Washington Supreme Court baffles lawyers with split opinion

SEATTLE — An evenly split ruling from the Washington Supreme Court on Thursday had lawyers scratching their heads.

The court issued a 4-4 ruling in the case of a Shoreline man who had been convicted of obstructing police. Justice Barbara Madsen did not participate in the case, and no temporary justice was appointed to take her place.

Normally in such a split ruling, the lower court’s decision would stand, and that may be the ultimate result of Thursday’s ruling. But Justice Steven González’s opinion was designated the lead opinion, and it ordered the conviction vacated and sent the case back to the trial court.

Justice Debra Stephens’ opinion, which would have upheld the conviction, was designated the dissent.

Unlike in some prior cases that have involved evenly split decisions, the court did not provide any guidance about how the result should be interpreted. That left several lawyers and law professors confused. Several said they didn’t know how a 4-4 split could result in a conviction being overturned or whether the conviction had, in fact, been overturned.

“We’re going to take the position that we won,” said David Iannotti, a Kent lawyer who represented the convicted man. He conceded he didn’t know why the split decision would have resulted in his client’s conviction being overturned, and added, “Everyone I’ve talked to is befuddled.”

In an email, court spokeswoman Wendy Ferrell cautioned that although González’s opinion was designated “lead,” there was no majority opinion in the case and that typically means the lower court decision stands.

“Parties have the option to file for reconsideration or clarification of the opinion,” she noted.

The Shoreline Prosecutor’s Office did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

The case arose from a domestic violence call. Three police officers responded to a passerby’s report of a loud argument in an apartment. When they arrived and demanded to be allowed in to check on the people inside, one of the residents, Solomon McLemore, declined.

The officers broke down the door, as allowed under an exception to the general requirement that police need a warrant or permission to enter. They found that neither McLemore nor his girlfriend was injured, but they arrested McLemore for obstruction.

The issue for the Supreme Court was whether McLemore’s refusal to help the officers enter the home constituted obstruction. González, joined by Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst and Justices Charles Johnson and Sheryl Gordon McCloud, said it did not. Stephens, joined by Justices Susan Owens, Mary Yu and Charles Wiggins, said it did.

Without either side garnering a majority, the split means the question remains unresolved.

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