in zero convictions. (The questionable sting was needlessly aggressive and may have violated bar employees' civil rights. Ironically, the sting also may have put the city’s efforts to prevent clubs from serving minors back a decade, by making city officials skeptical of Carr's efforts and fostering even more mistrust between club owners and the city attorney).

Carr also opposed I-75, the initiative that made pot prosecutions the city’s lowest law-enforcement priority, and opposes decriminalization of marijuana. He prosecuted a public-records case that created broad new exemptions to public disclosure of government records. And he defended the since-overturned car-impound ordinance, which allowed police to impound cars owned by people whose licenses had been suspended for minor traffic infractions.

However—misguided civility laws aside—in his eight years in office, Carr has implemented some of the most innovative law-enforcement tactics in the nation. In 2005, thanks to Carr’s efforts, the city opened its first community court, which gives habitual petty criminals access to services and treatment instead of jail time. He also pushed for day reporting for low-level offenses, and for the creation of a “john school” to educate clients of prostitutes about the negative consequences of participating in sex trade. Thanks largely to alternatives to incarceration Carr has supported, the number of Seattle inmates in King County Jail has declined from 409 on average to 254.

And despite his anti-pot perspective, Carr has also pushed for alternatives to incarceration for minor drug offenses. This year, he implemented a new “drug market initiative,” which lets small-time dealers off the hook if they agree to stay off the streets. (It also gives dealers access to social services). The program, which enrolled 16 dealers this year (5 of whom have since been arrested and charged), has reduced drug dealing noticeably in the city’s East Precinct.

Finally, Carr’s approach to domestic violence prosecutions has been creative and aggressive. In addition to putting domestic violence advocates inside the city attorney’s office (a system modeled on one put in place by the late King County District Attorney Norm Maleng), Carr dedicated a prosecutor to the top 25 most frequent domestic violence offenders, targeting them the way he targeted the city’s top-25 most prolific auto thieves. At the same time, he created a program to give batterers a chance to stay out of jail in exchange for attending classes on domestic-violence preventions.

Carr’s opponent, Pete Holmes, talks up his work on police accountability (as head of the Office of Professional Accountability Review Board, he led the push for police watchdogs to win access to unredacted files in police misconduct investigations) and civil rights (accusing Carr of arresting people for minor offenses, such as stealing a can of tuna). The infamous "tuna case" involved a man who had amassed 50 misdemeanor convictions in Seattle Municipal Court, eight misdemeanor convictions in other jurisdictions, and six felony convictions at King County. That's on top of 40 other arrests that didn't lead to convictions. The total cost to taxpayers? Tens of thousands of dollars in arrest, court, and jail costs. By refusing to tell both sides of the story, Holmes damages his credibility.

Indeed, when you take a complete look  at Carr's record, Holmes' exaggerated charges lose  their potency. As we noted, Carr has done more to push alternatives to incarceration than any other city attorney in Seattle's history.

Holmes has made it clear he would drastically change the city attorney’s job description—from the lawyer for the city to the “representative of the people.”  That sounds noble in theory, but in practice, it would make Holmes a poor representative of the city’s interests.

A defendant wouldn't hire an attorney who wouldn't promise to represent his interests. Nor should we hire a city attorney who will have to defend a city he may disagree with on purely political grounds—however righteous those grounds may be.

Holmes’ inexperience has led him to take some positions on the campaign trail we find both questionable and misguided. For example, he has said repeatedly that one of his first acts in office will be to move advocates for domestic violence victims out of the city attorney’s office and into a nongovernmental organization. Holmes says this move would allow the domestic violence advocate to be “independent from the prosecution” and lead to more reliable, objective testimony from DV victims. We think it would lead to less funding for domestic violence advocates (because social services tend to get cut before law enforcement), as well as less thoughtful domestic violence prosecutions.

According to knowledgeable attorneys and sources within the city, the reason victims’ advocates were put inside the city attorney’s office in the first place is because victims often need help and support navigating through what can be an extremely intimidating and confusing legal process. Additionally, DV prosecutors can make a better case, both in legal terms and for the victim, if they have direct access to advocates on a daily basis, not just in court.

Holmes has also opposed Carr’s push to make it a misdemeanor to kill or maim a cyclist or pedestrian with a car. Currently, only drivers who are drunk or acting with reckless disregard for safety can be prosecuted—a high bar. Holmes says the city should spend money educating drivers and cyclists on traffic laws instead of prosecuting drivers who kill. We disagree—as does the Cascade Bicycle Club, which has endorsed Carr, citing his strong record of fighting for cyclists’ rights.

But if our concerns about Carr are about what he has done, our concerns about his opponent, Pete Holmes, are about what he hasn’t done. Holmes, an activist and bankruptcy attorney who hasn’t practiced law in seven years (citing a need to stop taking on private clients when he joined OPARB), has exactly zero experience prosecuting cases—the primary job of the city attorney. Carr hadn’t run a prosecutor’s office when he won his race in 2001, either, but he spent four years as an assistant US attorney investigating organized crime cases.

Despite our differences on some political issues, we believe Carr has the experience, insight, and dedication to the office to deserve another four years as city attorney.

PubliCola picks Tom Carr.
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