Washington courts resolve drug abuse convictions and refund fines

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SEATTLE (AP) — People convicted under Washington’s longstanding drug possession law are beginning to erase their records and refund their court-imposed fines.

This comes in the wake of the Washington Supreme Court’s landmark decision to scrap the law in February 2021. But remedial action has been complicated, with each district charting its own course.

In the case of “State v. Blake, the Washington Supreme Court found the state’s ban on simple drug possession unconstitutional. That’s because no proof was required that a person knowingly possessed illegal drugs. The ruling had immediate repercussions — police officers stopped arresting people for drug possession and prosecutors released people from prison that day.

The more massive task ahead is to overturn five decades of previous convictions, resentencing people already in prison for other violations, and refunding the fines paid by people convicted under this law.

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

“This is happening, whether you ask us to or not, it’s happening,” said Chief Prosecutor Laura Petregal KUOW. “We do it.”

Prosecutors seek court orders themselves without action from the convicts, working backwards from recent cases. So if you review your court record, it may show that a judge in King County Superior Court has already ordered your conviction set aside.

“We go through these cases and proactively dismiss them, and it’s not as simple as pushing a button, is it?” said Petregal.

The next step is often to check how much each person has paid in fines. At this point, the individual must request a refund from the office and provide their current address.

“We’ve had people come into the clerk’s office and request refunds that they were entitled to under the court order,” said David Hackett, a senior civilian prosecutor. “And King County wrote checks for $77,342.44 a total of 176 times.”

Its a lot to do. Hackett estimates there may be as many as 150,000 valid convictions statewide dating back to 1971, including 54,000 in King County. He said the process becomes even more difficult when they go 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 in people’s lives.

“A person who is applying for a job, or who is applying for an apartment or other important things in life, can answer truthfully that they have never been convicted of a simple drug possession offense,” he said.

Hackett said King County has had fewer cases recently because prosecutors have given less emphasis to drug possession charges over the past decade. As such, he said their contact information was less up-to-date for those affected by the Blake ruling. That’s one reason prosecutors try to proactively resolve convictions without notifying those involved.

Benton County in south-central Washington has a larger number of recent drug possession cases and has taken a different approach. Assistant Attorney General Ryan Brown said his office sent letters to people with qualifying convictions under “Blake.” These individuals were directed to a website where they could request that their records be erased and their fines refunded. Benton County has issued $1.5 million in refunds to date.

(This spring, state legislatures provided counties with funds to implement the process and write the checks.)

By the end of March, King County had overturned 5,040 convictions. Pierce County cleared 3,777, according to prosecutors. Each county is now setting up its own process.

Pierce County resident Matthew Seed said he was very frustrated at getting his refund for fines paid to Pierce County. Seed said both Thurston and Pierce counties overturned his 15-year-old convictions last February. And Thurston County issued its $1,200 refund shortly thereafter. But Pierce County has yet to recover its $1,528 in fines.

Seed said he has repeatedly called the clerk’s office that administers the refunds, but has been unable to get clarification on the timeline.

“I feel like if I don’t continue to be the squeaky wheel and say something, I’ll just forget about it,” he said.

Seed said he’s been sober for five years. He said he needed the refund to pay for more reliable transportation to his place of work.

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

The Pierce County Clerk’s Office responded that they have now issued Seed’s refund as part of the refunds totaling $177,091.57 to date. They said their refunds were sent later than some other counties because Pierce County was waiting for government funds to match those payments.

Seed said he was pleased with the Blake verdict. But he said the damage caused by his convictions and fines has far exceeded the relief he is getting now.

“They garnished my wages to get the money,” he said, “and hired me to do it! Not only that, I’ve been denied jobs for failing a criminal background check multiple times.”

Prachi Dave is Policy and Advocacy Director at The Public Defender Association, which has filed a class action lawsuit seeking restitution for individuals across the state. She said the fact that each county has its own process and schedule for issuing refunds creates confusion.

“We keep hearing that, and I think it’s because this is a very piecemeal system,” she said. Dave said the burden on people to clear their records and claim their refunds is another variable.

“It’s a lot of work for people who already have a lot on their plate,” she said. “It will be difficult, and these processes are not necessarily easy to control at the moment.”

A more unified process is on the horizon – eventually, the State Administrative Office of the Courts will become a central clearinghouse to process convictions and make restitutions, but that’s not planned until summer 2023.

Meanwhile, the state is still puzzling over whether drug possession should be sanctioned at all. After the Blake ruling, lawmakers made simple drug possession a misdemeanor, with an emphasis on alternatives to criminal charges. But this law also expires next summer.

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