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News / Northwest

Burien sues King County, Sheriff claiming breach of contract

By Anna Patrick, The Seattle Times
Published: March 29, 2024, 7:39am

SEATTLE — Burien is taking King County to court over claims that the Sheriff’s Office is violating a contract with the city by not enforcing a key part of the city’s policy on homelessness.

The lawsuit, filed in Snohomish County, is a direct response to King County Sheriff’s Office halting its enforcement of Burien’s anti-camping ordinance and asking a federal judge to advise whether the ordinance is constitutional.

Burien’s ordinance is also being challenged in King County Superior Court.

Homelessness affects cities across King County, but Burien has attracted attention since early 2023 as city leaders have been slow to accept offers of help and quick to pass enforcement measures to discourage outdoor camping in public places.

King County Sheriff Patricia Cole-Tindall and King County asked on March 11 for a U.S. District Court judge to decide whether deputies working as Burien police can legally enforce the camping ban, and said the Sheriff’s Office wouldn’t until it received an answer. A few days later its legal team filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to receive a faster decision on the constitutionality of Burien’s newly adopted ordinance.

The motion of preliminary injunction came hours after Burien Mayor Kevin Schilling blamed King County via email in the death of a man who fatally overdosed in a tent in downtown Burien.

While they wait, the city decided to sue the sheriff and King County on Wednesday, claiming they are in breach of its more than $16 million interlocal agreement by refusing to enforce any portion of its current camping law. The lawsuit was first reported by B-Town Blog.

“I’m proud that the city of Burien is raising concerns with the county and Sheriff in court over their actions related to our [interlocal agreement],” said Schilling.

The agreement guides King County’s contract to provide law enforcement to Burien and, according to claims in the lawsuit, requires both parties to undergo a resolution process before taking legal action. Burien claims that did not happen and should have.

“In breaching the interlocal agreement, King County has placed its judgment over that of Burien’s duly elected officials,” according to a statement released on Burien’s website Thursday.

The Sheriff’s Office rebutted that claim in a statement Thursday.

Burien updated a citywide camping ban March 4 and included a map, showing swaths of city property off-limits to homeless people. It created “buffer” zones that prevented people from camping within 500 feet of schools, day care centers, libraries, parks and other “critical areas.”

Cole-Tindall and King County argue that deputies are sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution, “not the whims of humans who issue directives contrary to the Constitution,” according to their federal case. And therefore, they claim,the Sheriff’s Office needs to understand whether Burien’s camping law is constitutionally sound before telling deputies to enforce it.

“Burien’s attempt to avoid a binding judgment by filing a lawsuit in Snohomish County is just a misguided distraction as we await decision from the federal court,” said the statement by the Sheriff’s Office.

Before the ordinance was amended and the buffer zones added, Burien was also sued in King County Superior Court by three homeless people and the nonprofit Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness over whether the camping ordinance complies with Washington’s Constitution.

None of these cases has been reviewed by a judge yet. A ruling on the sheriff’s motion for preliminary injunction to determine the ordinance’s constitutionality could happen as soon as next month.