State Supreme Court rejects Benton County’s collection of court fees from woman’s disability payments

A Tri-City woman who has been getting federal disability payments for nearly a decade should not have been ordered to use that money to pay $15 every month toward a criminal case, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

Briana N. Wakefield, now 27, is homeless, disabled and indigent. She receives $710 a month in Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for basic needs like food, clothing and shelter.

Her limited income was made clear three years ago at a hearing before Judge Katy Butler in Benton County District Court.

Yet, Butler ruled there was no evidence Wakefield has a permanent disability that prevents her from working and covering her legal financial obligations.

The judge ordered Wakefield to make $15 payments toward discretionary court costs on a Kennewick case, and to work off the costs on a separate Richland case by doing time on a jail work crew.

Butler erred because her order was contrary to both state and federal law and the evidence in the record, according to the opinion from the state’s highest court.

“The fact that Wakefield qualifies for Social Security disability is evidence that Wakefield has a permanent disability that prevents her from working,” Justice Susan Owens wrote in the 18-page opinion. She added that courts must give evidentiary weight to findings by the Social Security Administration.

Owens also pointed out that Butler never made “an explicit finding that Wakefield was able to make the payments.”

The justices sent Wakefield’s case back to District Court to have the financial obligations remitted, or zeroed out.

But they went one step further by issuing “an opinion on the merits to provide guidance to parties in the future.”

The opinion noted that there is “little case law” that deals with a convicted defendant’s outstanding costs and their motion to have the costs canceled.

This Benton County case is expected to be cited by prosecutors and judges in the future when addressing a person’s present or future ability to pay.

Karla Camac Carlisle, the Northwest Justice Project lead counsel on the appeal, called it “great affirmation” from the Washington Supreme Court.

She thinks the ruling will be very beneficial statewide to clients of the publicly funded legal aid program.

Lower courts in the Tri-Cities need to stop the practice of punishing people, particularly those who are disabled and poor, for their inability to pay financial obligations, and to start thoroughly taking into consideration a defendant’s situation and when they’re on a welfare program run by the federal government, she said.

“The whole problem is that we’ve got to stop funding our criminal justice system and the court system on the backs of the poor,” Camac Carlisle told the Herald.

She is based in the Northwest Justice Project’s Pasco office.

“The Legislature isn’t fully funding the court system, and so they go looking for other sources of income to fund it,” Carlisle said.

Wakefield pleaded guilty in 2013 to disorderly conduct in Richland and a harassment case in Kennewick. She was sentenced to one day in jail for Richland, and 10 days in jail for Kennewick, and had credit for time served after her arrest.

Wakefield has four children who are in foster care and is working on her requirements for a dependency court order, which include regular visits with the kids, counseling and finding stable housing.

She has been on SSI since she was 18 because of her permanent disabilities — bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

After she fell behind on her monthly payments to District Court and Judge Butler ruled that her disabilities didn’t qualify for a waiver, the Northwest Justice Project appealed to Benton County Superior Court.

Judge Carrie Runge upheld the $15 monthly decision, but tossed the work crew order since Wakefield had not been found in contempt for her failure to make payments.

The Northwest Justice Project then sought discretionary review from the state Court of Appeals, which ended up certifying the case to the Supreme Court.

Earlier this year, Wakefield’s case was set for argument in May before the Supreme Court.

Briefs in support of Wakefield were filed by the Washington Attorney General’s Office, the National Alliance on Mental Illness —Washington, Columbia Legal Services, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, and the Center for Justice in Spokane.

Jessica Foltz, a Kennewick assistant city attorney, said she and Jim Bell, who prosecutes misdemeanor cases for Richland, already had responded in support of Butler’s decision since there wasn’t a whole lot of case law on the issue.

But the brief filed on behalf of Attorney General Bob Ferguson gave Foltz and Bell “quite a bit of guidance,” and at that point they “felt ethically we needed to concede the issue, and asked to strike oral argument,” she said.

So Thursday’s ruling wasn’t much of a surprise, since Foltz and Bell agreed that ordering Wakefield to pay would impose a “manifest hardship” on her and that the financial obligations should be remitted.

Foltz told the Herald that they asked the justices to rule on the merits “so that we wouldn’t have this type of situation in the future.”

The opinion was signed by eight justices.

Chief Justice Barbara A. Madsen wrote a separate opinion, saying she agreed with the majority that the trial court committed reversible error. However, she felt the high court did not need to discuss federal law about the protected status of Social Security disability benefits to resolve Wakefield’s case.

Madsen noted that other states differ on the issue, with some saying federal benefits can be considered when determining a defendant’s total financial picture or that the money is not protected from levy or attachment, like in a court debt.

The Washington Supreme Court’s opinion said federal law prohibits courts from ordering defendants to pay financial obligations if their only source of income is disability benefits.

Madsen said that discussion by her colleagues was unnecessary, “questionable and may yield unintended consequences in a future case.”

This decision comes more than three months after the ACLU of Washington settled a lawsuit against Benton County over the constitutionality of its longstanding practice of jailing people for unpaid fines and court costs.

Attorneys called it “a modern-day debtors’ prison.”

Under terms of that settlement, District Court judges were to stop using the time-for-fines program, to ask about a person’s ability to pay at a hearing, and to not punish them if determined they lack the financial means.

On Thursday, Jefferson Coulter II with Northwest Justice Project agreed that the courts need to stop aggressively collecting fines and costs and threatening jail for poor people.

“This case tells us the practice of traumatizing and imprisoning indigent, disabled human beings in order to fund local courts is coming to an end,” Coulter said in a news release.

“While funding for courts is critical, this must be addressed through legal means that respect the dignity of the human beings involved.”

Kristin M. Kraemer: 509-582-1531, @KristinMKraemer