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Spokane County Settles Class-Action Suit Over Jailing; Those Unable to Pay Fines

by Matt Clarke

On September 19, 2014, a Washington State federal court signed off on the preliminary settlement of a class-action lawsuit brought against Spokane County for routinely jailing people with court-ordered fines or other legal financial obligations who were unable to pay them without first holding a hearing on whether they were able to pay or were willfully refusing to pay.

Betty Rucker, the class representative, was thrice jailed for failing to pay court-ordered restitution and other legal financial obligations that were part of her sentence in a criminal case. Each time, a Court Collections Deputy, who is not an attorney, came to Rucker with her proposed Order Enforcing Sentence. When Rucker asked to be allowed to explain her inability to pay to the judge, the Court Collections Deputy told her that it would require a hearing and, if she insisted on a hearing, she would probably he sentenced to a longer time in jail than she would get if she agreed to the proposed Order.

Each time, Rucker signed the Order without having received the advice of counsel or being allowed to explain to the judge why she was unable to pay. As a result, she agreed to a 30 day jail sentence for the first time, a 45-day sentence for the second time and a 75-day sentence for the third time. She served out the first two sentences. On the third occasion, she was released 14 days into the sentence after her husband paid $525 to obtain her release.

Aided by Spokane attorneys Breean L. Beggs, Jeffry Finer, and Andrew Biviano, Rucker filed a class-action federal civil rights suit, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 1986, against Spokane County. The class was all persons incarcerated in the jail, pursuant to an “Order Enforcing Sentence-LFO,” between January 26, 2008, until September 19, 2014, for failure to pay legal financial obligations.

The suit alleged violations of the class members’ Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to a hearing on probable cause prior to being incarcerated on failure to pay fees and other legal financial obligations. It also alleged incarceration was only legal for willfully refusing to pay, not for being financially unable to pay.

Spokane County agreed to settle the suit for about $350,000. The settlement applied to persons booked into the jail between 2008 and 2014. Rucker and her attorneys received $135,000. $25,000 was used by the county to pay for a job training program for over 1,000 class members, some of whom were booked into the jail but released soon thereafter. $190,000 was divided among about 800 class members who were eligible to receive compensation for being jailed.

The county no longer jails people for nonpayment of legal obligations without first having determined in a hearing that the failure to pay was willful. This resulted in the number of people incarcerated in the jail for nonpayment dropping from 30 to 5. The settlement was finalized by the district court in February 2015. See: Rucker v. Spokane County, U.S.D.C.-E.D. Wash., Case No. 2:12-cv-05157-LBS.


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Related legal case

Rucker v. Spokane County