Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney called Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-home order unconstitutional and said he would not enforce it — prompting frustrated responses Wednesday from offices of the governor, state attorney general and county executive.
Fortney expressed his discontent in a 1,100-word Facebook post Tuesday night after watching a public address from Inslee. The sheriff added his voice to a chorus of largely right-wing residents and elected officials unhappy with the state’s stay-home order.
“To be quite honest I wasn’t even sure what he was trying to say half of the time,” Fortney wrote. “He has no plan. He has no details. This simply is not good enough in times when we have taken such drastic measures as the suspension of constitutional rights.”
By Wednesday, Fortney’s post had gone viral, garnering more than 6,000 comments, more than 13,000 shares and attention from both local and national media. His remarks appear to be at odds with the Snohomish Health District, which has endorsed Inslee’s actions.
Fortney is the top cop in the state’s third most populated county, with an estimated 822,000 residents. As sheriff, Fortney is also in charge of the county jail. Snohomish County had the nation’s first confirmed case of COVID-19, and one of the first U.S. deaths.
To date, there have been 2,189 confirmed and 175 probable cases of COVID-19 in the county, the health district reported Tuesday. At least 98 people have died from the virus.
In a statement, Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers said the social distancing measures taken so far have helped stemmed the tide of the pandemic.
“We are all very frustrated by COVID-19 and the necessary restrictions that have been placed on all of us,” he said in the statement. “We are experiencing the first pandemic in over 100 years, and there are no recent roadmaps for protecting life and safety. But make no mistake: death from COVID-19 is horrific. You suffocate to death. I don’t wish that death on anyone.”
Somers did not call out Fortney by name, saying “this isn’t about the opinions of any single elected official.” He said the county “will continue to make data-driven, science-based policy decisions.”
“Anything less would be a disservice to the residents of Snohomish County and be playing Russian roulette with the lives of those we are charged to protect,” he wrote.
In his post, Fortney said he’s worried about the state economy and wrote about what he perceived to be arbitrary decisions of who gets to work and who can’t. He remarked that pot shops are considered essential while gun stores are supposed to shutter. He said he sees landscapers outside the Snohomish County Courthouse, yet residential construction has come to a halt. He questioned data modeling forecasts that have guided the state’s actions and suggested those worried about getting sick can stay home.
“As your elected Sheriff I will always put your constitutional rights above politics or popular opinion,” he wrote. “We have the right to peaceably assemble. We have the right to keep and bear arms. We have the right to attend church service of any denomination. The impacts of COVID-19 no longer warrant the suspension of our constitutional rights.”
Fortney’s statement that he won’t enforce the stay-home order isn’t new, nor is it unique. The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office and law enforcement agencies across the state staked out early on a position that they would focus on education, not punishment. The same night that Inslee first issued the order, Fortney wrote that no one would be arrested in relation to a violation of the directive.
More than 21,000 complaints have been filed with the state in relation to the stay-home directive. State agencies have largely relied on voluntary compliance and have not carried out any enforcement action related to those complaints.
Other elected officials have issued similar challenges to the governor. Like Fortney, Rep. Robert Sutherland of Granite Falls also has used social media to question Inslee’s constitutional authority to carry out his response against the pandemic, and has repeatedly called on Washington residents to rebel. During a protest at the capitol Sunday that saw more than 2,500 demonstrators — itself a violation of the stay-home order — Sutherland encouraged people to revolt if the state tried to enforce a ban on recreational fishing, according to the Seattle Times.
“When we go fishing, they’re going to send their guys with guns, and they’re going to write us tickets,” Sutherland said with a pistol tucked into his pants, according to the Times. “Governor, you send men with guns after us for going fishing, we’ll see what a revolution looks like.”
Sutherland later clarified he meant a “revolution of love,” in which families go fishing, hiking or camping.
At least one person has been arrested for taking the protest a step further. Shortly after noon Tuesday, a Mill Creek man allegedly left a threatening voicemail with the governor’s office.
“You’re dead Inslee,” the man said, according to a probable cause affidavit filed in Everett District Court. “Any of your workers, employees, their accomplices … it will be at your house, your mansion. You think you’re safe, you’re not. You’re a (expletive) dead man.”
Across the country, the Virginia State Legislature received a similarly threatening voicemail from the same number. Washington State Patrol troopers went to the man’s house Wednesday evening. He reportedly said he was the one who called.
“Ya, I called him, he has no right to do what he is doing,” he told troopers, according to court papers.
A trooper wrote that in a taped statement, the suspect said he was upset “the governor was violating people’s constitutional rights and that he needs to hang for what he’s doing.”
In a statement, Snohomish County Prosecutor Adam Cornell said the governor had the legal authority to issue a stay-home order, and that anyone who violated the directive could be punished under the law.
“Any attempt to undermine that authority is both irresponsible, unhelpful in these difficult times, and contrary to the rule of law,” he said. “I fear that the recent statements of Sheriff Fortney will be interpreted by some citizens around the state to grant license to willfully and blatantly violate the law. Let me be clear: actions have consequences.”