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Update on Washington Money Seizure Suit

In the June, August and December, 1996, issues of PLN we reported the history and developments in Wright v. Riveland, the Washington class action lawsuit challenging the legality of RCW 72.09.480, a state statute that allows the DOC to seize 35% of all funds sent to state prisoners. For more details on the origins and history of the litigation refer to the PLN back issues.

In November, 1996, the attorney generals office filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit for failure to state a claim under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). In a stunning ruling, magistrate judge Kelley Arnold issued a Report and Recommendation (R&R) on December 31, 1996, which recommended the court dismiss all of the plaintiff class's constitutional challenges to the statute. The magistrate ruled that no due process, equal protection, ex post facto, bill of attainder, takings clause and excessive fines claims were stated in the complaint. The report also held that the double jeopardy claim should be dismissed without prejudice "to preserve the rare case where an individual inmate may be required to incur a grossly disproportionate share of the costs of incarceration and/or the victims compensation fund." This is internally inconsistent with the purpose of a motion to dismiss where either a claim is stated or it isn't! The magistrate recommended that the statutory claims, that RCW 72.09.480 violates federal laws and the supremacy clause of the U.S. constitution by allowing the seizure of federally protected funds, not be dismissed.

Both parties objected to district court judge Franklin Burgess who on April 9, 1997, in a nine page ruling, adopted the R&R in its entirety and dismissed the constitutional claims. What makes this ruing so incredible is that the standard for dismissal under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) is very high. A court can consider only the allegations made in the complaint, must construe them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and assume them to be true and should dismiss the complaint only if the plaintiff is not entitled to relief under any conceivable legal theory or set of facts. As a practical matter, motions to dismiss are rarely if ever granted in cases filed by counsel simply because the standard is so high. One Washington civil rights attorney who reviewed the rulings commented: "This is absolutely bizarre. It will be reversed as soon as it hits the ninth circuit." Both rulings are unpublished. See: Wright v. Riveland, Case No. C95-5381FDB, U.S. district court in Tacoma, WA.

On April 7, 1997, the Seattle Post Intelligencer ran a front page story "Inmates Fight a State Bite on Their Gifts-35% is Taken Off the Top of All Money They Are Sent." The article reported that from May 20, 1996, when money first began being seized, through February, 1997, Washington's 12,000 plus prisoners had been sent about $3.1 million in gifts. Of that amount, $156,398 was seized for a state crime victim's fund; $313,753 was seized for non interest bearing prisoner savings accounts and $627,506 was seized to ostensibly pay the DOC's operating costs. Since the DOC has a biannual budget of around $750 million, the money seized from prisoners' gifts represents less than one tenth of one percent of the DOC operating budget.

In the 1997 legislative session, Representative John Koster (R-Monroe) introduced a bill that would eliminate the 20% "cost of corrections" deduction on gifts under $100 a month received by prisoners. Koster introduced the bill after prisoner's families complained to him that the law was punishing families and constituted double taxation. The bill passed the Republican controlled house only to die in the state senate Human Services and Corrections Committee where only one committee member wanted to vote on it. Committee chairwoman Jeanine Long said "The consensus of the committee was that we don't want to alter this," as they had concluded the seizure statute ensured non working prisoners who receive monetary gifts pay the cost of their captivity. Apparently the committee members cared little about those prisoners too old or sick to have prison employment or the fact that, according to a legislative report, some 60% of Washington prisoners are idle at any given time due primarily to overcrowding. It does not appear there will be any legislative relief on this issue this year. Prisoners and their families should focus their lobbying efforts on the state senate to seek passage of representative Koster's bill in the next legislative session.

The next step in the litigation will be motions for summary judgment on the seizure of statutorily protected funds. The court has set a June 20, 1997, discovery deadline and a July 21, 1997 summary judgment motion deadline in this case. Until the court rules on the statutory claims the plaintiffs cannot appeal dismissal of the constitutional claims. The argument on the statutory claims is that by not making any exemptions to the funds it seizes the statute is void on its face for violating the supremacy clause of the U.S. constitution. The state is likely to argue that the DOC has administratively created exemptions on the funds it seizes. We will report the court's ruling as soon as it is issued.

Two state court class action suits, one on behalf of the prisoners and the other on behalf of the spouses of prisoners, are being filed to challenge the legality of RCW 72.09.480 under the state constitution. Next month's PLN will report details.

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Related legal case

Wright v. Riveland