Washougal Mayor Sean Guard will face a misdemeanor charge in Cowlitz County for a December incident in which he allegedly used the emergency lights on his city-owned vehicle to pass slower traffic on Interstate 5, court officials said Thursday.
Guard has a July 6 arraignment date for a gross misdemeanor charge of criminal impersonation in the second degree of a law enforcement officer, said Delaura Wirkkala, a Cowlitz County court administrator. Gross misdemeanors carry maximum penalties of one year in jail and a $5,000 fine.
“I apologize again to the community and our wonderful staff for creating this embarrassing situation,” Guard said via email Thursday. “There is no one to blame but myself for making a poor decision to use my city-assigned vehicle that day.”
A Washington state trooper stopped Guard on Dec. 24 after reportedly witnessing him flashing emergency lights on I-5 near Kelso to urge slower-moving vehicles into the right lane. Guard was assigned a retired police car upon taking office in 2009. He said the vehicle had hazard lights, but not emergency lights, in an article published in the Dec. 28 edition of The Columbian.
The Washington State Patrol forwarded the trooper’s report to the Cowlitz County’s Prosecutor’s Office for further review.
Prior to charging Guard this week, prosecutors worked with the Washington State Patrol on a follow-up investigation pertaining to the mayor’s traffic stop, said Michelle Shaffer, an attorney and spokeswoman for the Cowlitz County Prosecutor’s Office. She did not provide specifics on the investigation or explain why it took six months to charge Guard.
The Revised Code of Washington (RCW) defines criminal impersonation of a police officer as someone who “claims to be a law enforcement officer or creates an impression that he or she is a law enforcement officer.”
The Cowlitz County District Court will mail Guard his misdemeanor summons today, Wirkkala said.
There is no court record of Guard hiring an attorney because he has not been notified of the charge. Guard would not be required to attend court July 6 if he hires an attorney and they file a “notice of appearance.”
If Guard chose not to attend, his attorney could enter a not guilty plea for him, and he would have a pre-trial date set. However, his attorney would not be able to enter a guilty plea for him, Shaffer said.
Regardless of Guard’s plea, he is expected to keep his mayor’s seat.
Washougal council members said they believed state law did not require elected officials convicted of a misdemeanor to vacate office. It does require elected officials convicted of a felony to step down, they said.
Attempts to independently verify this with legal experts were unsuccessful Thursday afternoon.
Council members expressed surprise at Guard’s legal predicament. They figured that, because they had not heard anything about his traffic stop in months, he would not be charged.
“It’s caught us off-guard,” councilman Jon Russell said. “I thought we had heard the last of it.”
“I’m flabbergasted,” fellow councilman Paul Greenlee added. Greenlee did not believe the council would be able to reprimand Guard for his alleged actions because the alleged crime happened on his personal time.
Washougal Mayor Pro-Tem Jennifer McDaniel shared her fellow council member’s surprise. She said she long viewed the incident as “out of sight, out of mind.”
Guard’s charge comes on the heels of Washougal’s council voting Monday night on an ethics policy for elected officials. Guard pushed for the city to adopt such a policy to hold officials accountable.
How much Guard’s criminal charge affects public perception of him will largely depend on how the community viewed him before this week, said Mark Stephan, an associate professor of political science at Washington State University in Vancouver.
For those who view Guard as a good public servant, this alleged incident could lead them to question their previous opinions. For those who believe he is doing a less than stellar job, it could amplify their beliefs, Stephan said.
Guard’s alleged offense falls far short of the type of political gaffes that lead politicians to resign.
“It is an abuse of privilege of the position,” Stephan said, regarding allegations against Guard, “but it’s minor in the grand scheme of things.”
Stephan continued, “It’s an embarrassment to him but it’s not on the same level as fraud or a crime of moral turpitude.”
Whether the Washougal council discusses Guard’s misdemeanor charge at Monday night’s meeting remains to be seen.
But on Wednesday afternoon, Washougal Planning Commissioner Mike Briggs sent an email to the council warning them to think twice if they would “try to unduly embarrass the Mayor” at the council meeting or online.
“I will do what I can to bring you to bear for this kind of shameful conduct,” Briggs wrote in the email, alleging that council members posted on newspaper websites under aliases.
Russell called Briggs’ email a first for him during his time on the council.
“I’ve never seen someone say we can’t talk about something,” Russell said.
McDaniel also criticized Briggs’ email, describing it as having a “threatening” tone.
“That’s just the craziest email,” she said, adding she had never received an email from someone demanding she not hold another official accountable for wrongdoing.
Briggs, who serves on the commission as a volunteer, declined comment for this article via email Thursday.
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