Carrick v. Locke

Decision Date13 October 1994
Docket NumberNo. 61542-0,61542-0
Citation882 P.2d 173,125 Wn.2d 129
PartiesDon CARRICK and Scott Elston, Respondents, v. Gary LOCKE, King County Executive; Norm Maleng, King County Prosecuting Attorney; The Honorable E.T. Leverette, King County District Court Judge, sitting as Presiding Officer of the Inquest; King County District Court, Petitioners, Jeffery Nicolai and Michael Rayborn, Intervenors.
CourtWashington Supreme Court

Norm Maleng, Pros. Atty., Quentin Yerxa, Kristofer Bundy, Susan Slonecker, Deputies, Seattle, for petitioners.

John W. Wolfe, Irwin H. Schwartz, Seattle, for respondents.

Hoag, Vick, Tarantino & Garrettson, James M. Cline, Seattle, for intervenors.

DURHAM, Justice.

The King County Executive, Gary Locke, other King County officials, and the King County District Court seek review of a ruling by the Superior Court granting a preliminary injunction to the Respondents Don Carrick and Scott Elston. The injunction precluded the Federal Way District Court from conducting an inquest into the death of Antonio Jackson. Intervening on behalf of the Respondents are Jeffery Nicolai and Michael Rayborn, the two King County police officers whose presence at the scene of the death precipitated the inquest.

The Superior Court found that both RCW Chapter 36.24 and the King County Executive Order implementing that statute violate the constitutional separation of powers doctrine. After consideration of the arguments of both sides, as well as the policies animating the separation of powers doctrine, we conclude that neither the inquest statute nor the King County procedures present a constitutional problem. Accordingly, we reverse the trial court and remand for initiation of the inquest into Jackson's death.

On December 14, 1993, Antonio Jackson was observed allegedly shoplifting a pack of cigarettes from a Safeway supermarket. One of the store's security guards stopped him after he exited the store and brought him back inside. Subsequently, Jackson fled the store and was chased by the security guard and the Respondents herein, Don Carrick and Scott Elston. They caught Jackson and held him on the ground until King County police officers arrived. The police officers proceeded to handcuff Jackson. When Jackson did not comply with police directives, the officers allege that they checked his vital signs and noted that he was breathing and had a pulse. They did not immediately administer lifesaving aid to Jackson, but summoned a medic unit when Jackson continued to be unresponsive. When the medics arrived, they could not find a pulse and they unsuccessfully sought to revive Jackson. He was later declared dead at the scene. An autopsy conducted by the King County Medical Examiner determined that Jackson had died from asphyxia due to compression of the neck and chest.

On December 31, 1993, Norm Maleng, the King County Prosecutor, requested that Gary Locke, the King County Executive, convene a coroner's inquest into Jackson's death. Locke agreed and on January 3, 1994, he contacted Judge Utigard, the Presiding Judge of the King County District Courts, to request that he assign a judge to conduct an inquest into Jackson's death.

The inquest was scheduled for March 7, 1994, in front of Federal Way District Court Judge Leverette. On February 2, 1994, Respondents Carrick and Elston moved to challenge the inquest, alleging, inter alia, violations of the separation of powers doctrine, the appearance of fairness doctrine, and the state supremacy clause. The King County Prosecutor's office responded both that there were no constitutional violations, and that even if there were, the district court could not rule on such violations as its only mandate was to preside over the fact-finding inquest. Judge Leverette held that the Respondents had not proved the procedure's unconstitutionality, and denied the request.

Respondents then filed a civil action in King County Superior Court, raising the above-mentioned constitutional issues, as well as others. On March 2, 1994, Judge Bates issued a temporary restraining order and ordered a show cause hearing for March 10, 1994. After hearing argument regarding the constitutionality of the inquest procedure, Judge Bates issued a preliminary injunction enjoining the inquest, finding that both RCW Chapter 36.24 and Executive Order PHL 7-1 (AEP) are unconstitutional under the separation of powers doctrine of both the state and federal constitutions. He did not rule on any of the other issues presented. King County sought direct review from this court, which was granted.


