I’ve been particularly interested in citizen prosecutions ever since I became a criminal defendant in one (for only a short time, thankfully). Yesterday’s Washington Supreme Court decision in Stout v. Felix offers an example, though concludes the prosecution was barred by the statute of limitations:
This case asks us to decide whether a citizen’s affidavit is sufficient to initiate criminal proceedings under the citizen complaint rule, CrRLJ 2.1(c). Under the citizen complaint rule, “[a]ny person” may initiate criminal proceedings. CrRLJ 2.1(c). To begin the process, the person must appear before a judge to present their allegations. They may also file an affidavit, and the judge may provide the potential defendant, the prosecuting attorney, and other potential witnesses an opportunity to be heard. Then, the judge considers the evidence, makes a probable cause determination, and weighs a number of factors before authorizing the citizen to sign and file the criminal complaint. [Even if the judge finds probable cause is present, the weighing of the factors, noted in the concurring opinion quoted below, may lead the judge to refuse to authorize the prosecution. -EV]
We hold that under CrRLJ 2.1, criminal proceedings are initiated by the filing of a criminal complaint, and an affidavit under CrRLJ 2.1(c) is only part of the citizen’s request for the court’s approval to file the complaint. Here, the criminal complaint was not filed before the expiration of the statute of limitations. Therefore, we affirm the district court’s dismissal of the citizen complaint as untimely.
Here is a quick summary of the background facts:
Felix is a Department of Social and Health Services social worker who was involved in child welfare matters regarding Thomas Stout’s two children. On October 4, 2016, Felix signed two dependency petitions under penalty of perjury, alleging that Stout’s children were dependent. Stout disputed Felix’s factual account in the dependency petitions. He alleged that Felix committed the crime of false swearing when she made certain statements in the petitions. The crime of false swearing is a gross misdemeanor with a two-year statute of limitations….
Justice Mary Yu (joined by Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud) wrote separately, to argue that private prosecutions are unconstitutional, a matter that the majority didn’t reach (for a contrary view, see this amicus brief by lawyer Adam P. Karp):
No elected prosecuting attorney has ever charged Felix with any crime relating to Stout’s allegations. No grand jury has charged her, either. No one has. Stout failed to timely file his would-be “charges,” and every court to consider his arguments for disregarding the statute of limitations (and Felix’s constitutional rights) has correctly rejected them. Yet Felix has been forced to defend herself against Stout’s attempted “prosecution” in three different courts for nearly three years. This bizarre circumstance was brought about by the “citizen complaint rule,” an easily abused, judge-made rule that does nothing to advance justice.
The citizen complaint rule is not merely bad policy. It also derogates our constitutional vision of separation of powers among three branches of government. Within this constitutional framework, a judicial officer cannot determine in the first instance whether criminal charges should be filed against an individual without usurping the authority of the executive branch. But that is precisely what the plain language of the citizen complaint rule requires judges to do. Therefore, on its face, the citizen complaint rule violates the separations of powers doctrine, “‘one of the cardinal and fundamental principles of the American constitutional system'” that “forms the basis of our state gov
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