Monday, September 26, 2016

WA Supreme Court overrules judge's order for homeless woman to pay $15 monthly fines

Posted By on Mon, Sep 26, 2016 at 3:07 PM

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Briana Wakefield came from an abusive family. Both of her parents were addicts, and by 14 she began winding her way through the foster system. Plagued by bipolar disorder, ADHD and PTSD, by age 18 Wakefield was unable to work due to her disabilities and lived off Social Security benefits. She got $170 a month in food stamps, as well, according to court documents. 

Wakefield has four kids, all of whom are in foster care. She is trying to get her kids back — attending mental health counseling once every other week, drug counseling once a week, Narcotics Anonymous meetings two or three times a week, parenting classes and visiting her kids for hours at a time, court documents say. Wakefield, 27, is also homeless, but she's trying to find housing.

In the midst of her hardships, Wakefield was also dealing with low-level misdemeanor convictions: theft in 2009, disorderly conduct in 2010 and harassment in 2012, according to court records. The latter two charges landed her with legal financial obligations (LFOs) imposed at the discretion of a Benton County District Court judge in a case that landed in the State Supreme Court.

Last year, the Inlander wrote about a local woman's struggle to get out from under decades-old court fines. You can read that story here.

In the case decided by the Washington Supreme Court last week, Wakefield could not afford the fines imposed by the Benton County District Court and asked the court to forgive them during a "fine review" hearing. She receives $710 each month in Social Security benefits, and explained to the court exactly how she spends the money. Dr. Diana Pierce, a professor at the University of Washington School of Social Work, testified that Wakefield "can't even meet her basic needs at a bare bones level," and imposing court costs would force her to "put her basic survival needs aside."

Still, a Benton County District Court judge denied her request, ruling that Wakefield's "lifestyle choices," including "continuing criminal activity, failure to do court-ordered treatment and continued drug use" caused her to miss payments. The judge required her to pay $15/month and participate in a work crew program, court documents say.

The State Supreme Court disagreed. 

"There is nothing in the record that connects her indigency with her drug addiction or misdemeanor convictions for theft, harassment and disorderly conduct," Justice Susan Owens writes for the majority. "Nothing in the record indicates how Wakefield would no longer be indigent if she did not have addiction issues or prior convictions. Instead, the record shows that Wakefield is completely disabled and unable to work due to her multiple mental disabilities. ... Wakefield did not make the 'lifestyle choice' to be mentally disabled. Moreover, the record does not show that her criminal and addiction issues were 'continuing.'"

"This is a total victory for people who are indigent and disabled throughout the state," Karla Camac Carlisle,the lead attorney who worked on Wakefield's appeal, writes in a statement. "For too long, the courts have felt compelled to fund themselves on the backs of poor people by aggressively collecting legal financial obligations, ... and actually putting people in jail who are unable to pay."

Additionally, the Supreme Court determined that the Benton County judge did not make any findings that Wakefield was able to make such payments, as required by law.

The ACLU of Washington, the attorney general and the National Alliance on Mental Illness — Washington and the local legal clinic the Center for Justice all filed documents in support of Wakefield's case.

Even the cities of Kennewick and Richland filed documents stating their intent to nix the fines citing, "a duty to concede error when an asserted legal position is no longer tenable." 

Still the State Supreme Court weighed in, and last week ruled Wakefield does not have to pay discretionary fines set by the Benton County District Court.

"Because the district court's order was contrary to both the law and the evidence in the record, we reverse," Owens, the Supreme Court justice, writes. "Under state law, LFOs should be imposed only if an individual has a present or future ability to pay, and LFOs may be remitted when paying them would impose a manifest hardship on the person."
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