VIDEO: Auburn police let suspected vehicle thief go, citing new laws

State laws passed earlier this spring require police to have probable cause to engage in a pursuit.

Auburn Police let the driver of a stolen vehicle escape on Sept. 1, and said they couldn’t pursue the vehicle because of the new state police reform laws.

The following information is taken from the Auburn Police Department’s Facebook press release:

At 2:30 p.m. Aug. 31, a woman called 911 to report that her white 2016 Lexus RX had been stolen from her at gunpoint. The woman was able to identify the suspect in a photo montage.

The woman’s Lexus was equipped with a Lojack GPS system and the woman activated the GPS.

The next day, Sept. 1, at 3:15 p.m. King County’s Guardian One helicopter received the pings from the Lexus’s GPS and was able to locate the Lexus.

The Auburn Police Department’s Facebook press release did not include the fact that the Guardian One sighting happened a full 24 hours after the initial robbery took place. If the sighting took place 45 minutes after the robbery, rather than a full day, they may have had probable cause to pursue the vehicle.

The Lexus was seen pulling into a parking lot, and passengers left the car, but were not identified. After the passengers left the car, the Lexus drove away, still being followed by the helicopter and police on the ground.

At some point, the Auburn police said they lost sight of the Lexus, despite being followed by police on the ground and in the air.

Auburn police said they didn’t have probable cause and could not pursue the vehicle because of the new police reform laws passed earlier this year. ESB 1054 prohibits police from engaging in pursuits unless there is probable cause that the person in the vehicle has committed a violent offense or sex offense.

Because a day had passed since the armed carjacking, it’s possible the driver wasn’t the same person who committed the armed robbery, so police couldn’t pursue, according to the Auburn Police Department.

On Sept. 3, the King County Sheriff’s Office recovered the stolen vehicle after all, so a pursuit wasn’t necessary to recover the vehicle.

State Rep. Jesse Johnson (D-District 30), who sponsored the bills regulating use of force and police pursuits, said the Auburn police responded exactly how they should have in that situation.

“I do think the course of action taken by the Auburn Police Department was probably the right course of action based on the law,” Johnson said.

However, Auburn police didn’t give all the context as to why pursuit wasn’t the right choice, Johnson said. Given the greater context of the situation, a high-speed pursuit would have been exceedingly dangerous, Johnson said. It was 3:30 p.m., there was a lot of pedestrian and vehicle traffic, and in addition, schools were just let out, so engaging in a high-speed pursuit would have put the public in harm’s way, Johnson said.

“I think they did the right thing by not doing a high-speed chase,” Johnson said.

Johnson said unlike in this situation in Auburn, he has noticed other cases in which police departments have chosen not to pursue a vehicle, citing the new law, when in reality, they could have.

“There was a situation in Tukwila where a guy was driving on the wrong side of the road and he had stolen a vehicle and they decided not to pursue because they said they didn’t have probable cause,” Johnson said. “But a number of law enforcement folks have said ‘well if he’s driving on the wrong side of the road, that’s reasonable suspicion for DUI because obviously he’s not in the right state of mind. So that should have been pursued.’”

Police pursuits are dangerous for the officer, the suspect and the general public. A study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that between 1996 and 2015, police pursuits killed 102 people in Washington state alone. Of the 102 people who died, 20 were bystanders in vehicles and five were pedestrians, according to the study.

By not engaging in the pursuit, Auburn police didn’t risk the public’s safety and were able to recover the vehicle anyway.

This story originally appeared in the Auburn Reporter, a sister publication to The Herald.

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