$10 theft trial results in less punishment for teen

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Spokane County Superior Courthouse - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
  • Young Kwak Photo
  • Spokane County Superior Courthouse

Mike stole $10 from a kid living with him in a group home. The 17-year-old then ran to the gas station and bought energy drinks and Sweedish Fish. He told the clerk to keep the change.

He was arrested and charged with theft, though Mike says he paid the money back after he got caught. His public defender suggested he would do community service in exchange for dismissing the charge. But the prosecutor rejected the deal, and a case over $10 worth of allowance went to trial.

"We offered to pay the $10 back again and do community service," says Megan Manlove, the public defender. "That would have benefitted the community more than a trial that cost all this time and effort. I would say we've spent at least a couple thousand or so prosecuting the case. Not really sure what the point of it is."

Mike was found guilty at trial, but actually ended up with less punishment than if the prosecutor would have agreed to let the kid do community service instead.

Deputy Prosecutor Stephanie Collins, who supervises juvenile prosecution in the Spokane County Prosecutor's Office but did not handle the case herself, says she is not aware of the offer to do community service, adding:

"We look at each case individually, and consider how to hold someone accountable, what's best for the community and the offender," Collins says. "And in this case, what's best for the offender, before he goes into adult court, is to hold him accountable for his behavior."

Manlove and other juvenile defense attorneys point to similar cases that indicate a shift in prosecutors' approach to juvenile crime under Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell, who took office in 2015. It's a philosophy that weighs convictions and punishment for crimes over helping kids turn their lives around, defense attorneys say.

In 2016, the state legislature amended the Juvenile Justice Act. Lawmakers added "rehabilitation" to the list of goals in pursuing juvenile crime, bringing Washington state in line with research and case law on juvenile justice. Additionally, kids charged with a felony for the first time are presumed to get a chance to keep the crime off their record. In what's known as a "deferred disposition," the kid pleads guilty and if he or she stays out of trouble for up to a year, the conviction is erased.

Haskell says he supports those updates to state law, though local defense attorneys say little has changed in Spokane County.

"Of course there are times where serious felonies happen and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent, but most of the time these are kids making kid-like mistakes," says Spokane County juvenile public defender Krista Elliott. "They are not 'little criminals.' There are so many things that Haskell is not doing even when prosecutorial organizations and his peers are following these guidelines."

Here's what went down in Mike's case:

Mike (identified only by his first name) is a ward of the state. In August of last year, he leaves the group home where he lives to take a walk with a friend. The two stroll by the home of one of Mike's former foster families, and he tells his buddy to wait out front.

Mike sneaks in the house through a doggie door and takes the Wii U game console from inside. He then sells it at a video game store for $110 and splits the money with his friend. They use some of the money to buy soda, an MP3 player and headphones.

About two weeks later, Mike swipes the $10 worth of allowance from another kid living in the group home. This is the case that went to trial.

For breaking into the home and taking the game console, Mike is charged with two felonies. For taking the $10 allowance, he's charged with a misdemeanor. This was the first time he'd ever been charged with a crime.

Under the recent changes to Washington state law, Mike is expected to be able to resolve his case out of court through the "deferred disposition."

Mike took advantage of the opportunity and pleaded guilty to the felony charges. If he stays out of trouble for up to a year, and complies with court orders, such as paying back the stolen money, the charges are dismissed and his record is wiped of the crime.

In exchange for pleading guilty, Manlove asked the prosecutor to dismiss the $10 theft charge. Mike would do extra community service hours, too.

Deputy Prosecutor Hannah Stearns rejected the deal.

Stearns also objected to the deferred disposition, and in her argument, omitted the recently updated section of state law that says "in all cases where the juvenile is eligible for a deferred disposition, there shall be a strong presumption that the deferred disposition will be granted."

"I don't know why a prosecutor would not want a kid to have this chance," Manlove says. "The legislature made the option possible."

Emails obtained by the Inlander show Stearns' willingness to dismiss the $10 theft charge if Mike pleads guilty to the two felonies. But when Manlove counters that Mike will exercise his right to a deferred disposition, Stearns retracts the offer to dismiss the minor charge.

"The offer was plead to the felony and I'll dismiss the misdemeanor," Stearns writes in an email to Manlove. "If he is taking a deferred, there is no offer. I will note, I am not in agreement with the deferred."

The judge allowed Mike to use the deferred disposition, despite the prosecutor's objection. So, he pleaded guilty to the two felonies, but still faced the $10 theft charge. Mike was found guilty at trial, but the judge did not impose any jail time or community service.

Asked why Stearns did not consider dismissing the minor charge in exchange for community service, Collins, the supervisor, says offender accountability was a higher priority.

"We have here two discrete criminal acts, separated in time," Collins says. "[Mike] was advised not to commit any new criminal law violations [after the felony charges], and within a week he was stealing again."

She adds: "And really, is this somebody we want doing community service? Somebody who takes advantage of people who are trying to help him?"

Mike, for his part, has one word for how his case was handled: "Petty."

"If this kid had been living with mom and dad, and he took his brother's money, this wouldn't be a crime," Manlove says. "This would never have happened if he wasn't a ward of the state."