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Terrell Marshall Defeats Motion to Dismiss in Case Against Pierce County over Excessive Fines and Fees

September 07, 2021

Terrell Marshall Law Group, working with the ACLU of Washington, recently defeated a motion to dismiss on behalf of a client who claims that Pierce County punished him with excessive fees and interest after he could not afford to pay court-ordered legal financial obligations (LFOs). The imposition of these additional fees violates the Fourteenth and Eighth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and Sections 3, 12, and 14 of Article I of the Washington State Constitution. Terrell Marshall and the ACLU filed the class action lawsuit in April 2021 to vindicate the rights of the client and a class of individuals who have suffered similar violations.

Plaintiff Alleges Pierce County Imposes Excessive Fines & Fees

More than ten years ago, Plaintiff Eddie Lemmon, a Black man and military veteran, was convicted on charges in Pierce County Superior Court and sentenced to pay $800 in LFOs. Mr. Lemmon did not have the means to pay the LFOs because he was unemployed before his trial and jailed immediately after the LFOs were imposed. Despite his incarceration, prolonged unemployment after his release, and limited income in the years since, Pierce County imposed additional fees and interest for nonpayment and sought to collect the LFOs through a private collection agency. The added fees and interest have caused Mr. Lemmon’s original $800 debt to balloon to more than $2,000––an amount Mr. Lemmon, who is now 56 years old and lives with disabilities, still cannot afford to pay.

Under the Eighth Amendment to the Unites States Constitution and Article I of the Washington State Constitution, it is illegal for the government to impose fines or fees that are disproportionate to the conduct being punished. By adding fees and interest to the underlying LFO debts of individuals like Mr. Lemmon without any judicial oversight, Pierce County imposes additional punishment on individuals who, like Mr. Lemmon, are too poor to pay their LFOs. Imposing such additional punishment without first looking into these individuals’ ability to pay the LFOs or determining that nonpayment was purposeful is a violation of the U.S. Constitution and Washington State Constitution.

Plaintiff Alleges Pierce County Violates Due Process

Pierce County failed to provide Mr. Lemmon notice and never investigated the reason for non-payment of his LFOs before imposing additional fees and interest. Under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1983 decision in Bearden v. Georgia, the County was required to investigate the reasons for Mr. Lemmon’s non-payment and hold a hearing, if necessary, to determine whether his nonpayment was purposeful.

Mr. Lemmon argues that had Pierce County performed the appropriate investigations, it would have found he was incarcerated and thus unable to pay. Pierce County’s failure to investigate was a violation of the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution and Washington State Constitution.

Pierce County’s Motion to Dismiss Is Denied

In May 2021, Pierce County filed a motion to dismiss Mr. Lemmon’s claims arguing, among other things, that it was simply acting on behalf of the state. Additionally, it claimed the original court found Mr. Lemmon had the ability to pay the sentencing fees, and that he should have applied for a waiver if he could not pay.

United States District Court Judge Robert S. Lasnik rejected Pierce County’s arguments and denied its motion to dismiss for multiple reasons, including that Mr. Lemmon is not attempting to attack the underlying LFOs imposed by the Superior Court and that the Pierce County Clerk was acting on behalf of the County when imposing additional fees and interest, not the state as it claimed.

Terrell Marshall Law Group and the ACLU of Washington will continue to fight on behalf of Mr. Lemmon and class members, and the case against Pierce County will move forward.

Representing victims of constitutional rights violations is a central focus at Terrell Marshall Law Group. We regularly represent clients who have had their federal and state constitutional rights violated.

If you believe that you may also be a victim of a constitutional rights violation, do not hesitate to contact us.