Okanogan County Prosecuting Attorney Branden Platter faces Arian Noma in the race for the county’s top legal adviser.
Background and experience
Branden Platter was appointed as prosecuting attorney in August 2017 to replace Karl Sloan, who resigned the month before. Before that, Platter had been Okanogan County’s chief criminal deputy prosecutor for three years. Because Platter was appointed to the seat, he was required to run for the office in the next election.
Platter prefers the Democratic party. He was one of two candidates submitted to the commissioners by the county’s Democratic party after Sloan, also a Democrat, resigned. “I consider myself a conservative Democrat. I’m conservative because of my focus on public safety and on accountability for offenders,” he said.
Before becoming an attorney, Platter worked in landscape construction.
Assessment of current system
The prosecutor’s office faces limited resources for a large caseload, with only two and a half attorneys for felonies, said Platter. Felonies in the county have gone from 350 in 2013 to about 500 today, with the vast majority connected to drugs and chemical dependency, he said. District Court handles twice as many cases, with only two deputy prosecutors.
“We have to prioritize which cases we charge,” said Platter, who said his office has to devote scarce resources to violent crimes and sex offenses. “I believe my job is to protect the public.”
For almost all misdemeanors, charges are filed by law enforcement officers. The prosecutor isn’t involved until the defendant’s first appearance, said Platter.
Platter provides guidance to law enforcement to help them determine what to charge. Sometimes they drop charges after an initial filing, based on a range of factors, from the impact on the victim to the seriousness of the crime. A police officer is required to make an arrest, if it’s a felony, but the decisions about formal charges come at the preliminary hearing, he said.
Platter is passionate about finding justice for children. “Cases involving kids are what made me want to be a prosecutor,” he said. He relies on a strong rapport with children that helps them feel comfortable talking about their experiences. In some cases, it can be more traumatic to the victim to bring charges, he said.
Alternatives to prosecution
A county prosecutor has many opportunities for diversion (treatment or rehabilitation alternatives). For juveniles, the law requires diversion in some cases, said Platter. For adults, in cases where chemical dependency or mental health is a factor, they often negotiate a deferral. If the defendant successfully completes a treatment program, the charge is expunged from the person’s record.
In some approaches to diversion, contracts are managed by an outside company. Platter said he rejected that approach because the high fees would make the option available only to people with financial resources. “The money is the hardest part for a lot of these people. I don’t want people to fail because they can’t pay,” he said.
Both the prosecutor and defense attorney suggest an amount for bail, but the decision is up to the judge, said Platter.
In negotiations over alternatives to prosecution, the victim must be consulted, said Platter. “Morally and ethically, we have to take the impact on victims into account — that’s what we’re here for,” he said.
Okanogan County has both drug and DUI courts, which have national eligibility criteria and can be very effective. If someone is eligible, they screen that individual right away, said Platter. For non-violent offenders, there is also the state’s Drug Offender Sentencing Alternative, which can cut a sentence in half in conjunction with rehab.
Advising county commissioners
By state law, the prosecuting attorney is the legal adviser to the county commissioners, said Platter. If the commissioners want to do something, the prosecutor lets them know whether it’s legal and suggests legal ways to do it. “Once they make a decision, the prosecutor’s job is to defend it, whether we like it or not,” he said.
Arian Noma, an attorney with the Law Office of Thomason Justice in Pateros, is challenging Platter.
Noma prefers the Republican Party. He describes himself as “a liberal Republican” and said he prefers the party because of its support for individual rights. “I don’t believe in majority rule in terms of liberty,” he said. Each person should be able to exercise his or her inalienable rights as long as it doesn’t infringe on others, said Noma.
Background and experience
Before joining Thomason Justice two years ago, Noma had a private legal practice in Tonasket, which he started after moving back to his native Washington in 2014.
Before that, Noma was an assistant state’s attorney in Baltimore City and in rural Carroll County, Maryland. He then opened a private practice as a defense attorney in Maryland and Washington, D.C., where he focused on immigration cases, criminal defense and prosecution, and civil litigation such as personal injury and breach of contract.
In Washington state, the bulk of his cases have been related to immigration. Most of these cases have involved helping people who are married to a citizen with their citizenship application. Some have been under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. He hasn’t worked on deportations.
Assessment of current system
Noma has a harsh critique of what he describes as “over-criminalization” of minor infractions, particularly of young people. The best example of that is truancy, where the majority of youths end up in the adult judicial system, he said.
Noma believes that excessive bail contributes to increased costs for the county. Bail should be used to reduce the risk of harm, not to lock someone up simply because that person can’t afford bail, he said.
Another important issue in Okanogan County is the lack of communication and cooperation between the sheriff’s office and the county prosecutor, said Noma. It’s important to coordinate the “boots on the ground and the book work,” he said. More cooperation would lead to a higher conviction rate, he said.
Alternatives to prosecution
Noma wants to see “100-percent complete prosecutorial reform, top to bottom,” in Okanogan County. He said state law gives prosecutors considerable discretion, he said.
Noma supports an overall reallocation of resources, investing in schools and counselors instead of prisons. His reforms would shift the focus — particularly in the juvenile system — from law enforcement and prosecution to early intervention through social services and health care. He points to studies that show that if a teacher or social-service provider visits a child twice a week between the ages of zero and 5, the child will be 90 percent more likely to finish school and be employed.
Noma wants a system that would instill proper values and morals in children from an early age. Providing someone a young person can talk to and someone who will provide love and support would go a long way toward their becoming a productive member of society, he said.
While Noma says he would actively prosecute serious crimes like murder, arson or burglary, when it comes to theft, he would look at the larger context. Many people commit thefts because they are poor and hungry or addicted to drugs, he said.
“I believe the prosecutor has complete discretion,” said Noma. As prosecutor, if he believes a conviction wouldn’t serve the public interest, he could dismiss it, he said.
Goals and visions
Noma would like to see job-training, education and literacy programs for people accused of minor, non-violent crimes. “It saves money every time you keep someone out of the prison,” he said.
Adviser to the county
Noma sees the prosecuting attorney as the “in-house counsel for the commissioners.”
“What I can promise the people is that no party or group can influence me in any direction,” he said.
In advising the commissioners, Noma would review the facts in the context of applicable law and advise about the potential for a decision to lead to litigation. He said he’d do whatever he could to keep the county out of court. “Hopefully we would figure out a way to save the county money,” he said.