Long case filing delays in Seattle City Attorney's office allow suspects to commit other crimes

by: Casey McNerthney and Dave Wagner Updated:

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Accused criminals in Seattle have been left to commit new crimes during long filing delays by the Seattle City Attorney’s office, a KIRO 7 investigation uncovered.

In dozens of cases, charges were not filed for months -- sometimes even more than a year -- after suspects were arrested. When charges were eventually filed, assistants working for Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes often gave no explanation for the delays.

This means that in cases where suspects are arrested for domestic violence and other serious crimes, they’ve been allowed to go free while waiting for charges.

In one case where police say a suspect committed other crimes while prosecutors waited to file, a judge described the actions by the City Attorney’s office as “a continuing problem.”

Speaking of the defendant in open court, the judge said the felony case he was later accused of “perhaps could have been avoided if the city was more diligent.”

That sentiment has been echoed by multiple police officers and others in city government. But Seattle police must get a supervisor’s approval before speaking to reporters, and department officials did not comment. 

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes.

KIRO 7 tried to interview Holmes, but he declined, instead offering the chief of the criminal division, Kelly Harris.

“We’re not going to file cases quickly to satisfy what the judge might think, or what SPD might think and jeopardize our ability to make sure we’re making just and fair filing decisions,” Harris said. "That’s what’s more important. We’re not going to sacrifice fairness and justice for expediency.”

Holmes filing less cases than predecessor

The City Attorney’s staff said they are facing technology, funding and manpower issues.

“We have 13,000 cases coming in a year,” Harris said. “We have six people reviewing them.”

However, in dozens of cases reviewed by KIRO 7, it appears that no additional police investigation was needed before filing charges.

In Holmes' 2012 annual report, he said that when a suspect is arrested, the domestic violence unit typically makes a filing decision within 24 hours. He goes on to say that “undue filing delays can have a negative impact on public safety.”

State law regarding domestic violence states that “the public attorney responsible for making the decision whether or not to prosecute shall advise the victim of that decision within five days.”

On the campaign trail in 2009, Holmes made it clear he wanted changes in the City Attorney’s office. One clear area of change is the overall number of cases filed.

In 2011, Holmes office filed 33 percent fewer cases than his predecessor did in 2009, according to Seattle Municipal Court records obtained by KIRO 7. Most of the reduction is in cases other than domestic violence and drunken driving. Follow this link to see the case filings from 2008 through 2016.

In 2011, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes filed 33 percent fewer cases than his predecessor did in 2009. This is a list from Seattle Municipal Court of cases filed between 2008 and 2016.

In 2010, Holmes’ first year in office, he fired 14 attorneys and replaced some with less-experienced lawyers, according to a Seattle Times report. He also added two administrative positions. In that article, former Criminal Division Chief Bob Hood said, “I have never seen a more inept, disorganized and, quite frankly, vindictive transition than this one in 30 years of public life.”

KIRO 7 asked Harris for the number of Seattle cases that have been referred to the City Attorney’s Office but not yet filed. That information wasn’t immediately provided.

‘I like it when your eyes roll back in your head.’

Joseph Buffalino is a former professional boxer with a criminal history that includes domestic violence, assault, harassment and drugs.

On September 7, 2016, he was arrested after police said he robbed a Rite Aid and violated a domestic violence order to stay away from his girlfriend.

After five days in jail, Buffalino was released without charges being filed.

Joseph Buffalino was charged with felony assault in the time when Seattle City Attorney's office had not filed charges. He was convicted in the Seattle case for violating terms of a domestic violence protection order against him.

A month later, when charges still had not been filed, police said Buffalino stalked his now ex-girlfriend at a Seattle IHOP restaurant and assaulted an assistant manager who tried to stand between them.

“He took a swing, and he got me in the arm a little bit,” assistant manager Mike Meads said. “What was he doing out in the first place?”

The following month, when charges still had not been filed in the original case, police said Buffalino punched his girlfriend in the head while choking her with both hands. As she was about to lose consciousness, he allegedly said, “I like it when your eyes roll back in your head.”

“This is a good case to show why this is a continuing problem,” Judge Steve Rosen said in open court after charges were filed in the original case. “Mr. Buffalino is charged with an exceedingly serious domestic violence felony assault and strangulation that perhaps could have been avoided if the city was more diligent." 

