As an intro to my recent cover story on Seattle’s Center City Initiative (CCI), I detailed the saga of 52-year-old Jay T. Morris, a man with a long history of causing headaches along the waterfront. I noted in my piece that Morris and his champagne-colored pit bull named Moose drew the ire of businesses along the waterfront thanks to a penchant for constant panhandling, racking up a slew of citations under Seattle’s sit/lie ordinance. Eventually, under a new approach launched under CCI, Morris and his repeat offenses inspired the City Attorney’s Office to issue a warrant for failure to respond – an action designed to get Morris to move along, with the threat of arrest being the motivator.
From my cover story:
As police reports and Seattle Police Department’s Sgt. Paul Gracy tell it, Morris made a name on the waterfront as a chronic nuisance, sitting or lying on the sidewalk near Argosy Cruises with his unlicensed canine and a tattered collection of belongings, including blankets and signs. Local business owners came to know and loathe him. The police were called—repeatedly. For months, nothing changed.
“Basically, he blew me off,” remembers Gracy, who says he often had the unenviable task of responding to complaints about Morris. “Finally, we decided that we would have to start giving him citations. … He didn’t care.”
So the city took a new approach ...
In a departure from past procedure, and in direct response to the CCI discussions, [Pete]Holmes’ office has agreed to file failure-to-respond charges on what’s described as a “case-by-case basis,” allowing for an arrest warrant to be issued when it might prove helpful in dealing with habitual offenders. Last April, Morris received the first one.
Not long after receiving the warrant, police say, Morris left the waterfront and hasn’t been back.
The City Attorney’s Office says it doesn’t anticipate filing charges often, but it will become one of law enforcement’s tools for dealing with chronic street disorder. “We’ve committed to use this model,” says John Schochet, the deputy chief of staff at the City Attorney’s Office, of the new approach, which provides teeth to existing city laws. “If more cases are brought to us, we’ll use it.”
“[Morris would] still be down there today if we hadn’t issued the warrant,” says Gracy
Sound decent, right? Apparently, there’s just one problem ...
Morris is back on the waterfront.
Not long after publishing my CCI cover story last week I got an email from a reader by the name of James “Shoes” Walker, who identified himself as a resident of the International District. Walker wrote:
Unfortunately, I must say as of this writing, Jay T. Morris is alive and well and back on the waterfront with his pit bull. As unfortunate as it is to see someone of apparently sound mind who has lost their vision and sits all day passively begging, it’s a bit surreal to see an “I’m on break” sign when he is not at his “post”.
In a follow-up email, Walker said Morris could be found most days near the Ivar’s.
Given the tone of the proclamations made by Seattle Police and the City Attorney’s Office regarding Morris during the research of my CCI piece, I was a little surprised (though not all together shocked) to hear of this development. What could have happened in the three (or so) weeks since I talked to Gracy and the publication of my piece, I wondered.
This morning Gracy provided an update on Morris: “He was stopped for a drug related issue up on Pine,” Gracy wrote via email to Seattle Weekly. “Officers unaware that we were holding off on the warrant being enforced ran his name, found the warrant hit and booked him. He was [released on personal recognizance] in a few hours and with the warrant cleared back on the waterfront.”
In a follow-up phone interview, Gracy told Seattle Weekly that Morris was seen by police “smoking crack in front of Target” - leading to his arrest on the failure-to-respond warrant. Gracy says Morris has been back on the waterfront since “a couple weeks ago.”
The development, of course, raises serious questions about just how effective the issuance of failure-to-respond warrants can be.
“It doesn’t solve our problems. It just moves them around,” Gracy admits. “I don’t have the answer.”
So was it all a waste of time and effort? Gracy won’t go that far.
“At least it was a step forward,” Gracy says of the period of time when Morris avoided the waterfront thanks to the failure-to-respond warrant. “Now we’ve just taken two steps back, but it was a short-term win.”
As for where things go from here, Gracy says that if and when Morris receives a new citation for disobeying the city’s sit/lie ordinance, the process will likely begin again. If Morris fails to respond, Gracy indicates SPD will ask the City Attorney’s Office for a new warrant.
“We don’t want to incarcerate the homeless, but actions have to have consequences,” says Gracy.
“He’s the poster child now, so if he gets one more ticket ...”
Something tells me waterfront business owners aren’t holding their breath.