"A coroner's inquest is not a culpability-finding proceeding." State v. Ogle, 78 Wash.2d 86, 88, 469 P.2d 918 (1970). Rather, the purpose of a coroner's inquest is to determine who died, what was the cause of death, and what were the circumstances surrounding the death, including the identification of any actors who may be criminally liable for the death. RCW 36.24.040. RCW Chapter 36.24 outlines the duties of the county coroner in general, and describes inquests in particular. The coroner is empowered to summon and empanel jurors (RCW 36.24.020-.030); to subpoena witnesses (RCW 36.24.050); and to issue arrest warrants (RCW 36.24.100-.120). Additionally, the statute provides that a district court judge may act as coroner if the coroner is not available. RCW 36.24.160-.170. RCW 36.24.020 deals with inquests in particular, and provides, in part, that:

The coroner in the county where an inquest is to be convened pursuant to this chapter shall notify the superior court to provide persons to serve as a jury of inquest to hear all the evidence concerning the death and to inquire into and render a true verdict on the cause of death. Jurors shall be selected and summoned in the same manner and shall have the same qualifications as specified in chapter 2.36 RCW. The prosecuting attorney having jurisdiction shall be notified in advance of any such inquest to be held, and at his discretion may be present at and assist the coroner in the conduct of the same....

In King County, the coroner's duties under RCW Chapter 36.24 were originally vested by the home rule charter in the Department of Public Health. King County Charter 920.20.30. A later ordinance created a division of the medical examiner within the Department of Public Health, which was given most of the duties of the coroner, "except for the holding of inquests, which function is vested in the county executive". King County Code 2.24.110(A). King County Executive Order PHL 7-1 (AEP), effective as of July 28, 1990,

establish[es] policies and procedures for the conducting of inquests into the causes and circumstances of any death involving a member of any law enforcement agency within King County ... and into other exceptional cases....

The Executive Order mandates that inquests be held for any death involving a King County law enforcement agent. The Executive Order dictates that the County Executive request that the presiding judge of the District Court Judges Association "furnish a judge to conduct the inquest on the Executive's behalf according to the Court Rules in Appendix 9.1." Executive Order § 6.6. Those court rules may be waived in "exceptional circumstances" or where waiver serves the "public interest". Executive Order § 6.8.


One of the fundamental principles of the American constitutional system is that the governmental powers are divided among three departments--the legislative, the executive, and the judicial--and that each is separate from the other.

State v. Osloond, 60 Wash.App. 584, 587, 805 P.2d 263, review denied, 116 Wash.2d 1030, 813 P.2d 582 (1991). Washington's constitution much like the federal constitution, does not contain a formal separation of powers clause. 1 See Osloond, at 587, 805 P.2d 263. Nonetheless, the very division of our government into different branches has been presumed throughout our state's history to give rise to a vital separation of powers doctrine. See In re Juvenile Director, 87 Wash.2d 232, 238-40, 552 P.2d 163 (1976); Osloond, 60 Wash.App. at 587. The validity of this doctrine does not depend on the branches of government being hermetically sealed off from one another. The different branches must remain partially intertwined if for no other reason than to maintain an effective system of checks and balances, as well as an effective government. In re Juvenile Director, 87 Wash.2d at 239-40, 552 P.2d 163. The doctrine serves mainly to ensure that the fundamental functions of each branch remain inviolate.

The separation of powers doctrine is grounded in flexibility and practicality, and rarely will offer a definitive boundary beyond which one branch may not tread. In re Juvenile Director, at 240, 552 P.2d 163.

The question to be asked is not whether two branches of government engage in coinciding activities, but rather whether the activity of one branch threatens the independence or integrity or invades the prerogatives of another.

Zylstra v. Piva, 85 Wash.2d 743, 750, 539 P.2d 823 (1975). In examining the ability of federal judges to operate legislatively, 2 the United States Supreme Court has put a slightly different twist on this inquiry: "[T]he Constitution, at least as a per se matter, does not forbid judges to wear two hats; it merely forbids them to wear both hats at the same time." Mistretta v. United States, 488 U.S. 361, 404, 109 S.Ct. 647, 672, 102 L.Ed.2d 714 (1989). See also Osloond, 60 Wash.App. at 589. Mistretta succinctly describes our paramount concerns regarding separation of powers challenges to judicial action:

In cases specifically involving the Judicial Branch, we have expressed our vigilance against two dangers: first, that the Judicial Branch neither be assigned nor allowed "tasks that are more properly accomplished by [other] branches," and, second, that no provision of law "impermissibly threatens the institutional integrity of the Judicial...

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