Stevens Cnty. v. Stevens Cnty. Sheriff's Dep't

Decision Date16 November 2021
Docket NumberNo. 37467-0-III,37467-0-III
Citation499 P.3d 917
Parties STEVENS COUNTY, a Municipal Corporation, Plaintiff, v. STEVENS COUNTY SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT; Northeast Washing Ton Alliance Counseling Services, Defendants, State of Washington, Intervenor.
CourtWashington Court of Appeals

Will Morgan Ferguson, Attorney at Law, 4448 Sunburst Lane, Stevensville, MT, 59870, for Appellant.

Nicholas Andrew Force, Stevens County Prosecutor's Office, 215 S Oak St. Ste. 114, Colville, WA, 99114-2836, for Respondent.

Jeffrey C. Grant, Washington State Attorney General's Office, 800 Fifth Ave. Ste. 2000, Seattle, WA, 98104-3188, for Respondent/Cross-Appellant.

Staab, J.

¶1 Stevens County (County) brought suit under the Uniform Declaratory Judgment Act (UDJA), ch. 7.24 RCW, against Steven's County Sheriff and Northeast Washington Alliance Counseling Services (NEWACS) to challenge the constitutionality of the mental health firearms restriction of RCW 71.05.182. The State of Washington intervened. Stevens County and the State filed cross-summary judgment motions. The trial court denied the State's cross motion for summary judgment, concluding that the case presented a justiciable claim that could be decided by declaratory judgment. The court also denied the County's motion for summary judgment, concluding that the statute was constitutional. The County appealed and the State cross-appealed.

¶2 We deny the County's appeal and grant the State's cross-appeal, concluding that the case fails to present a justiciable controversy that can be decided under the UDJA.


¶3 A new enactment to Washington's civil commitment laws, RCW 71.05.182 became effective July 28, 2019, prohibiting possession and ownership of firearms by those individuals detained for mental health issues under RCW 71.05.150 and RCW 71.05.153. LAWS OF 2019, ch. 247, § 1. The bill was consistent with a policy suggestion put forward by the Attorney General's Office, modeled after a California statute found constitutional there, and supported by mental health professionals to allow for a cool down period after a crisis event, potentially giving time for families to obtain an extreme risk protection order. Id . Effective January 1, 2021, it was amended to increase the seventy-two hour detention period to "not more than one hundred twenty hours." LAWS OF 2020, ch. 302, § 13.

¶4 The County, as sole plaintiff, filed suit under the UDJA, alleging that the "Involuntary Treatment Act" (ITA), RCW 71.05.182, facially violates procedural due process and the Second Amendment right to bear arms. The complaint names as defendants Stevens County Sheriff's Department (Sheriff) and Northeast Washington Alliance Counseling Services (NEWACS). The complaint alleges that the Stevens County Sheriff's Department has duties under RCW 36.28.010 and that NEWACS is a behavioral health organization "empowered by the County" and subject to the direction of the Stevens County Commissioners. The complaint goes on to assert that the Sheriff and NEWACS enforce the ITA. While the complaint alleges that the ITA causes "liability" to the County, it does not plead any factual allegations supporting that conclusion. The complaint otherwise contains legal conclusions. The office of the Stevens County Prosecuting Attorney appeared for Stevens County, and by special appointed deputy prosecutor also appeared for Stevens County Sheriff's Department and NEWACS. It is unclear from the record whether the Sheriff's Department or NEWACS ever filed a response to the County complaint.

¶5 As required by statute, the County served the office of the Attorney General of Washington (hereinafter State) with a copy of the summons and complaint. The State filed an answer and affirmative defense asserting the constitutionality of the ITA and the duty of the Sheriff's Department to enforce the laws of the state of Washington. The State also asserted that the County had failed to present a justiciable controversy. The State intervened in the action by agreed order on October 8, 2019, at the County's temporary injunction motion hearing. The County filed a motion for a temporary restraining order. Attached as support to the County's motion for temporary injunction was a declaration by attorney Will M. Ferguson. Mr. Ferguson testified in his affidavit to the following relevant facts (numbering does not match affidavit):

1. As an elected official, Sheriff Manke operates with discretion, independent of the authority of the Stevens County legislative authority.

Clerk's Papers (CP) at 18.

2. Upon information and belief, NEWACS has filed 149 petitions for involuntary commitment, as of July 26, 2019 ... nearly five petitions per week.

CP at 19.

3. Upon information and belief, NEWACS filed approximately 243 petitions for involuntary commitment in 2018.

CP at 18.

