September 4, 2008 in City

More inmates could join jail-fee suit

Judge rules man’s case can grow into class action
Meghann M. Cuniff Staff writer
 

Spokane County could face a big bill over its defunct jail-fee program after a judge ruled a lawsuit filed on behalf of one man can serve as a class-action suit for anyone incarcerated at the county jail while the fees were imposed.

The legal battle began in June 2005 when a nonprofit public interest group, the Center for Justice, sued the county on behalf of a Spokane man jailed in October 2004 on a domestic-violence charge for which he was never convicted. Jailers took $39 from Shawn Huss’ wallet to cover part of an $89.12 per inmate fee and never told him why. He got the money back months later with help from a lawyer.

Before the suit, the Center for Justice outlined what it called constitutional problems surrounding the fees in a letter to Spokane County.

“We wanted to avoid all of this, but we have to vindicate the rights of the client,” said Breean Beggs, an attorney with the Center for Justice. “I’m hopeful that the case now will settle.”

Attorneys for the county vowed to ask U.S District Judge Fred Van Sickle to reconsider.

They say fee paybacks should only apply to non-convicted inmates booked into jail between May 2004 and January 2005, the month the jail posted a fee notice and instigated a reimbursement process for inmates who weren’t convicted of their charges.

Van Sickle’s ruling allows anyone booked into jail from May 5, 2004, to Dec. 20, 2006, to take part in the suit. The jail stopped collecting the fees in August 2006 after Van Sickle voided the state law that many counties had been using to charge inmates as much as $100.

The date discrepancy – inmates jailed from August to December 2006 didn’t pay the fees – is one reason attorneys have asked for reconsideration.

“We are saving the taxpayers money, not causing them to spend more money,” said Michael Patterson, a Seattle attorney hired by the county. “If you have to return all these fees to the convicted inmates, then than obviously the expenditure is multiple times more.”

The jail estimates it took in $760,000 from the fees. Payback would include fees plus interest, to be determined by a judge. Once Van Sickle addresses the county’s motion to reconsider, figuring out how much to pay is the final step, Beggs said.

“It’s going to be a minimum of over a million,” he said. “It may go into the multiple millions, but we don’t know that yet.”

U.S. District Judge Justin Quackenbush issued a similar ruling regarding jail fees in Asotin County last week.

In that ruling, Quackenbush allowed a lawsuit filed by the Center for Justice on behalf of three former jail inmates to serve as a class action lawsuit for all inmates who paid the booking fee.

Meghann M. Cuniff can be reached at (509) 459-5534 or at meghannc@spokesman.com.


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