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Washington 35% Law Struck Down, in Part

PLN has reported extensively on Wright v. Riveland , the class action lawsuit challenging Washington state statute RCW 72.09.480 [ PLN , Jun. Aug. Dec. 1996; May, 1997]. The law allows the DOC to seize 35% of all money sent to prisoners, regardless of the source. The district court had previously dismissed the plaintiffs' claims that the statute violated their federal rights with regards to due process, equal protection, double jeopardy, ex post facto, bill of attainders, takings clause and excessive fines.

On October 1, 1997, magistrate J. Kelley Arnold issued a Report and Recommendation (R&R) which recommended partial summary judgment to the plaintiffs. At the outset the magistrate held that 28 U.S.C. § 1341, the Tax Injunction Act (TIA), did not apply to this action. This was very important because the defendants had sought dismissal of the suit claiming that the TIA deprived the federal courts of subject matter jurisdiction to hear the complaint.

The magistrate held that ERISA pension funds can be seized under the law. He also held that the plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the statute as applied to railroad pension funds because no class member was identified as receiving such funds.

The R&R declared that the seizure statute "impermissibly conflicts with the class's right to receive funds from veteran's benefits, social security benefits, proceeds from § 1983 civil rights actions, and certain funds distributed to Native Americans without being levied."

On October 22, 1997, U.S. district court judge Franklin Burgess adopted the R&R in its entirety. The court's order states: "That all plaintiff's motion is granted in part and denied in part. RCW 72.09.480 is declared void to the extent that it conflicts with the following federal laws: Veteran's Administration benefits received under 38 U.S.C. 5301(a); Social Security benefits received under 42 U.S.C. § 407(a); proceeds from civil rights action filed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983; and certain funds distributed to native Americans under 25 U.S.C. § 410, 1401-07, 1176 and 43 U.S.C. § 1606(h), 1620. It is the class member's burden to demonstrate that any funds received are exempt from the deductions made pursuant to RCW 72.09.480."

The next step is for the plaintiffs to move for an injunction enjoining enforcement of RCW 72.09.480 to the extent it had been declared void and to seek attorney fees and costs. The plaintiffs will be appealing dismissal of the constitutional claims to the ninth circuit and presumably the state will appeal the court's ruling in favor of the prisoners. Readers should note that the court's ruling applies only to funds from the federal sources listed above. Funds from all other sources will still have 35% seized by the statute. Prisoners who have had federal funds as listed above seized, should request their refund from the state and notify class counsel if the DOC refuses to refund the money. The district court's ruling is unpublished but can be accessed at PLN 's website. See: Wright v. Riveland , case No. C95-5381FDB, USDC Tacoma, WA.

The state court lawsuit, Dean v. Lehman , filed on behalf of prisoners' spouses challenging RCW 72.09.480 is still pending in King County superior court. The superior court granted class certification and discovery is proceeding. PLN will report developments in both cases as they occur.

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Related legal case

Wright v. Riveland