Barbara A. Bowden

Tacoma, WA DUI Attorney

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Washington Supreme Court Takes A Bite Out of Fines

As Tacoma, Washington DUI attorneys, we are always concerned with how our clients’ finances will be affected due to their criminal traffic cases. And we know that for some people, a small fine can quickly become a larger problem if you don’t have the proper means to pay it.

A recent Washington State Supreme Court decision will hopefully change that.

As it stands right now, legal financial obligations, such as fines in criminal cases, often accrue interest at the rate of 12% per year.  These fines are then turned over to collection companies; they tack on fees, further increasing the amount owed.

In a criminal traffic case, such as a DUI, these fines aren’t just turned over to a collection company by the court. They also get reported to the Department of Licensing, and now the collection company has the added leverage of driver license suspension hanging over a person’s head. Not exactly a fair bargaining position.

The wealthy don’t experience the full impact of our penal fine system. Rather, it is the indigent and financially marginal person whose discretionary fines end up in collections and their driving privileges suspended.

In DUI cases, there are statutory minimum fines that a court must impose. Some courts are more cognizant of financial concerns and have alternative methods of satisfying mandatory minimum fines, such as authorizing community service hours with a non-profit organization of a person’s choice. But not all of them are.

The Washington Supreme Court has recently taken a small step to correcting this by requiring courts to at least take into account the defendant’s ability to pay before imposing discretionary fines.

As a result of the Washington Supreme Court decision in State v. Blazina, et al, a sentencing court must now make an individualized inquiry into a defendant’s current and future ability to pay before imposing legal financial obligations.

The particular statutory provision that the court was called upon to interpret is R.C.W. 10.01.160(3) which provides:

“The court shall not order a defendant to pay costs unless the defendant is or will be able to pay them. In determining the amount and method of payment of costs, the court shall take account of the financial resources of the defendant and the nature of the burden that payment of costs will impose.”

At the Law Offices of Barbara A. Bowden, we hope this Supreme Court decision will go a long ways towards ending the financial hardship that is disproportionately impacting the working poor. When courts impose excessive fines, there is no fair, realistic way that the average working individual will be able to pay. We truly hope this decision will stop this from happening in the future.