Washington Supreme Court rules the state cannot make innocent activity a felony

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · February 25, 2021

Today, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the state cannot make innocent conduct illegal. In doing so, it struck down Washington’s felony drug possession statute, RCW 69.50.4013, because it criminalizes any and all drug possession, even when the person unknowingly possesses an illegal drug. The case is State v. Blake, No. 96873-0. 

The case concerned the conviction of Sharon Blake from Spokane, Washington. Ms. Blake was arrested for possessing a small baggy of methamphetamine in the coin pocket of her jeans. She argued that she had bought the jeans the previous day from a thrift store and did not know there had been drugs in the jeans when she wore them.  

Washington felony drug possession statute, however, makes it a crime to possess drugs even if the person had no idea that they were doing so. This statute is a “strict liability” statute, so a defendant’s state of mind, or “mens rea,” was irrelevant. Under the statute, a postal employee who unwittingly delivered a package containing drugs or the person who plucked the wrong bag at the airport are all as equally guilty as a person who intentionally trafficked drugs. Out of all states, only Washington had such a strict liability possession law. 

As a result, the court overturned Ms. Blake’s conviction. In doing so, the court recognized the ancient requirement thatwith very few exceptionscriminal laws may only punish knowing, deliberate conduct. It therefore struck down Washington’s felony drug possession law, leaving it to the Washington Legislature to pass a possession law consistent with constitutional guarantees. 

“Today’s decision recognizes what should be obvious—except in exceedingly rare instances, people who unknowingly or unwittingly violate a law cannot be convicted of crimes,” said William Maurer, the Managing Attorney of the Institute for Justice’s Seattle, Washington, office. The court specifically requested that IJ file a friend-of-the-court brief regarding the constitutionality of the law. “This recognition is particularly welcome now when we have seen how overzealous criminal prosecutions have harmed people across the country.”   

With the law struck down, the Washington Legislature will need to pass a new law if it intends to keep the knowing possession of drugs illegal. Maurer added, “When it addresses this issue the Washington Legislature must respect citizen’s due process rights and not needlessly criminalize any conduct that poses no threat to society.”