¶6 During the hearing for a temporary injunction, the County sought to release the defendants from their legal duties of notice and gun seizure under RCW 71.05.182. The County acknowledged that individuals under the statute were screened by mental health professionals and determined to be a substantial likely danger, but asserted that existing procedural safeguards were lacking. The County claimed it was subject to "liability" through the actions of the Sheriff and NEWACS. The State pointed out that the County did not present any facts to support its position and the County conceded that it did not "think that we need facts in a purely legal argument." Report of Proceedings (RP) at 6. The Sheriff's office and NEWACS did not oppose the temporary order and expressed their own concerns about the constitutionality of the statute. The trial court denied the motion on the basis that an injunction was not necessary for a nonemergent situation.

¶7 Stevens County then filed a motion for summary judgment. The State moved to continue the summary judgment hearing to allow for discovery. The County objected to the delay on the basis that information on the impact of the statute on Steven's County residents was irrelevant. The Sheriff and NEWACS took no position. The court denied the continuance for discovery agreeing that a facial constitutional challenge did not require any facts, but granted a short period for briefing. The State filed a response to the motion for summary judgment and a cross motion for summary judgment, asserting that there were no facts upon which to grant the County's motion and the County lacked standing and a justiciable claim. In its summary judgment reply brief, the County argued that "Both Defendants are governed by the Plaintiff." Both the Sheriff's Department and NEWACS are legally obligated to follow the law but "Stevens County would command the Defendants to not administer and enforce the Act." Id . Stevens County asserted a conjoined interest with the Sheriff's Department and NEWACS to "ignore" State law. Ultimately, the trial court denied the County's motion and the State's cross motion, but dismissed the County's complaint for declaratory judgment.


¶8 This matter is before the court on appeal from summary judgment, so review is de novo. Island County v. State , 135 Wash.2d 141, 146, 955 P.2d 377 (1998). Review of a trial court's denial of declaratory judgment relief is de novo. Nollette v. Christianson , 115 Wash.2d 594, 599-600, 800 P.2d 359 (1990). We review issues of constitutionality de novo. State v. Sieyes , 168 Wash.2d 276, 281, 225 P.3d 995 (2010).


¶9 The UDJA, ch. 7.24 RCW, is designed to settle and afford relief from insecurity and uncertainty with respect to rights, status and other legal relations, and is to be liberally construed and administered. RCW 7.24.120 ; Clallam County Deputy Sheriff's Guild v. Bd. of Clallam County Comm'rs , 92 Wash.2d 844, 848, 601 P.2d 943 (1979). The Superior Court denied the State's motion to dismiss for lack of justiciable controversy, but its analysis is not part of the record. Nevertheless, since justiciability is a jurisdictional prerequisite to an action under the UDJA, and the State cross-appealed the superior court's decision, we must consider this issue first. Diversified Indus. Dev. Corp. v. Ripley , 82 Wash.2d 811, 814-15, 514 P.2d 137 (1973) ; Burman v. State , 50 Wash. App. 433, 439, 749 P.2d 708 (1988).

¶10 In this case, Stevens County has filed an action under the UDJA, claiming that enforcement of the ITA will violate the constitutional rights of those who are involuntarily committed. "A challenge to the constitutionality of a statute by means of a declaratory judgment must be justiciable before it will be considered." Snohomish County v. Anderson , 124 Wash.2d 834, 840, 881 P.2d 240 (1994). The four elements for establishing a justiciable controversy are well-settled and include: "(1) ... an actual, present and existing dispute, or the mature seeds of one, as distinguished from a possible, dormant, hypothetical, speculative, or moot disagreement, (2) between parties having genuine and opposing interests, (3) which involves interests that must be direct and substantial, rather than potential, theoretical, abstract or academic, and (4) a judicial determination of which will be final and conclusive." Id . Folded into these elements are the common law restraint doctrines of mootness, ripeness, and standing. To-Ro Trade Shows v. Collins , 144 Wash.2d 403, 411, 27 P.3d 1149 (2001). All four elements must coalesce so that a court does not step "into the prohibited area of advisory opinions." Diversified , 82 Wash.2d at 814, 514 P.2d 137.

¶11 In this case, the County has failed to demonstrate a direct and substantial interest in the issues raised by its pleadings. A plaintiff must also show a direct and substantial interest when filing a declaratory judgment action. RCW This factor often overlaps or inheres with the common law doctrine of standing. To-Ro Trade Shows , 144 Wash.2d at 414, 27 P.3d 1149. Generally...

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