State Supreme Court Rules Courts Cannot Demand LFOs from People Eking out a Living on Government Benefits

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Washington Supreme Court has reversed a lower court order that sought to collect discretionary legal financial obligations (LFOs, or court-imposed fees) from an indigent woman struggling to meet her basic living needs on social security disability payments. The woman, Ms. Briana Wakefield, was represented by Karla Carlisle and Jefferson Coulter of the Northwest Justice Project. 

The Supreme Court agreed with her attorneys’ arguments that courts cannot disregard individual financial circumstances when determining whether or not they can pay off their LFOs, as they did in Ms. Wakefield’s case.  The Supreme Court also stated that these individual financial circumstances must be considered when determining whether paying LFOs would impose a manifest hardship on the person.

The ACLU-WA submitted an amicus brief supporting Briana’s motion to reduce or eliminate the LFOs imposed on her, backing her attorneys’ contention that federal law prohibits courts from requiring individuals whose sole income is SSI benefits to repay LFO debts. The Supreme Court agreed, finding that the lower courts ignored the law when they required Briana to repay her LFOs.

Briana Wakefield is a disabled, homeless, single mother of four whose only income is $710 per month in Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits and $170 worth of food stamps. For years, Briana struggled to pay the $2,500 in legal financial obligations (LFOs) she owes to Benton County District Court in relation to two misdemeanor convictions. LFOs are the fines, fees, and restitution ordered by the court for every person convicted in Washington.

When Briana was unable to stay current on her payments, the district court issued a warrant for her arrest. In 2013 the district court held a hearing to review her fines and also considered Briana’s motion to cancel court costs. At the hearing, Briana presented evidence of her disabilities and of her subsistence on SSI benefits. An expert established that her income falls far short of that necessary for an adult in the area where she lives to be self-sufficient.

Despite this, the district court denied Briana’s motion to reduce or eliminate the LFOs and ordered her to restart payments at $15 per month. The court also concluded that prior payments made by Briana are evidence that she has the ability to pay fines, and that, as a matter of law, “poverty does not insulate a defendant from punishment for inability to pay fines.”

The Supreme Court disagreed with this reasoning, stating that “while the term “manifest hardship” is undefined in the statute, it is difficult to see how being unable to provide for one’s own basic needs – food, shelter, basic medical expenses – would not meet that standard. A person’s present inability to meet their own basic needs is not only relevant, but crucial to determining whether paying LFOs would create a manifest hardship.”

Cooperating attorneys Elizabeth Adams and Toby Marshall  of Terrell Marshall Law Group PLLC wrote the brief for the ACLU-WA.

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