Clallam County’s chief prosecutor tells of rise in violent crime

Nichols: “We are on track to double felony violent crime cases”

Clallam County has seen a steep increase in violent criminal cases since 2014, according to Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Nichols.

Felony violent offenses prosecuted by Nichols’ office have nearly doubled from 58 in 2014 to 99 in 2019, he told two dozen Port Angeles Business Association breakfast meeting participants on Feb. 4.

Totals for 2019 do not include 14 sex crimes and six homicide cases involving nine victims.

“Deeply concerning to me for a number of reasons is the precipitous increase we’re seeing in violent crime,” Nichols said.

“We are on track to double felony violent crime cases. Our population growth does not support that level of violent crime.”

Nichols emphasized in an email last week that stranger-on-stranger violent crime is still unusual.

“When compared to numerous other jurisdictions, Clallam County is still a very safe place to live,” he added.

Felony property crimes spiked from 97 in 2014 to 156 in 2016 before falling to 126 in 2019, according to a graph prepared by Nichols.

Parallel with violent crimes, prosecuted adult felony drug cases have gone up since 2014, initially dropping from 115 in 2014 to 90 in 2015 before spiking to 147 in 2019, the highest total over the six-year period.

Violent crimes dropped in 2015, too, to 48, before rising steadily to 99 last year, the highest number over six years.

“There’s a nexus between drug crimes and violent crime,” Nichols said. “They tend to rise and fall in a fairly consistent posture over the course of the last six years.”

Loss of life crimes have increased, Nichols said.

The half-dozen homicide cases include three victims discovered New Year’s Day, 2019, on Bear Meadow Road in Sequim. Authorities believe they were killed Dec. 26, 2018.

One homicide case has not been charged and so is not included in Nichols’ calculations — the killing of Valerie Claplanhoo, slain Jan. 2, 2019, in her Sequim apartment.

The case remains under investigation by the Sequim Police Department.

Judging by population, a county the size of Clallam should have two to three murders a year, Nichols said.

“Homicides run the price tag through the roof in terms of prosecution,” he added.

Nichols said the county has applied for state reimbursement of more than $406,000 for 2019 homicide-related expenditures but won’t know until midyear if it’s been approved.

Another reimbursement request will be submitted for 2020, he predicted.

“These cases have a life span of one to three years,” he said.

The number of sex crimes remain static, as 16 were prosecuted in 2014 and 14 in 2019.

They continue to take time to investigate, as was noted in an affidavit on the strain of existing law enforcement workloads during the investigation into the Bear Meadow Road homicides.

“Seventy to 80 percent of the investigations that are referred to detectives are sex crimes and/or child abuse,” Port Angeles Police Detective Tyler Peninger said in the affidavit.

Other costs include county expenditures for indigent defense, which county Commissioner Randy Johnson said at the meeting is about $1.6 million.

Nichols said there is a bill in the state House of Representatives that would make those county expenditures the state’s responsibility.

Nichols said the number of homeless defendants in Superior Court “is fairly low.”

He distinguished people who are homeless from those who are “criminally transient,” moving from one friend’s couch to another’s, who may be homeless for a week, then find another place to stay.

“We have a sizable number of criminally transient people,” Nichols said.

“Just because someone is homeless does not mean they are involved in criminal activity,” he added.

“Some percentage does come into the criminal justice system,” Nichols said, citing criminal trespass, a misdemeanor.

The number of cases Nichols is prosecuting has steadily increased as a percentage of the cases that law enforcement has referred to his office between 2014-2019, he said.

Nichols filed charges in 60 percent of 839 cases that were referred to his office by law enforcement in 2014 compared to 76 percent of 731 cases referred in 2019.

Reasons for not filing charges include a determination that evidence is lacking for a conviction.

One thing that has not changed that much: the percentage of cases that are prosecuted that reach trial.

That was never higher than 5 percent between 2014-2019 and was 3 percent in 2019.

“Most cases resolve through a plea bargain of some form or another,” Nichols said.

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