In court, the assistant city attorney handling the case, Jeff Kaatz, said, “I cannot provide a direct response as to why there was a delay in filing.”

In cases KIRO 7 reviewed, assistant city attorneys in Seattle did not give reasons for months-long filing delays. Pictured here is Jeff Kaatz, who was prosecuting the Joseph Buffalino case.

Last month, Buffalino pleaded guilty in his original Seattle case for violating terms of the domestic violence protection order against him.

After 16 months without charges, case dismissed

On April 19, 2015, businessman Francis Piscal was on his way to mass when he said a stranger punched him in the head at the corner of 4th Avenue and Pike Street in Seattle.

“I turned around and began to be assaulted, punched in the face,” said Piscal, who believes the attack was unprovoked. Piscal said he was hit more than two dozen times.

His alleged attacker, Marion Knight, has a long history of assault cases. The time between Piscal’s incident and when the City Attorney’s Office filed charges was more than 16 months.

In that time, Knight was convicted of assaulting two other people, including a manager at a Capitol Hill QFC.

Marion Knight had his assault case dismissed after a more than 16-month delay in filing charges by the Seattle City Attorney's office. The judge in the case said the delay was "inexcusable" and was caused "exclusively by the city's negligence."

Harris said the delay in filing came because it took months to track down a witness, and that witness did not want to cooperate.

“That case also had a situation where the arresting officer also had a potential Brady violation,” said Kelly Harris, of the City Attorney’s Office.

The Brady list is kept by prosecutors and includes the names of officers with potential credibility problems.

KIRO 7 requested those names from the King County Prosecutor’s Office, but did not see the arresting officer on lists of officers with known or potential credibility issues. Holmes’ spokeswoman later said that one of the officers “was still being considered” for the Brady list, but that the officer “may or may not end up being on the list once the investigation is over.”

In court, Judge Steve Rosen said the delay in Knight’s case was “inexcusable,” and said that it was caused “exclusively by the city’s negligence.”

“This inexcusable delay leaves me no choice but to dismiss the city's case at this time for violation of the Constitution's speedy trial grounds,” Rosen said last fall.

Harris said they weren’t anywhere close to the end of the statute of limitations in the case, and believes the case should not have been dismissed.

Today, Knight has an ongoing case for allegedly punching a police officer.

“It’s disappointing to learn that this same person assaulted two other people and then later assaulted a police officer,” Piscal said. “That’s very troubling.”

Rosen, who is now a King County Superior Court Judge, had strong words in court last November for the assistant city attorney who could not provide a clear reason for the filing delay in Knight’s case.

"I have repeatedly said that there are systemic problems at the city attorney's office with the delay in filing cases and it largely rests on the administrative side of the city attorney's office,” Rosen said.

Holmes’ spokeswoman responds

Through his spokeswoman, Holmes said that while there is always some tension among prosecutors, judges, public defenders and police officers in the pursuit of justice, he is “exceedingly pleased with the 2016 reorganization of the Criminal Division, which has increased efficiency both in timely filing of charges and pursuing cases to (completion).”

Holmes' spokeswoman also said he, Harris and Rosen met privately on November 17, the day after Knight's case was dismissed.

“DUI, DV and cases with victims must be reviewed within 10 days of the reports arriving in our office,” Holmes spokeswoman Kimberly Mills said in the written statement. “In-custody cases are filed within 48 hours of arrest, while the timing of out-of-custody charges depends on a host of various considerations, including availability of witnesses, interviews with victims, schedules of police officers and receiving in-car videos and 911 tapes.”

She also said that when Harris took the job last year, he increased the number of filing prosecutors from three to six.

Michael McKnight is a sex offender who police said assaulted a man in the time before the Seattle City Attorney's office filed charges in an earlier case.

“A great deal of effort has also been devoted to ensuring the office receives 911 tapes and in-car videos from SPD in as timely a manner as possible,” Mills said. Previously, it took months; now, it takes a few weeks, she said.

Without naming Knight’s case specifically, Mills said that only two cases were dismissed last year because of prosecutors violating speedy trial rules.

However, the City Attorney’s Office did not provide specific data to back up the statements.

“Our office can always do better, of course,” Mills said, “and Pete habitually seeks more resources from the City Council.”