Ballard rape has community asking why Seattle doesn't run warrant checks at homeless encampments

After a rape in a Ballard business’ bathroom, KIRO 7 learned the suspect had a warrant out for his arrest for burglary and trespassing.

Christopher Teel, 24, was staying in the Nickelsville's city-sanctioned homeless encampment less than a week before the crime.

Now taxpayers are asking why the suspect was allowed at the homeless camp, and what the city could’ve done to prevent the crime.

“That would definitely be something that should be screened by the city before somebody even gets to stay in the encampment to let them know who they’re letting in there,” said Wendy Smith, who says she frequently works in Ballard.

Teel’s warrant was related to a 2016 allegation of burglary and trespass in Magnolia, where he allegedly broke into and squatted in someone’s home for more than a week while the residents were out of town.

He came to Seattle from Texas in 2015 and had been staying at the Nickelsville encampment until May 9.

The camp said in a statement, “Chris had not signed into camp or been seen there since Wednesday May 9th, 2018.  Other participants were worried.  He seemed to be decompensating, but no recourse for help was known, especially since he had disappeared.”

According to prosecutors, on Monday Teel raped a 40-year-old woman. Court documents say he admitted to following her into a bathroom at the Carter Volkswagen with the intent of having sex with her. Then he broke into her stall, grabbed her by the throat and raped her.

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“It scares me,” said Tracey Tran who lives nearby in Ballard. “I don’t want to have to worry about things like this.”

Now the crime has people calling for background checks that look for outstanding warrants at city encampments.

“There was a warrant out for his arrest and now a woman got raped because they didn't do their job,” Smith said.

Nicklesville says it's job is to provide services - and it doesn't do warrant checks.

And the Seattle Police Department says its officers legally can't do warrant checks.

“As far as random checks on people, it's just not something we're able to do,” said Sean Whitcomb, a spokesperson for the police department. “There are very strict constitutional guidelines that regulate when and where we can ask someone for their identification,” he said.

Whitcomb says officers need to suspect criminal activity or probable cause before they can get personal information to run a warrant check.

Officers can ask for your name and ID, but the law says the person being asked must feel comfortable saying “no” and feel they’re able to walk away without consequences.

“That is so critical to this conversation. People have to feel like they can say no. Otherwise, it's a detention, or is perceived as a detention,” Whitcomb said.

Whitcomb poses a scenario where officers were asking for people to voluntarily give their names and ID at an encampment.

“You've got two or three officers there, and they’re talking to someone laying down in a shelter and sleeping bag. Do they really feel free to leave?” Whitcomb said.

Seattle University professor Deborah Ahrens specializes in criminal law. She says it’s difficult for people to truly feel like a request from an officer is voluntary.

“You either feel like you have to cooperate, or you want to cooperate,” she said. “A lot of people don’t understand they have the ability to say no.”

Ahrens also makes the point that implementing policies like warrant checks could have unintended consequences such as people choosing to refuse services and sleep on the streets.

“Unfortunately, when you have a high-profile case, people get upset and we end up with solutions that cause more problems than the original problem without solving the original problem,” Ahrens said.

She also notes that most warrants are for missed court dates related to misdemeanor, non-violent crimes.

“The vast majority of people who have those warrants are not going to be in any realistic sense a public danger,” Ahrens said. “Most of us would be advised to not let a couple of high-profile, really tragic and horrifying incidents change how we regard our fellow man.”

But people in Ballard are hoping for more accountability from the city to keep the community and vulnerable people inside encampments safe.

“There should be something where they can screen. If they're going to be staying at a sanctioned camp paid for by the city of Seattle, then yeah. It’s kind of a no-brainer to me,” Smith said.

Police say they’re looking into both the legality and the feasibility of whether city employees would be able to run background warrant checks, even if the law prohibits officers from doing so.