Like most children, cities and other local government bodies often forget that they lack innate authority to enact laws; that the only authority they have to enact laws and levy taxes is the authority which their superiors, the state constitution or legislature, grant to them. Also like children, cities and local government bodies often try to evade the limits set by their superiors and, when caught in the act, expend enormous amounts of effort and money attempting to justify their errant presumption.
In Chan v. City of Seattle, 164 Wn. App. 549 (2011) the Washington Court of Appeals dealt with such a childish municipal escapade. Washington state law specifically prohibits cities, towns and counties from enacting local laws which are “inconsistent with, more restrictive than, or exceed the requirements of state law” relating to firearms. Washington law also explicitly declares that “the state of Washington hereby fully occupies the entire field of firearms regulation within the boundaries of the state.” RCW 9.41.290. Nonetheless, the City of Seattle was intent on banning citizens, including those duly licensed to carry a concealed handgun, from carrying firearms in its park facilities open to the public.
After Seattle’s mayor had proclaimed that the City’s policy was to eliminate guns from City property, the state attorney general’s office issued an opinion that state law preempted the City’s legal “authority to adopt firearms laws or regulations of application to the general public.” Disregarding that opinion, the City’s Parks and Recreation Department issued a “Rule/Policy” prohibiting the possession of firearms “as a Condition of Entry Into or Use of Designated Parks Department Facilities at which Children and Youth are Likely to be Present.” While the rule itself did not provide for any criminal penalties for violations, the City announced that any individual who refused to comply with the rule by remaining in a park facility while in possession of a firearm would be subject to arrest and prosecution for criminal trespass.
The City disingenuously argued that its “rule” or “policy” was not a “law” but, rather, was adopted by the City in a proprietary role as owner of its parks and park facilities and that it wasn’t a criminal law or ordinance. The Court of Appeals, like the Superior Court, rejected the City’s arguments and granted injunctive relief against the City while awarding the plaintiffs their attorney fees and costs.
Unsurprisingly, the Court of Appeals concluded that: (1) the City’s rule or policy was a rule of general application to the public as a whole, not a condition to use by an individual licensee, and thus “a law” and not a function of the City’s proprietary role as an “owner” of its park facilities; and, (2) that the law did have a criminal component to the extent its ultimate enforcement relied on the power to arrest and criminally prosecute violators for criminal trespass. Consequently, the Court of Appeals held that the City lacked authority to adopt its rule without authorization from the state legislature.
Having been duly spanked and sent to its room by both the Superior Court and the Court of Appeals, only time will tell if the City insists on carrying its irrational rebellion to the Washington Supreme Court.