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Washington Supreme Court Strikes Down Legal Financial Obligations Imposed on Indigent or Disabled Defendants Unable to Pay

by Lonnie Burton

On September 22, 2016, a unanimous Washington Supreme Court held that the imposition of legal financial obligations (LFOs) on indigent or disabled defendants violates state and federal law when the trial court makes no particularized finding that the defendant has a current or future ability to pay. The ruling applies to discretionary LFOs, such as court costs and attorney’s fees, but not mandatory LFOs like restitution.

The case stemmed from a Benton County district court order that required Briana Wakefield to pay $15 per month in discretionary LFOs. Wakefield was described in court records as homeless, disabled and indigent. She received only $710 a month in Social Security payments and about $170 in state food stamp assistance.

Following her convictions for several misdemeanors, Wakefield challenged the discretionary costs imposed by the judge. The superior court granted her appeal and directed the district court to enter findings of fact setting forth “the reasons which led the court to enter these orders.” The district court then entered findings which stated Wakefield had a steady SSI income as well as “other state funded benefits,” and that she had no disability that prevented her from working. It also found that her failure to have enough money to pay the LFOs was the result of “life choices she made that negatively impacted” her income.

Wakefield again appealed and the superior court affirmed. She then sought discretionary review in the Court of Appeals, which certified the case to the state Supreme Court.

After the case was scheduled for oral argument, the cities of Kennewick and Richland, Washington filed motions to cancel the oral argument and remand the case to the trial court for an order striking Wakefield’s LFOs. The cities, which had originally prosecuted Wakefield, said they had a “duty to concede error when an asserted legal position is no longer tenable.”

According to the cities, there was no “good faith argument to be made in opposition to Ms. Wakefield’s request” for an order vacating her LFOs. However, they asked the state Supreme Court to issue a ruling to set precedent for future cases. The Court agreed to do so.

In striking down the LFO order, the Supreme Court held the district court first failed to apply the “manifest hardship” rule of RCW 10.01.160(4), which prohibits imposing discretionary LFOs in cases where the defendant cannot pay without creating an undue hardship. Noting that Wakefield’s modest income did not even cover her basic living expenses, the Court found the district court had committed reversible error.

The Supreme Court also held the district court erred in failing to properly analyze and consider the impact of Wakefield’s homelessness and disability on her ability to pay. Courts should consider a defendant’s eligibility for federal needs-based assistance as strong evidence that they may be unable to pay LFOs.

Finally, the Supreme Court criticized the district court’s findings that there was no evidence Wakefield had a disability, that her “life choices” caused her poverty and that she had made no legitimate efforts to pay her LFOs.

“Findings of fact must be made on evidence,” the Court wrote. “And in this case, there was no evidence in the record to support the judge’s findings.”

As for the federal law component, the Supreme Court ruled that the district court’s order violated the anti-attachment provisions of the Social Security Act. Under the Act, “none of the moneys paid” as part of Social Security benefits “shall be subject to execution, levy, attachment, garnishment, or other legal process.” When a person’s sole source of income, like Wakefield’s, consists of Social Security disability benefits, federal law prohibits courts from ordering LFO payments, the Court concluded. See: City of Richland v. Wakefield, 186 Wn.2d 596, 380 P.3d 459 (Wash. 2016). 

Related legal case

City of Richland v. Wakefield