The Terrell Marshall Law Group and ACLU of Washington filed a class-action lawsuit against Pierce County on Monday claiming the county has violated the constitutional rights of thousands of people by referring their court debt to private collection agencies for missed payments and, in the process, punishing indigent people with additional charges despite their inability to pay.
Eddie Lemmon, a 56-year-old veteran who lives in Tacoma, was convicted in October 2010. He was still incarcerated months later when Pierce County notified him that he was delinquent on fee payments and that his debt would be transferred to a private debt collection agency. Mr. Lemmon could not afford to make payments toward his debt within 30 days, yet Pierce County sent his debt to collections where additional fees and interest would be applied. In doing so, the lawsuit alleges Pierce County violated Lemmon’s rights and routinely violates the rights of others under the United States and Washington State constitutions. Mr. Lemmon’s debt has more than doubled in collections where it remains more than a decade later.
Legal financial obligations (LFOs) are court-ordered fees, fines, and other expenses a person is ordered to pay as part of their sentencing. In Pierce County, when a person is unable to pay those fees, the county sends the debt to a private collection agency. The county assesses a collection fee between 18 and 23 percent and has previously authorized interest on the LFOs at 12 percent per year. Pierce County routinely refers these debts to private agencies and imposes these additional charges without holding a meaningful ability-to-pay hearing or inquiring as to whether the person’s nonpayment was willful or out of their control, the lawsuit alleges.
In Mr. Lemmon’s case, Pierce County failed to notify him that he had a right to an ability-to-pay hearing, failed to inquire into his ability to pay, failed to tell him additional fees would be imposed for his lack of payment, didn’t explain the debt could be reduced or waived if he was unable to pay, and sent his debt to collections despite his indigency. His initial LFOs were set at $800 at sentencing. With the additional fees and interest, he owes more than $2,000 despite still being indigent.
Through its actions, the lawsuit alleges Pierce County violates:
- The Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article 1, Sections 3 and 12 of the Washington state Constitution by imposing additional punishment on Lemmon and others for nonpayment of LFOs, despite Lemmon’s and others’ indigence.
- The Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article 1 Section 14 of the Washington State Constitution by extracting payments that are disproportionate to the gravity of the offense of nonpayment.
“Pierce County’s actions are unconstitutional and, at their foundation, just plain cruel,” said Toby J. Marshall, an attorney at Terrell Marshall Law Group representing Lemmon. “To impose additional fees on Mr. Lemmon and thousands of others despite it being clear they cannot pay the original fees speaks to a broken system that prioritizes punishment over true rehabilitation. The system must change.”
“Mr. Lemmon’s case underscores the problem with LFOs,” said Breanne Schuster, attorney at the ACLU of Washington representing Lemmon. “Pierce County’s tactics ultimately trap a person in perpetual debt for years and even decades after their conviction, lengthening the time it takes people to pay these debts. This cruelty disproportionately impacts people of color and keeps people entangled in the criminal legal system despite their best efforts to grow and reintegrate into society.”
The lawsuit seeks preliminary and permanent injunctions to prohibit Pierce County from referring LFO accounts to private agencies without assessing each person’s ability to pay. The suit also seeks an injunction to prohibit Pierce County from forcing indigent people to pay any charges and interests assessed from having their LFO accounts referred to a private collection agency.
Lemmon and others are represented by Toby J. Marshall of the Terrell Marshall Law Group PLLC and Breanne Schuster and Julia Mizutani of the ACLU of Washington.
Read more about the case, including the complaint, here.