The Washington Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously upheld a five-year prison sentence for a Spokane man who stole $15 worth of food from a Spokane grocery store and then repeatedly punched a security guard who confronted him in the parking lot.
In its 9-0 opinion, the court ruled that the state’s theft law was drafted in a manner that included the behavior of Lance Thomason, 35, on September 5, 2018, when a security guard stopped him at the gate of the North Foothills. Yoke’s Fresh Market with the food stuffed in his pants. But a court chief justice agreed said the law, and the resulting 63-month sentence, “reflect deep-seated problems with our sentencing systems”.
The Spokane County District Attorney’s Office initially requested a first-degree larceny charge against Thomason. According to court records, Thomason entered the store around 4:30 p.m. and grabbed $14.98 worth of hamburgers, hot dogs and cheese, then walked out the front door without paying.
A security guard stopped Thomason in the parking lot, where the two struggled. Thomason was charged with throwing four to five punches in the incident, several of which struck the officer on the left side of his face. Thomason then fled to his nearby house.
The court filing indicates that a warrant for Thomason’s arrest was not issued until January 2019, following a similar incident at the Yoke supermarket. During this incident, Thomason attempted to steal a box of donuts. He punched another security guard in the eye and kicked a third in the stomach before being arrested.
Thomason was first brought to trial in the September 2018 incident, where a jury found him guilty of second-degree robbery. The charge had been downgraded by the prosecution before the trial. To be guilty of this charge, a defendant must have taken something by “use of the threat of immediate use of force, violence or fear of injury” and “the degree of force is immaterial” .
Spokane County Superior Court Judge Michael Price said before handing down the 63-month sentence, which was at the lower end of a legally established guideline range, that she appeared to be “a glorified shoplifting charge” and said that “I don’t have a lot of discretion here. Thomason seized on that statement by appealing the case to the Court of Appeals and later to the Supreme Court, arguing that the relatively low value of the food and the “minor force” should allow the judge to impose a lower sentence.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, pointed out that Thomason was convicted of eight crimes, including armed robbery when he was 17 and pointed a gun at a woman in the Logan neighborhood, demanding money , DVDs and speakers. He was eventually sentenced to 12 years in prison for this charge. Prosecutors also disputed that the force was “minor”.
“There were injuries, albeit minor ones, and there was sufficient evidence, sufficient probable cause, to bring a first-degree robbery charge against Mr. Thomason,” said Alexis Lundgren, assistant county prosecutor. Spokane, during oral argument in the state Supreme Court. in January.
The court sided with prosecutors, finding that Thomason had not raised any issues with the judge that would warrant a lesser criminal sentence. But Chief Justice Steven Gonzalez, drafting an agreement, said he was concerned about the court’s interpretation of the law that continues to cause disproportionate sentences for people of color and poor defendants, particularly the law that sets standard guidelines for sentencing in courts.
“Although, perhaps, (this law) limits some judicial discrimination and favoritism in sentencing, it does so at the cost of preventing judges from avoiding imposing a sentence motivated by the inherent injustices in the criminal justice system, no matter how obvious those injustices might be,” Gonzalez wrote.
It was this argument that caught the attention of Camerina Zorrozua, a local defense attorney and co-founder of Way to Justice, a nonprofit representing defendants and pushing for justice reforms. Zorrozua wrote a brief with the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington arguing to overturn Thomason’s sentence.
“The Thomason case is just one more example of how we misuse criminal security money to address poverty issues,” Zorrozua said, referring to both the City of Spokane sit-and-lie ordinance and state drug possession. law, since overturned, that criminalized possession even if the person did not know they had the drug.
Two days after being convicted of the second-degree robbery charge, Thomason pleaded guilty to criminal mischief in the January 2019 incident at Yoke’s. He received a 352-day sentence with credit for time served up to that point.
Thomason is in custody at the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, where he is serving time for the theft.