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Seizure of Washington Prisoners’ Cash at Jail Booking Unconstitutional

Seizure of Washington Prisoners' Cash at Jail Booking Unconstitutional

by Michael Rigby

On August 29, 2006, a, federal district court in Washington held that a state law allowing jails to confiscate money from prisoners during booking without notice or a hearing was unconstitutional.

In May 2003 the Washington legislature amended RCW 70.48.390, which originally authorized jails to charge a $10.00 booking fee, to charge up to $100.00 to cover the cost of booking. According to the statute, the fees were "payable immediately from any money then possessed by the person being booked into jail." Several jails, including the Spokane and Snohomish county jails, have been actively confiscating money under the statute. If the prisoner has no cash at the time of arrest, the fee is deducted from any money family or friends deposit in the prisoner's canteen fund.

One person unceremoniously separated from his money by the Spokane County Jail is Shawn Huss, who was arrested for alleged domestic violence on October 31, 2004. During the intake process, jailers seized all the cash in his wallet--$39.30--as partial payment of the jail's booking fee of $89.12. Huss was not informed the money was taken or that he was entitled to have it returned if he was acquitted or the charges were dropped. When the charges against Huss were dismissed and he was released the next day, the Spokane jail failed to return, his money. In fact, Huss didn't recover the cash--which he says he needed to feed his family--until four months later, and even then it took a letter from his attorney notifying jail officials that the booking fee was unconstitutional.

On June 8, 2005, Huss filed a class action lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1988 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington claiming the Spokane jail's booking fee and the state law that authorized it were unconstitutional. Huss specifically claimed the policy violated the 14th Amendment, which prohibits the government from depriving a person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.

On Huss's motion for partial summary judgment, U.S. District Judge Fred Van Sickle held that because "the statute requires immediate payment of the booking fee from any money then possessed by the person being booked, there exists no set of circumstances in which RCW 70.48.390 and the Jail?s Policy can be applied constitutionally."

Relying on Matthews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 96 S.Ct. 893, 47 L.Ed.2d 18 (1976), in which the Supreme Court outlined three factors relevant to determining whether a person has received due process, Judge Van Sickle specifically concluded that: 1) the statute and policy affect a significant private interest; 2) the risk of erroneous deprivation is extreme compared to the county's interest in augmenting revenue; and 3) neither the statute nor the county's policy requires a pre-deprivation hearing, which due process requires in this situation.

Following the verdict, officials with Snohomish County, which has been charging prisoners a $10 booking fee since 2001, lamented the ruling could cost the County $70,000 a year in revenue. No concern was expressed regarding the deprivation of people's constitutional rights. Huss was represented by Breean Beggs, an attorney with the Center for Justice in Spokane. See: Huss v. Spokane County, USDC ED WA, Case No. CV-05-180-FVS.

Additional source: The Seattle Times

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Related legal case

Huss v. Spokane County

The complaint and summary judgment ruling are available in the brief bank.