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Dean Injunction Clarified in Washington 35% Suit

Wright Acted On

PLN has extensively reported the state and federal litigation challenging the constitutionality of RCW 72.09.480. RCW 72.09.480 is the statute which allows the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) to seize 35% of all funds sent to Washington prisoners. As reported in the August, 1999, issue of PLN, on May 17, 1999, King county superior court judge Gienna Hall ruled that RCW 72.09.480 was unconstitutional to the extent that it seized community property owned,by the spouses of prisoners. The case, Dean v. Lehman, is a class action lawsuit filed by the spouses of prisoners.

Despite judge Hall's ruling, the Washington DOC continued seizing prisoners' money and stopped only after a contempt motion was filed. Ruling on that motion, the court held that the earlier injunction was not stayed and had gone into effect on may 17, 1999.

The court declined to find defendant Joseph Lehman, the DOC secretary, in contempt. Attempting to evade this ruling, the DOC continued seizing money sent to prisoners unless it had been sent to a married prisoner by their spouse. The Dean plaintiffs filed a second motion for contempt, contending that all funds received by married prisoners are community property and that the injunction should also protect unmarried prisoners because it violates equal protection to apply statutes based on a person's marital status.

On December 15, 1999, judge Hall issued an order clarifying her previous orders: "1) The court's May 17, 1999, orders on the parties' motions for summary judgment apply to all community property funds received by the incarcerated spouses of the plaintiff class. Regardless of who sends such funds to the incarcerated spouses;

"2) All funds sent to married inmates are presumptively community property, therefore funds sent to married inmates may not be subject to deductions under RCW 72.09.480 unless the defendants demonstrate that such funds are not community property and therefore not subject to this court's order;

"3) The court's May 17, 1999, orders do not apply to funds received by unmarried inmates;

4) The defendants may, but need not, requires inmates affirmatively to claim exemption from seizure under RCW 72.09.480 by showing evidence of marital status. Such evidence may, include, but is not limited to a copy of a marriage certificate or evidence of common law marriage in a state that recognizes common law marriages; and

"5) Defendants are not in contempt."

Under the terms of these orders, the Washington DOC must immediately return any funds seized from married prisoners after May 17, 1999, regardless of the source of the funds. The defendants have appealed the original ruling in this case to the state supreme court. Briefing has been completed and oral argument is scheduled to be heard in March, 2000. See: Dean v. Lehman, King County Superior Court, Case No. 97-2-12906-1 SEA.

The federal court class action suit, Wright v. Riveland, is still pending in the Ninth circuit court of appeals. After oral argument was heard in March, 1999, the court ordered the district court to clarify its dismissal order within 30 days. On February 1, 2000, the district court amended its earlier judgment and granted summary judgment to the defendants by holding that ERISA retirement funds are not exempt from seizure under the statute. Judge Burgess also directed the parties to present a plan to refund the prisoners' funds that were exempt from seizure.

At issue in the federal lawsuit are federal claims by prisoner plaintiffs which the district court dismissed for failing to state a claim. The district court's ruling that RCW 72.09.480 was void as applied to federal funds (i.e., 42 U.S.C. § 1983 judgments and settlements, Native American funds, etc.) was not appealed by the state and remains in effect for all Washington prisoners. The plaintiffs in both Dean and Wright are represented by Chris Youtz and Jon Meier, with the Seattle law firm of Sirianni and Youtz.

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Related legal case

Dean v. Lehman