Criminal Justice

Law exempts homeless, disabled woman from paying $15 a month in court costs, state high court rules

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A homeless woman with bipolar disorder does not have to pay $15 a month toward court costs for her convictions on charges of disorderly conduct and harassment, the Washington Supreme Court has ruled.

In a decision on Thursday, the court said Briana Wakefield struggles to meet her basic needs and the order to pay should not be enforced, report the Tri-City Herald and the Associated Press. The Marshall Project links to the opinion (PDF).

Wakefield, 27, receives $710 a month in Social Security disability payments. A district court judge had found that Wakefield is able to work, and her drug use and criminal activity affects the amount of money she has to pay her fines.

According to the Washington Supreme Court, the judge failed to consider Wakefield’s inability to meet her own basic needs, and failed to give weight to findings by the Social Security Administration regarding her disability. There was no evidence that Wakefield continued to engage in criminal activity, the state supreme court said, and she had been sober for 75 days at the time of the hearing.

The judge also violated federal law, the supreme court said, by requiring her to pay from her Social Security disability benefits. The court sided with the supreme courts of Montana and Michigan, which held that anti-attachment provisions of the Social Security Act protect the funds from being used for court-ordered payments.

A concurrence said courts differ on federal protections for the disability money, and the court did not need to reach the issue to decide the case.

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