A Kent judge dismissed criminal charges against a man over incidents at Meridian Elementary School after state officials estimated mid-July would be the earliest they could have room for him at a mental health facility.
“I can’t legally justify to hold him for six months (in the city jail) in hopes the date could come earlier and a bed be available before then,” Kent Municipal Court Judge Michael Frans said prior to his Jan. 18 ruling to dismiss the charges for intimidating a school employee and harassment. “As much as it pains me to do so. … I hoped to not be in this position.”
Frans ruled Noah W. Peterson, 26, incompetent to stand trial on Dec. 30 after two competency evaluations. That ruling also included an order for restoration treatment for Peterson at a state mental health facility through the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). Those services would be an attempt to help Peterson become competent to stand trial.
Peterson had faced the two misdemeanor charges after a Nov. 14, 2022 incident near Meridian Elementary, 25621 140th Ave. SE, on the East Hill. The incident resulted in a school lockdown for one day, closure for four days and a town hall meeting to discuss the case that drew nearly 150 people.
Peterson will remain in the city jail at least until another hearing at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 24 at Kent Municipal Court, said City Attorney Tammy White in a Jan. 19 email.
As required by law, a designated crisis responder (DCR) will evaluate Peterson for civil commitment.
“The court is allowed to detain Mr. Peterson for sufficient time to allow a DCR time to evaluate him,” White said. “The DCR will be conducting an evaluation to determine whether Mr. Peterson presents an imminent likelihood of serious harm or imminent danger because of him being gravely disabled.”
The Jan. 24 hearing is to check on the outcome of the DCR’s evaluation.
“If Mr. Peterson is determined by the DCR to present an imminent likelihood of serious harm or imminent danger, then he will be released from the jail and subjected to civil commitment proceedings through King County,” White said.
White said the city of Kent is neither involved nor a party to those civil commitment proceedings; they are exclusively within the jurisdiction of King County.
“If Mr. Peterson is not civilly committed, then, our court will consider, and in all likelihood, grant a defense motion to release the defendant,” White said.
State has no room
As part of the case, Dr. Thomas J. Kinlen, director of Office of Forensic Mental Health Services with the Behavioral Health Administration of DSHS, submitted a 27-page declaration explaining the many reasons behind no state facility having a spot for Peterson until July 3-7.
“Although conditions are rapidly changing, in recent months the average wait time for similar patients is currently six to eight months,” Kinlen wrote. “The average wait time provides reasonable guidance for what the wait could be for this defendant (Peterson), but the factors provided throughout this declaration will lead the actual wait times to change, which could make this defendant’s wait shorter or longer.”
A lack of space at Western State Hospital in Lakewood in Pierce County and other facilities for the thousands on the list pushes the wait time out.
Elizabeth Baker, a state assistant attorney general, represented the state at Peterson’s hearing and told the judge a potential admission to a facility for Peterson had changed to July 17 from July 3-7 despite his evaluation as a danger to the community.
“We have folks charged with murder, horrific assaults who are not being admitted within seven days of the court order or anytime soon after,” Baker said to the judge.
The waits have become so long that U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman expects to schedule a hearing to examine evidence and hear testimony as soon as February after Disability Rights Washington filed a motion in federal court alleging the state Department of Social and Health Services is in breach of a 2018 settlement to provide timely competency restoration services to thousands of people waiting in jails, according to a Jan. 19 report in The Seattle Times.
City of Kent Chief Prosecuting Attorney Sara Watson responded in court after hearing the state couldn’t admit Peterson until July.
“They may be just misdemeanors but your honor you know there is so much more to this case,” Watson said at the Jan. 18 hearing. “The court recognized this (the need for restoration services) as appropriate. (The incident) was alarming, wheeling a firearm, parents terrified after threats to the elementary school and to a teacher. And they watched as police left the scene not able to take him into custody. …restoration is warranted but can’t occur and we can’t prosecute to the fullest without that.”
Kent Police responded Nov. 14, 2022 to a house where Peterson was armed inside with a rifle that he reportedly pointed at his brother, who called 911. Without any actual threat, officers were unable to arrest Peterson. The house is next to the fields at Meridian Elementary School.
Later that morning, Peterson allegedly stood outside the school and yelled threats about shootings and made a throat gesture toward a teacher that she felt was threatening. When officers arrived, Peterson returned to his house.
Due to Peterson’s unstable behavior, access to a firearm, and close proximity to the school (officers later learned that Peterson could see the school and playground area from an upstairs window of the residence), the school was placed in lockdown. Officers surrounded the house and the standoff began as Peterson refused to exit the home. Police said the goal was to have Peterson involuntarily committed because he was in a mental health crisis.
Eventually, Peterson’s father went inside the house and took the rifle and brought it to police. Officers remained on scene but with no probable cause to enter the house for assault, they left. Police kept watch on the house and school until Peterson was arrested two days later.
City prosecutors on Nov. 15, 2022 released probable cause for the misdemeanor crimes that Peterson was charged with. Officers took Peterson into custody on Nov. 16, 2022 after a warrant was issued for his arrest. A defense attorney raised competency at Peterson’s arraignment Nov. 17, 2022, which started the process of whether he was competent to stand trial.
Cause to dismiss
Maxwell Boltinghouse, the attorney for Peterson, asked the judge Jan. 18 to dismiss the case.
“Out of custody support of the family would be a better position to address services he needs rather than held in custody on some determination date that is not reasonable time,” Boltinghouse said. “The doctor said early July now it’s mid-July. The defense is moving to dismiss because I don’t believe the calculation delay of six months for misdemeanor offenses pass muster.”
Judge Frans reluctantly agreed.
“With the seriousness of the case, hopefully the (DSHS) would prioritize this case, but that’s not happening and I can’t imagine how that’s justified,” Frans said. “This case struck fear into hearts of parents whose kids attend school there. For it not to meet high priority is unconscionable.”
The judge took several minutes to review notes before he announced his decision.
“I have no choice but to dismiss the case without prejudice,” Frans said. “They (the state) are not able to transport (to restoration services) in a reasonable amount of time.”
White, the city attorney, said without prejudice means that it is possible the city could refile a case against Peterson at a later date if there were reason to believe that his competency had been restored and if there was time remaining within the statute of limitations.
“This is unlikely given the state’s indication that restoration services are not available now or in the near future,” White said.