ACLU, Benton County settle lawsuit over court fines

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SEATTLE — A county in Washington state has ended its practice of jailing people or requiring them to toil on work crews if they fail to pay their court fines, changes that emerged from a national effort to combat a practice that can make poor defendants poorer.

The American Civil Liberties Union said Wednesday that it settled a lawsuit it filed last fall against Benton County in south-central Washington. In 2010, the organization investigated the way courts impose fines in several states, noting that the penalties often compound with interest or late fees and contribute to the impoverishment of some defendants.

Benton County will make a number of changes: It will no longer issue warrants over unpaid fines, judges will inquire about a person’s ability to pay, defendants can seek reductions in the amount they owe, and public defenders and prosecutors will receive training on constitutional practices for imposing and collecting court fines and fees.

“No one should have to go to jail or perform manual labor simply because they are too poor to pay their fines,” Prachi Dave, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Washington state, said in a news release.

The settlement agreement notes that no one is sitting in jail or serving on work crews solely because of unpaid legal obligations. A Benton County official did not immediately return a call seeking comment Wednesday.

County commissioners previously said they opposed the practice, as did Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller, but judges were slow to change. One, Judge Joseph M. Burrowes, said the practice was fair, arguing in an Associated Press interview in 2014 that defendants had the opportunity to speak up at sentencing if they can’t afford the fines.

Under U.S. and state Supreme Court precedent, courts can jail people who willfully refuse to pay their fines. But judges must first determine whether those defendants can actually afford to pay them.

In Benton County, that didn’t happen. Defendants, often represented by public defenders, had little opportunity to explain why they can’t pay, in part because those lawyers were poorly funded and trained, depriving defendants of their right to meaningful counsel, the ACLU said.

When they couldn’t pay, defendants were credited $80 toward their fines for each day they served on a work crew and $50 for each day in jail. Typically more than one-quarter of defendants in the county jail were “sitting out” their fines on any given day, according to a review of jail rosters, the ACLU said.

After the ACLU sued last year, the three Benton County commissioners repealed a resolution allowing judges to impose stints in jail or on work crews for failing to pay court fines. The county also eliminated existing warrants for failure to pay and released everyone who was being held in jail solely for that reason.

The named plaintiffs in the case — Jayne Fuentes, Gina Taggart and Reese Groves — all had been jailed or forced into manual labor because they couldn’t pay fines related to misdemeanor theft or other convictions. The county agreed to pay them $3,000 and their legal fees.

The settlement also requires Benton County to follow state Supreme Court standards when it comes to managing the caseloads of its public defenders and to provide enough money for its Office of Public Defense.