Article by Manmeet Dhami, Summer Associate and law student at University of Washington School of Law
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According to a recent Washington Supreme Court decision, providing false information to a Sound Transit fare enforcement officer (FEO) is not punishable under Washington law. Typically, making a false or misleading statement to a public servant is considered a misdemeanor. However, in State of Washington v. K.L.B., the Washington Supreme Court found that individuals cannot be held liable for false statements made to an FEO because FEOs are not public servants.
The facts of State of Washington v. K.L.B. are likely to be familiar to anyone who frequents public transportation. When respondent K.L.B. and his friends were asked to show proof of payment fare on Seattle’s Link light-rail train system, they presented FEO Willet with their bus transfers. After being told that bus transfers were no longer being accepted, K.L.B. and his friends explained that they weren’t aware of the change and the new system. FEO Willet proceeded to ask the respondent and his friends to exit the train and present identification. Neither the respondent nor his friends complied with the request. The respondent only identified himself to FEO Willet as Kinds M. Marty.
FEO Willet contacted the King County Sheriff’s Office for assistance after being unable to properly identify the respondent and his friends. Upon arrival, Deputy Lee Adams warned K.L.B. that it was a crime to lie to a police officer and this time, K.L.B. provided the deputy with his correct date of birth and name. Following this incident, K.L.B. was found guilty of making a false or misleading statement to FEO Willet.
K.L.B. appealed to the Court of Appeals, which confirmed the conviction. In the matter before the Washington Supreme Court, K.L.B argued that the term “public servant” does not include FEOs.
Underlying the state’s prosecution of K.L.B. was an attempt to make it a criminal offense to lie to anyone performing a government function. However, the Washington Supreme Court didn’t focus on the underlying policy behind the state’s suit. Instead, the court relied on statutory interpretation as the basis for its decision. Writing for the majority, Justice Charles Johnson (joined by Justices Owens, Fairhurst, Gonzalez, and McCloud) ruled in favor of the respondent. In its analysis, the court interpreted a Washington state statute that defines the term “public servant.” The court found that FEOs do not fall into any of the expressly listed categories of the statute (legislator, judge, judicial officer, juror) and do not otherwise perform a “government function.”
The court relied on a canon of statutory construction, which states that a single word in a statute cannot be read in insolation. Under this canon of interpretation, only those performing a government function similar to the positions expressly listed in the statute are considered “public servants.”
The court also argued that FEOs are not officers of the government, as specified under the statutory definition of “public servant.” FEOs are contracted employees and although they have the ability to request proof of payment, identification, and removal from a facility, these privileges do not transform FEOs into public officers.
Justice J.M. Johnson (joined by Justices Wiggins and Stephens) dissented, finding that FEOs perform a government function and are officers of the government. Justice Johnson also pointed out that an enforcement of rules and fares via FEOs is critical to ensuring repayment of the public’s investment in transit.
In a separate dissent, Justice Madsen (joined by Justice Stephens), expressed frustration with the state’s decision to prosecute a minor infraction but found that by interacting with the public and issuing citations, FEOs are acting as “public servants.”
 RCW 9A.76.175