This lawsuit relates to a practice
that some local governments in the U.S. have of imposing jail or forced labor when indigent individuals convicted of a crime are unable to pay their fines, fees, costs, and restitution (Legal Financial Obligations, LFOs). In this case, the government of Benton County Washington had a practice of imposing fines on indigent persons convicted of criminal offenses without a determination of their ability to pay, and then subjecting those persons to jail time or forced labor if they failed to pay their LFOs. On October 6, 2015, the ACLU sued Benton County in Yakima County Superior Court, on behalf of three indigent persons who had been incarcerated or made to do manual labor, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief along with damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Washington state law for those named-plaintiffs and all other indigent persons threatened with jail time or forced labor for their inability to pay LFOs. They argued that Benton County’s practices violated the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, as well as Article 1, Sections 3, 12, and 22, of the Washington State Constitution.
More specifically, the ACLU argued that the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, as well as Article 1, Sections 3 and 12 of the Washington State Constitution prohibit incarcerating a person for nonpayment of LFOs unless the court has first conducted an on-the-record inquiry and found either that the non-payment was willful (i.e. they had the ability to pay but refused), or that alternatives to incarceration or forced labor would be inadequate to satisfy a legitimate government interest in punishment or deterrence. The ACLU alleged that Benton County District Judges, acting pursuant to Benton County policy, failed to conduct the type of inquiry required by the Fourteenth Amendment and the Washington State Constitution. The ACLU also claimed that the Sixth Amendment, as well as Article 1, Sections 3 and 12 of the Washington State Constitution, entail that indigent persons facing sanctions for nonpayment of LFOs in a criminal case are entitled to counsel, and that Benton County had a policy of inadequately funding, training, or supervising the Benton County Office of Public Defense in its representation of indigent persons in those circumstances.
On June 1, 2016, plaintiffs and the ACLU reached a settlement agreement with Benton County, consisting of a number of changes to Benton County’s policies on LFOs along with attorney’s fees and costs for plaintiffs. The parties agreed that the terms of the settlement would last for a duration of five years, and the Yakima County Superior Court would retain jurisdiction to enforce those terms in response to a motion from the ACLU. The settlement also provided for further monitoring by the ACLU, with a provision requiring that the county sends the ACLU information on LFOs and LFO related issues every 6 months.
As a part of the settlement, courts are required to better inform persons with LFOs of court dates and obligations before issuing warrants. If the courts do issue a warrant, bail won’t be set at the total amount owed unless it is determined that the person is willfully refusing to pay his or her LFOs. Courts are also required to conduct inquiries about the ability of persons to pay LFOs at any hearings on nonpayment of LFOs. Persons with LFOs must also be given more freedom in their payment options, with the county being barred from refusing payments that are late or too small, and prohibited from referring non-payment to debt collection agencies unless payments are over 90 days past due and there is no pending motion seeking relief. The county also agreed to form a task force within 180 days of the settlement, that would work in partnership with the ACLU to evaluate the imposition of community service by the county on persons who are non-compliant with the LFOs. The task force the merits and legality of such service.
The settlement also requires ongoing training and education on LFOs for judges, prosecutors, and public defenders. This training and education is to include guidelines for assessing when non-payment of LFOs can be considered willful, defenses to nonpayment of LFOs, alternatives to LFOs, and alternatives to incarceration for failure to pay LFOs. Public defenders representing indigent persons with LFOs are also to be given better supervision and receive more funding in representing indigent individuals with LFOs. Ryan Berry - 06/16/2016