In June 2018, the Washington legislature amended the laws governing legal financial obligations imposed on criminal defendants. The new law forbids assessing discretionary obligations.

In June 2018, House Bill 1783 took effect in Washington. This new law revises the state’s system for imposing legal financial obligations (LFOs) on criminal defendants. LFOs are basically the fines, fees, court costs; and restitution a defendant must pay as part of his or her criminal sentence. Critics of the old system charged LFOs were unfair to indigent defendants; who were often jailed simply for their inability to pay. But under House Bill 1783, no court may impose LFOs if the defendant is indigent “at the time of sentencing.”

Justices Criticize Trial Court for Failing to Conduct “Adequate” Inquiry into Defendant’s Finances

The Washington Supreme Court recently applied the new law to a case, State of Washington v. Ramirez, where a defendant was sentenced under the old LFO system. A jury previously found the defendant guilty of third-degree assault and possession of a controlled substance. The trial judge sentenced the defendant to a total of seven years in prison and imposed $2,900 in LFOs. The defendant objected to the LFOs, explaining in a financial statement that he had “no source of income or assets and no savings.”

The prosecution insisted on imposing the LFOs, notwithstanding the defendant’s financial condition. At a hearing, the trial judge asked the prosecutor two questions: Could the defendant “make money” to pay back the LFOs when he was not in jail, and was the LFO really “appropriate” for this case. The prosecutor answered “yes” to both questions. The judge did not ask the defendant or his attorney any questions related to the defendant’s financial status before affirming the LFOs. In its final order, the court said the defendant would have to pay $25 per month towards the $2,900 LFOs, despite the fact he would be in jail for the next several years.

In March 2018, the Washington Supreme Court agreed to review the LFO order. House Bill 1783 was signed into law three weeks later. In a unanimous opinion issued on September 30, 2018, the Court held that trial judge “did not conduct an adequate individualized inquiry” into the defendant’s “current and future ability to pay LFOs,” as required by law even prior to House Bill 1783. The Court noted that under its prior decisions, a trial judge “must do more than sign a judgment and sentence with boilerplate language stating that it engaged in the required inquiry.” That did not happen in this case.

The Court further determined that a new sentencing hearing was unnecessary; because House Bill 1783 applied “prospectively” to his case. Under the new law, the defendant meets the legal definition of “indigent;” and therefore he cannot be ordered to pay any LFOs.

Seattle criminal defense attorney Lennard A. Nahajski said the Supreme Court’s ruling represents another important step forward in protecting the rights of poorer defendants. “The criminal justice system is not supposed to punish someone; just because they are unable to pay their debts. That is why the legislature changed the law governing LFOs, and why the Supreme Court appropriately applied the new provisions; to a case where the trial court clearly failed to treat a defendant justly.”

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