SPOKANE, Wash. – Thousands of people in Washington will have their records expunged and their money refunded due to a state Supreme Court ruling that changed drug laws in the state. The decision was made last February, but getting people’s money back is not an easy process.
In State v. Blake, the Supreme Court struck down the state’s simple drug possession law because it did not require the state to prove intent that a person knowingly possessed illegal drugs. What sounds complicated boils down to something very simple: Thousands of people in Washington have been convicted of a crime that has now been proven unconstitutional.
So far, $74,000 in taxpayer funds have been spent to pay off fines in Spokane County. The county clerk says there are $3.8 million in other reimbursements the county may pay in the future. Much more could be in the works as more cases are processed.
“State v. Blake gives people a clean slate on these issues,” Steve Graham said. He is a criminal defense attorney at Steve Graham’s law firm and helps people through this process. “We get a lot of calls from former clients looking to clean up their file, and it’s taken a long time. The process was very slow.
One of the reasons for this is that there are a lot of cases. The county clerk’s office has gathered records through 1993 to date, and this decision already affects 14,380 cases in the county.
People are having their records wiped clean of simple drug possession charges, being re-convicted if they are incarcerated for other crimes, and being reimbursed for the money they paid into the system in the form of fines.
“These people deserve their money back. They deserve to have these evacuations and firings done, and if they are incarcerated, they deserve to have a new score because it will reduce their incarceration time,” said Tim Fitzgerald, the Spokane County Clerk overseeing the county-wide process. . “The state Supreme Court made a ruling, so we have to follow through on that ruling. We’re doing that in good faith.
Fitzgerald oversees the process which is not as simple as it seems.
“I clean up all legal documentation with Washington State Patrol and police records, as well as my own county records and state records,” he said.
“It doesn’t make sense if the clerk of the courthouse down the street seals a file and doesn’t allow public access to it,” Graham said. “It makes no sense if these background check companies, some in the United States and some overseas, still have these records and sell them to people.”
Graham says he’s struggling to get background check companies to comply, meaning the ruling may be in place, but people are still seeing past convictions holding them back.
“That’s really the hurdle that people have faced trying to take those drug convictions five, 10, 20 years ago and seal them in so people can have a fresh start,” Graham concluded.
The clerk’s office has just scratched the surface of cases dating back to 1993. The new ruling dates back five decades. Fitzgerald says it will take a few more years to process the cases until 1971, which means the final payment of fines could also increase.
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