Stokes Lawrence Pro Bono Client Wins Favorable Decision in State Supreme Court Case

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10.03.16

Stokes Lawrence Shareholders Mat Harrington and Theresa Wang filed an amicus (friend of the court) brief on behalf of the National Alliance on Mental Illness — Washington in a case challenging $1,345 in discretionary fines issued to a homeless woman, dating back to her prior misdemeanor convictions.

Briana Wakefield is a woman with mental illness who was homeless and living on $710-a-month in disability benefits when a Benton County judge ordered her to pay additional fines for low-level offenses. The fines were not restitution to the victims, nor were they required fees for the crimes. At the time that Wakefield appealed the decision, an expert witness in the case described her as not even being able to “meet her basic needs at a bare-bones level.” The judge ordered she pay the fines, even though state law requires consideration of “manifest hardship” in a defendant’s ability to pay court fines.

The Washington Supreme Court issued a forceful opinion in favor of Wakefield, rebuking the lower court judge for failing to consider whether she can pay the fines or work at all.  The ruling set the precedent that judges must consider an indigent defendant’s ability to pay when issuing discretionary fines.

In the editorial, “Moral obligation to not create debtors’ traps for poor defendants,” Seattle Times editors supported the Supreme Court decision, noting that a new $500,000 federal grant could help pay for a calculator that should help Washington judges determine a defendant’s ability to pay.

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