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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Thousands of current and former Spokane County residents would be repaid for fines from unconstitutional drug law under new bill

Washington Lt. Gov. Denny Heck is seen standing at the Senate podium on Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, in Olympia, Wash. The state Senate is considering legislation that would consolidate payments to the estimated thousands of current and former Washington residents who are entitled to restitution after the state invalidated its longstanding drug possession felony law in 2021.  (Rachel La Corte)

Thousands of current and former Spokane County residents who were found guilty of an unconstitutional drug possession law would be refunded for their court fees directly by the state’s Revenue Department under a new law working its way to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk.

The proposal establishes a new “refund bureau” to dole out compensation to those who were fined under the former law struck down by the Washington State Supreme Court last year. Spokane County Clerk Tim Fitzgerald said his office’s initial research indicates more than 14,000 people in Spokane County are entitled to repayments based on conviction data dating back to January 1993, and the refunds of their court-ordered payments could total $2.4 million.

“It is really good for us,” Fitzgerald said of the legislation, which would transfer the task of repaying those eligible from the county back to the state.

The court’s decision reversing the conviction of Shannon Blake, a Spokane County woman who was arrested with methamphetamine in the pockets of a pair of pants she was given, set off a flurry of legislative and criminal justice activity statewide in 2020. A legislative report shows more than 10,000 criminal convictions under the same statute, which did not require prosecutors to prove a defendant knowingly possessed the drugs to convict them, have been vacated by courts since the decision in February 2021.

That work has largely been done at the county level with staff working to erase the convictions from the books and any reimbursement from imposed fines coming directly out of county coffers. The new bill would create a system for prosecutors to list their eligible defendants and set up a system in which county judges must determine whether a refund is warranted when erasing the charge from the person’s criminal record.

That’s an improvement from the months immediately following the decision, when defense attorneys were butting heads with judges and prosecutors over those fees, said Camerina Zorrozua, a local attorney with the nonprofit firm The Way to Justice who has been advocating for drug possession clients under contract with the Washington State Office of Civil Legal Aid. 

“It’s good that we’re taking the time to put something in writing,” said Zorrozua, who has been meeting weekly with other attorneys defending the drug possession cases statewide.

The law establishes a 10-year time limit for a defendant found guilty under the law to apply for reimbursement. While that’s an improvement over a previous version of the bill, which limited the reimbursement period to six years, Zorrozua noted that convictions under the unconstitutional law date back to 1971.

“You fine them when they’re at their most vulnerable, and then – as our prosecutorial processes over the past 40 years have shown – you throw the book at them,” Zorrozua said.

The new bureau would still require court orders from the counties in order to issue a refund, but the law doesn’t specify how that refund is to be issued.

Fitzgerald said his office has been issuing debit cards, rather than checks, in an effort to accommodate people who may not have a checking account to which they can deposit reimbursement checks and to avoid unnecessary postage.

“We did that because it saves the taxpayers a lot of money without checks coming back all the time,” he said. As of Tuesday, Fitzgerald said, Spokane County had issued $36,171 in refunds to those found guilty only of the drug-possession charge. That amount includes $12,791 in refunds that were then credited to other legal fees a defendant owed in addition to the now-invalidated drug charge, Fitzgerald said.

Sorting through cases where a defendant was found guilty of, or pleaded guilty to, additional charges will continue to require a court hearing to determine what, if any, refund is owed, if the bill passes.

Zorrozua said debit cards, while well-intentioned, could still cause problems for some defendants. One of her clients received a card, but threw it away thinking it was junk mail. A client who was trying to get a case thrown out and refund payment out of Benton County never got her check in the mail, Zorrozua said.

The challenges go beyond repayment of money, sometimes decades after their initial convictions, Zorrozua said of her clients. She praised provisions in the bill that require the drafting of a list of potential recipients and requirements that the Washington State Patrol and other agencies remove old convictions from their records, but noted that the effects of a felony conviction can follow a person for years.

“The harm from ‘Blake’ has touched these people in multiple parts of their lives,” she said.

The state Senate’s Ways & Means Committee took a procedural vote Thursday to send the bill to lawmakers tasked with overseeing the state’s criminal justice system. The law would require legislators to set aside money to cover the costs of future reimbursements as part of their budget-making process. A public hearing will follow later this session.