Media coverage has increased regarding the poor being unable to get out from under legal financial obligations. For various examples, go to columbialegal.org/modern-day-debtors-prisons-washington.
As mentioned in last month’s column, one part of our comprehensive strategic plan is our work on driver’s license reinstatement issues. The same traffic ticket that is just an inconvenience for some can become an impossible hurdle for low income people. There are personal and societal costs when a poor person cannot pay for a traffic violation.
Northwest Justice Project has launched a texting campaign on this issue: text DRIVE to 877877 for more information. If you would like a poster to post where you work, feel free to contact my office.
To better advise my clients, I have been surveying the Grays Harbor and Pacific counties district and municipal courts to find out how each court handles non-payment of fines.
Here’s what I know for sure:
1) No two courts’ practices and/or philosophies appear to be the same, and
2) Answers to many of my inquiries were “it depends” — so if in doubt, contact each court directly and ask what options might be available.
CAVEAT: I would couch this as an informal survey. I received email responses to my questions primarily from court staff, with a few direct contacts with judges. There were questions, to which I assume a judge’s answer might be different.
All, but one, court allows community service to pay fines. Some encourage it; some discourage it. Several report few exercise this option. Some have procedures how to request/qualify; others are informal, e.g., requests by letter, by appearance, etc. Typical payment was equivalent to $10/hour toward the unpaid fine.
All require the person to set up the community service opportunity on their own — with a non-profit organization (or municipality). Some have suggested lists of possible local placements.
Interestingly, in explaining why community service being granted was rare, one court staff expressed concern about liability issues and L&I requirements. In contrast, another court has a waiver of the same issues. Another court expressed the liability belongs to the non-profit who accepts the placement. (I don’t practice employment law very often, but it’s an interesting legal issue).
At the time a case is adjudicated, all courts allow payment plans with the court. Most, but not all, have a minimum payment (typically $25-$50); most are willing to further reduce the payment if a demonstrable need.
Procedures vary if a payment plan is later requested. Some courts express willingness to give individuals multiple attempts at making payments before turning over to collections; others, it is a one time option.
Once in collections, a fine starting at, say $100, with interest, collections costs, attorney fees, etc., grows exponentially. Courts varied as to whether or not a case can be pulled out of collections after being referred — to allow payment solely on the fine. Some courts were very willing; others express reticence — only allowing if recently referred or some procedural error. How to request also varied.
NOTE: While bankruptcy can cost $1,500-$2,000, for those who have a HIGH number of cases in MULTIPLE jurisdictions, Chapter 13 bankruptcy may be an option. You have to have enough income to cover all of your regular monthly expenses and have enough left over to enter into a payment plan (often 60 months) with the bankruptcy court. Filing stays all proceedings, pulls all cases out of collections, i.e., so you only pay the actual fines, and a revoked driver’s license is reinstated.
My clients also have various outstanding warrants — many of which, they did not realize existed. Warrants in these cases were issued for failure to appear and/or failure to pay.
In surveying the courts, all issue warrants for failure to appear.
A minority of courts decline to issue warrants for failure to pay. One because is doesn’t seem right. A few stated specifically that it is illegal to do so. (I’m still researching this issue, but it, too, is an interesting legal issue).
Needless to say, a more uniform or unified process would certainly better serve the public (and I would hedge a bet that it might save money too).
To find out if you are eligible for Northwest Justice Project services:
For cases including youth (Individualized Education Program and school discipline issues), debt collection cases and tenant evictions, please call for a local intake appointment at (360) 533-2282 or toll free (866) 402-5293. No walk-ins, please.
For all other legal issues, please call our toll-free intake and referral hotline commonly known as “CLEAR” (Coordinated Legal Education Advice and Referral) at 1-888-201-1014, Mondays through Fridays 9:10 a.m. to 12:25 p.m. If you are a senior, 60 and over, please call 1-888-387-7111; you may be eligible regardless of income. Language interpreters are available. You can also complete an application for services at nwjustice.org/get-legal-help. Be sure to also check out our law library at: www.washingtonlawhelp.org.
Sarah Glorian is the senior attorney for the Aberdeen office of the Northwest Justice Project, a private, non-profit legal aid organization providing free representation to low-income residents in Grays Harbor and Pacific counties.