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Washington 35% Law Struck Down by State Court

0n May 17, 1999, King County (Seattle) superior court judge Glenna Hall held that RCW 72.09.480 was unconstitutional. In 1995 the Washington legislature enacted RCW 72.09.480 which mandates the seizure by the Department of Corrections (DOC) of 35% of all funds sent in to prisoners from sources outside prison. PLN has reported on this issue extensively since the law was first enacted. Review past issues of PLN for further details.

To date, three separate court actions have challenged the constitutionality of the law. Wright v. Riveland is a federal class action suit. In 1997 district court judge Franklin Burgess of Tacoma held the statute was void under the supremacy clause of the constitution and the DOC could not seize federally protected funds, such as 42 U. S. C. § 1983 judgements and settlements, Native American funds, social security and military pensions. However, Burgess dismissed all of the plaintiffs' constitutional claims. That case is currently on appeal in the Ninth circuit. In Re Metcalf 92 Wn.App. 165 (Div. I, 1998) was a Personal Restraint Petition filed by a prisoner in state court. The appeals court upheld the statute.

Dean v. Lehman is the third case. It was filed in King county superior court by the spouses of prisoners. The plaintiff class in Dean is represented by the Seattle firm of Sirianni and Youtz, the same attorneys who represent the prisoner class in Wright It was in this case in which judge Hall ruled.

Judge Hall granted summary judgment in the defendant's favor on some issues, holding that the statute did not violate the spouses' rights to equal protection, free speech, freedom of religion nor did it violate provisions against Bills of Attainder, state support for penal institutions and special legislation.

The court granted summary judgment to the plaintiff spouses and held: 1) By virtue of the state's community property law, the plaintiffs have legally protected interests in their spouses' prison trust accounts. 2) RC W 72.09.480 violates Article VII, § I of the Washington state constitution which mandates equal taxation. 3) " ... That the seizure of community funds for `victims compensation, violates the takings clause of the Washington and United States constitutions." 4) " ... That the seizure of community funds for `costs of incarceration' violates the takings clause of the Washington and United States constitutions." 5) That class members possess a state created, constitutionally protected right to the accrued interest on inmate savings accounts.

As relief, the court ordered "The defendants shall immediately cease seizing funds under RCW 72.09.480. The defendants shall return to the class members money and interest previously seized."

Despite the unmistakably clear language of the court's ruling, the Washington DOC continued seizing prisoners' money under RCW 72.09.480. When questioned about this, Douglas Carr, the Assistant Attorney General representing the state in this case, said he believed the judge was wrong in ruling the way she did. The state court of appeals for Division One denied an emergency motion by the state to halt contempt proceedings before judge Hall. The plaintiffs have filed a motion to hold DOC secretary Joseph Lehman in contempt for continuing to enforce RCW 72.09.480 despite judge Hall's ruling to the contrary. The contempt motion was denied and an emergency stay of Judge Halls order was issued by the state appeals court..

To date, the state of Washington has seized $3.6 million from Washington prisoners and their families under RCW 72.09.480. This translates into roughly $1.2 million ayear. The money is being held in an escrow account pending the outcome of the various state and federal lawsuits. If judge Hall's ruling is upheld on appeal, the state will have to return all money seized plus 12% annual interest.

Under judge Hall's original order, the DOC should stop seizing money under the law while the state appeals.  It does not have to return the money already taken before the court's order was issued until afteer the appeal process is exhausted.   PLN will report development in these cases as they occur.  See: Dean v. Lehman , King County Superior Court, Case No. 97-2-12906-ISEA.

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Related legal case

Dean v. Lehman