Washington Courts Overturn Drug Convictions, Refund Fines

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People convicted under Washington’s longstanding criminal drug possession law are starting to have their records expunged and their court-ordered fines refunded.

It’s a consequence of the Washington Supreme Court’s groundbreaking decision to strike down the law in February 2021. But so far the appeal has been complicated, as each county sets its own course.

In “State v. Blake,” the Washington Supreme Court found that the state’s ban on simple drug possession was unconstitutional. This is because it was not necessary to prove that a person knowingly possessed illegal drugs. The decision had immediate effects – police stopped arresting people for drug possession and prosecutors got people released from jail that day.

The most massive task now underway is to erase five decades of past convictions, re-convict those already detained for other offences, and repay the fines paid by those convicted under this law.

In King County, prosecutors say they have created a legal assembly line to process these cases as quickly as possible.

“It’s happening whether you ask us or not, it’s happening,” lead attorney Laura Petregal told KUOW. “We are doing it.”

Prosecutors apply for court orders themselves, without any action on the part of the convicts, starting from the most recent cases. So if you check your court record, a King County Superior Court judge may have already ordered your conviction overturned.

“We proactively review and reject these cases, and it’s not as easy as pushing a button, is it?” said Petregal.

The next step is often to check how much each person has paid in fines. At that time, the person must submit a reimbursement request to the court office and provide their current address.

“We had people come to the clerk’s office and apply for the reimbursements that the court order made them eligible for,” said David Hackett, a senior civilian assistant with the district attorney’s office. “And King County issued checks for $77,342.44 on a total of 176 cases.”

There is still a lot to do. Hackett estimates there could be as many as 150,000 eligible convictions dating back to 1971 statewide, including 54,000 in King County. He said the process will be even more difficult when they move beyond the electronic court record and have to confirm older convictions on microfiche.

But Hackett said he knew deleting those records would make a significant difference to people’s lives.

“A person who applies for a job, or who applies for housing, or other important things in life, can honestly answer that he has never been convicted of a simple offense of possession of drugs”, a- he declared.

Hackett said King County has had fewer recent cases since prosecutors reduced the focus on drug possession charges over the past decade. He therefore said that their contact details were less up to date for those affected by the Blake ruling. This is one of the reasons prosecutors seek to proactively erase convictions without informing those affected.

Benton County in south-central Washington has more recent drug possession cases and has taken a different approach. Chief Assistant District Attorney Ryan Brown said his office sent letters to people convicted under “Blake.” These people were directed to a website where they could request that their records be erased and their fines refunded. Benton County has so far issued $1.5 million in refunds.

(This spring, the state legislature provided funding to counties to implement the process and issue the checks.)

By the end of March, King County had overturned 5,040 convictions. Pierce County evacuated 3,777, prosecutors said. Each county now sets its own process.

Matthew Seed, a Pierce County resident, said he had great frustrations getting his refund of fines paid to Pierce County. Seed said Thurston and Pierce counties overturned his 15-year convictions last February. And Thurston County issued its $1,200 refund soon after. But Pierce County has yet to repay its $1,528 fine.

Seed said he repeatedly called the clerk’s office, which handles refunds, but was unable to get clarification on the timeline.

“I feel like if I don’t continue to be the squeaky wheel and say something, I’m just going to be forgotten with it,” he said.

Seed said he had been sober for five years. He said he needed the reimbursement to pay for more reliable transportation to work.

“I bought a truck from someone who wasn’t driving when I got it. My car had broken down. I fixed it and just want to allow it,” he said.

The Pierce County Clerk’s Office responded that it has now issued Seed’s refund, in refunds totaling $177,091.57 so far. They said their refunds were sent later than some other counties because Pierce County was waiting for state funding to offset those payments.

Seed said he was happy with the Blake decision. But he said the harm created by his convictions and fines far outweighs the relief he is getting now.

“They seized my salary to get the money,” he said, “and instructed me to do it! Not only that, but I’ve been turned down for jobs because I failed a criminal background check, multiple times.

Prachi Dave is director of policy and advocacy at the Public Defender Association, which filed a class action lawsuit seeking refunds from people across the state. She said the fact that each county has its own process and timeline for issuing refunds is confusing.

“We keep hearing that, and I think that’s a result of it being a very patchwork system,” she said. Dave said the burden on people to have their records cleared and seek reimbursement is another variable.

“It’s a lot of work for people who already have a lot to do,” she says. “It’s going to be difficult, and those processes aren’t necessarily easy to navigate right now.”

There’s a more uniform process coming — the State Courts Administrative Office will eventually become a central clearinghouse for processing convictions and making refunds, but that’s not expected to happen until summer 2023.

Meanwhile, the state is still trying to figure out whether to criminalize drug possession. After the “Blake” decision, lawmakers made simple drug possession a misdemeanor, emphasizing alternatives to criminal charges. But this law is also due to expire next summer.

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