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King County Executive
Dow Constantine


Reform of death inquest procedures will save criminal justice resources and speed resolution of cases

Summary

Inquiries into fatal police shootings and in-custody deaths will be more timely and efficient, while preserving the public’s right to know, under a new order signed by King County Executive Dow Constantine to reform the county’s inquest procedures.

Story

Inquiries into fatal police shootings and in-custody deaths will be more timely and efficient, while preserving the public's right to know, under a new order signed by King County Executive Dow Constantine to reform the county's inquest procedures.

"Over the years the county's inquest policy had drifted from its original intent of calling for a public hearing when deadly force is used by law enforcement," said Executive Constantine. "This order assures transparency and accountability, while preserving our limited criminal justice resources for crime prevention."

Inquests are fact-finding hearings in which a six-member jury is asked to determine the causes and circumstances of deaths where a member of any County law enforcement agency was involved. Under the previous policy, inquests were routinely called in virtually all cases, including those of inmates who died of natural causes or substance abuse while being treated at Harborview Medical Center, or where suicide was the unquestioned cause of death.

The new Executive Order provides the discretion for inquests to be called when the use of force or some other action of law enforcement is involved in a death, such as a fatal police shooting or a struggle with officers. Hospital deaths and jail suicides are already investigated by the King County Medical Examiner, and those findings will continue to provide a high level of public transparency.

The inquest process typically begins with referral of a case from law enforcement to the King County Prosecuting Attorney; a recommendation from the prosecutor to the county executive; a request from the executive to King County District Court for assignment of a judge; and the convening of the inquest itself. The process can be delayed for months and even up to a year after the case was first referred.

For the first time, the new order calls for the court hearing to begin 90 days after the assignment of a judge - a timeline that cannot be waived except for good cause - providing for more timely closure for the family of the deceased and for the officers involved.

"When law enforcement is involved in the death of an individual, the public wants to know what occurred. For the benefit of the public, the inquest procedure provides an open court process to review the causes and circumstances surrounding those deaths," said King County District Court Presiding Judge Barbara Linde. "I am pleased that Executive Constantine has made changes that will improve the process for reviewing and scheduling these important death inquests."

The order also allows judges to narrow the scope of inquest proceedings to focus only on the facts that are relevant to the cause of the death in question, rather than requiring testimony and calling witnesses to preceding events - such as, for example, a string of crimes and police pursuit that led up to a fatal shooting.

Last year 15 deaths occurred in King County for which the County Executive requested a court inquest, with three so far in 2010. While the new order will not enable any immediate cost savings in staff, it will allow for more efficient use of limited court resources and speedier resolution of cases.

The ordering of inquests is a function vested in the County Executive under the King County Code. The new Executive Order replaces one that was signed in 2002 and takes effect immediately. The efficiency was one received through the Executive's employee suggestion box, and he cited the idea last week as part of his "Blueprint for Reform."


Read Executive Order PHL 7-1-1 (AEO), "Conducting Inquests in King County."

King County Executive
Dow Constantine
Dow constantine portrait

Read the Executive's biography