House passes bill to clear tribal fishing convictions

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OLYMPIA — American Indian tribal members arrested while exercising their treaty fishing rights before 1975 would get the chance to clear their criminal records under a measure passed by the House Thursday.

House Bill 2080, which passed by a vote of 92-6, would allow those tribal members to apply to the sentencing court to expunge their misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor or felony convictions. Family members and tribal officials could also seek a vacated criminal record on behalf of a deceased person. The court would have the discretion to vacate the conviction, unless certain conditions apply, such as if the person was convicted for a violent crime or crime against a person.

"We have a responsibility to try and make things right," said the bill's prime sponsor Rep. David Sawyer, D-Tacoma. "It simply allows tribal members to apply to have those convictions vacated so they can live their lives in dignity. It's essentially an apology as well."

Tribal members and others were roughed up, harassed and arrested in the 1960s and 1970s while asserting their right to fish for salmon off-reservation under treaties signed with the federal government more than 100 years before. At the time, however, those acts violated Washington state regulations, and there were raids by game wardens and other clashes with police.

The Northwest fish-ins known as the "Fish Wars" were modeled after civil rights movement sit-ins and were part of larger demonstrations to assert American Indian rights nationwide.

"This bill comes too late, but I'm glad it's arrived," said Rep. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup.

The bill now heads to the Senate.