Washington State

Office of the Attorney General

Attorney General

Bob Ferguson

AGLO 1974 No. 96 -
Attorney General Slade Gorton


Jurisdiction of Washington State Patrol, county sheriffs and city police with respect to state, county and city traffic law violations.

                                                                  - - - - - - - - - - - - -

                                                               November 19, 1974

Honorable Rick Smith
State Representative, 23rd District
Route 4, Box 9511
Bremerton, Washington 98310                                                                                                               Cite as:  AGLO 1974 No. 96

Dear Sir:
            This is written in response to your recent letter inquiring as to the respective jurisdictions of the Washington state patrol, county sheriffs and city police, with regard to the investigation of motor vehicle accidents occurring at various locations within this state.
            We respond to your inquiry in the manner set forth in the following analysis.
            First to be noted in answering your question is 43.43.030 which provides as follows:
            "The chief and other officers of the Washington state patrol shall have and exercise, throughout the state, such police powers and duties as are vested in sheriffs and peace officers generally, and such other powers and duties as are prescribed by law."
            This statute, in turn, leads us to RCW 36.28.010, which sets forth the general duties of a county sheriff as follows:
            "The sheriff is the chief executive officer and conservator of the peace of the county.  In the execution of his office, he and his deputies:
            "(1) Shall arrest and commit to prison all persons who break the peace, or attempt to break it, and all persons guilty of public offenses;
             [[Orig. Op. Page 2]]
            "(2) Shall defend the county against those who, by riot or otherwise, endanger the public peace or safety;
            "(3) Shall execute the process and orders of the courts of justice or judicial officers, when delivered for that purpose, according to law;
            "(4) Shall execute all warrants delivered for that purpose by other public officers, according to the provisions of particular statutes;
            "(5) Shall attend the sessions of the courts of record held within the county, and obey their lawful orders or directions;
            "(6) Shall keep and preserve the peace in their respective counties, and quiet and suppress all affrays, riots, unlawful assemblies and insurrections, for which purpose, and for the service of process in civil or criminal cases, and in apprehending or securing any person for felony or breach of the peace, they may call to their aid such persons, or power of their county as they may deem necessary."
            Finding nothing in them, or in any other existing statutes, to the contrary, it is our opinion that insofar as state traffic violations are concerned,1/ the jurisdiction granted by these two statutes to the state patrol, and to a county sheriff, is concurrent.  Thus, while the actual manner in which the state patrol and a given county sheriff's department relate to each other within a given county is normally established, as a matter of policy, by mutual agreements of an informal nature between the agencies, both, as a matter of law, must be said to have full jurisdiction over those motor vehicle accidents involving a violation of state law ‑ the state patrol on a state‑wide basis, and the county sheriff or his deputies within all areas of his particular county.
             [[Orig. Op. Page 3]]
            However, while the state patrol thus has the power to enforce state laws having a uniform application to the general public throughout the state, even within the corporate limits of a county or city, this office has previously taken the position that the patrol is not authorized to enforce county or city traffic ordinances of local nature and origin.  See, AGO 57-58 No. 115 [[to Al Henry, State Senator on August 27, 1957]], copy enclosed.  Within unincorporated areas, therefore, the exclusive responsibility for enforcing those ordinances is vested in the county sheriff, by virtue of RCW 36.28.010, supra.  And by the same token, within the boundaries of an incorporated city or town, that same degree of exclusive responsibility over violations of the traffic ordinances of that municipality is lodged in the city or town police department involved.
            In addition, of course, a municipal (city or town) police department has jurisdiction over state (but not county) traffic law violations occurring within its own city limits to the extent provided for in the statutes governing the particular class of city involved or, in the case of certain cities, the city charter.  However, again, as is the case with respect to the relationship between a county sheriff and the state patrol, this jurisdiction is concurrent rather than exclusive.

            It is hoped that the foregoing explanation will be of some assistance to you.
Very truly yours,
Attorney General

Deputy Attorney General

                                                         ***   FOOTNOTES   ***
1/I.e., violations, primarily, of the state traffic "rules of the road" currently codified in chapter 46.61 RCW.  These statutes, notably, apply to all highways in the state, including not only those classified as state highways but those classified as county roads or city streets as well.  See, RCW 46.61.005.