The American Civil Liberties Union and the law firm of Terrell Marshall Law Group PLLC today filed a class-action lawsuit against Benton County in central Washington over its unconstitutional system for collecting court-imposed debts. The suit says the county jails, threatens to jail, or forces manual labor on indigent people who are unable to afford legal financial obligations (LFOs) imposed by the county. The system is designed to fund county services by extracting revenue and labor from vulnerable people.
“Benton County operates a modern-day debtors’ prison. On any given day, scores of indigent persons sit in jail or do manual labor for the county simply because they are too poor to pay the government,” said ACLU attorney Vanessa Hernandez. “The county is trying to squeeze blood from a turnip.”
“The county has created a system for collecting debts that punishes people for their poverty. It prioritizes generating revenue at the expense of protecting the rights of the poor,” said attorney Toby Marshall of Terrell Marshall Law Group PLLC.
Legal financial obligations, commonly referred to as LFOs, are fines, fees, costs, and restitution that are imposed as part of a criminal sentence. Benton County routinely assesses these in an amount upwards of $1,000 without considering a person’s ability to pay. Indigent people who are unable to pay these charges are sentenced to incarceration in jail or to toil on a work crew.
The sentences are imposed at hearings that provide no meaningful opportunity for defendants to explain why they are unable to pay. And because the county has a policy and practice of inadequately funding, training, and supervising the public defenders who represent indigent persons at these hearings, indigent defendants have no idea that their rights are being violated and do not receive the constitutionally required meaningful assistance of counsel .
The county’s debtors’ prison system violates the U.S. and Washington State Constitutions, which prohibit incarcerating a person for non-payment of court-imposed fines, fees, and costs without a meaningful hearing and consideration of alternatives to incarceration. The landmark cases Bearden v. Georgia (U.S Supreme Court, 1983) and Smith v. Whatcom County District Court (Wash. Court of Appeals, 2002) make clear that people may not be incarcerated for non-payment of court-imposed debts if their failure to pay is due to their poverty.
The suit was filed in Yakima County Superior Court. The plaintiffs seek to have the court declare that Benton County’s LFO enforcement system is unconstitutional. The plaintiffs also seek a court order requiring the county create a constitutional system for collection of court-imposed fines, fees, and costs.
The suit was filed on behalf of three indigent plaintiffs – Jayne Fuentes, Gina Taggart, and Reese Groves – who have suffered serious hardships as a result of court-imposed debts. All three have been incarcerated or made to do manual labor after these fines, fees, and costs were unlawfully imposed without a determination of their ability to pay. All three continue to owe thousands of dollars in fines, fees, and costs, and fear they could be jailed in the future for their inability to pay off these court-imposed debts.
· Jayne Fuentes was ordered to toil on a county work crew in 2013 when she was unemployed and unable to pay her court-imposed debts. At present she is working, but her salary isn’t enough to enable her to pay court fines, fees, and costs and meet her basic needs for living. She recently was unable to work for three weeks while hospitalized with pneumonia and borrowed money from family members to avoid jail for non-payment of court-imposed debts.
· Gina Taggart is a single mother with a minor child. She was jailed for non-payment of court fines, fees, and costs in 2013 after being homeless and unemployed. At present she is working full-time for minimum wage at a fast food restaurant and sometimes has been unable to pay for basic necessities when her hours are reduced due to work being slow during the winter season.
· Reese Groves is a single father with sole custody of his children. He has made payments on imposed debt while working, but this year he lost his job and was then jailed for non-payment of these court fines, fees, and costs.
Benton County has designed and operates this unconstitutional system because it generates substantial revenue and other financial benefits for the county. For example, local cities compensate the county for each day that an indigent person is incarcerated for failing to pay LFOs owed as a result of a conviction for a crime prosecuted by the cities – payments that defray the costs of running the county jail.
Benton County’s LFO system was highlighted in Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons: The Ways Court-Imposed Debts Punish People for Being Poor, a report published in 2014 by the ACLU of Washington and Columbia Legal Services. The organizations called upon the county to change its LFO collection policies and practices, but county policymakers continued their commitment to the current unconstitutional system. The ACLU highlighted the problem of debtors’ prisons nationwide in a report issued in 2010, In for a Penny: The Rise of America’s New Debtors’ Prisons.
The plaintiffs are represented by ACLU of Washington attorneys Vanessa Hernandez and Prachi Dave; Nusrat Choudhury and Dennis Parker of the American Civil Liberties Union, Racial Justice Program; and Toby Marshall and Elizabeth Adams of Terrell Marshall Law Group PLLC.
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