WENATCHEE — A public defense lawyer is challenging Chelan County's method of collecting late fees from criminal defendants, saying offenders who've fully paid their court fines are still being arrested over a $100 annual fee tacked on when they fell behind.
The Chelan County judge hearing the case seems inclined to agree, saying the county ordinance that allows the Chelan County Clerk's Office to add late fees appears to conflict with state law, and tread on the courts' ability to schedule fines.
"This potentially, actually, gets into a separation of powers arguments, insofar as whether a county ordinance can override a court's authority," Superior Court Judge Alicia Nakata said in court Thursday.
Nakata will hear further arguments July 9 from public defense attorney Robert Gower, who's asking Nakata to overturn the county's 16-year-old ordinance and to void collection fees levied on three of his clients; and deputy prosecutor Conor Johnson, arguing on the county's behalf.
Gower brought the case in April, on behalf of Roxanne Lynette Chambers and two others previously convicted of felonies. Chambers pleaded guilty in 2009 to charges of eluding police and resisting arrest, and paid $1,250 in court-ordered fines via $25 monthly installments.
In February the clerk's office found Chambers still owed $500 in collection fees accumulated over the years, plus $330 interest. The clerk's collection officer sought and received a warrant for Chambers' arrest, which characterized her failure to pay as "noncompliance with the judgment and sentence."
But the clerk's late fees are not ordered by a judge or outlined in sentencing documents, and Nakata agreed with Gower's argument that they do not constitute part of a defendant's "legal financial obligation" as defined in state law.
"Ms. Chambers was in fact put in jail, despite the fact she's already paid her legal financial obligation, and the only thing owing was interest and this collection fee," Gower said.
Another of Gower's three clients, Bart Wayne Bramme, was arrested on charges of failure to pay $900 in fees and $1,500 in interest from a 2000 guilty plea to methamphetamine possession, and for failing to provide the court with a current address. Bo Cody Harlan was summoned to court, but not arrested, over $1,000 in collection fees and interest from his 2006 conviction for oxycodone possession.
"All they owe are these collection fees, which appear to be unconstitutional, and interest, which the court routinely will waive if you've paid your principal in full," Gower said outside the courtroom.
The 1999 county ordinance gives the county clerk — now Kim Morrison, elected in 2010 after 22 years as a deputy clerk —authority to charge offenders up to $100 a year to supervise the collection of their unpaid fines. It also allows the collection fee to be taken "without regard to priority" of fines ordered by the court.
Gower and Nakata said that language appears to run counter to state laws that demand an offender's restitution to his or her victims be paid first. Johnson, arguing in defense of the ordinance, said a separate state law already empowers county clerks to collect such fees, and 14 other counties do so in the same manner as Chelan.
"We can forget all about the local ordinance, and the statute requires us to do the same thing," Johnson said.
Morrison said last year her office took in $127,750 in collection fees, but that does not represent the total fees assessed that year. She wasn't immediately able to provide figures on how many of the 400 Chelan County felony defendants convicted per year on average are assessed a fee.
Morrison said defendants are not charged the $100 fee until their payments fall three months or more behind, and while interest accrues on court-ordered fines, there is no interest attached to the late fee. Defendants receive monthly postcards from Morrison's office listing the amounts they owe, with a note that if they fall behind, a $100 fee may be assessed, she said.
"So if your bill is $500 this month, and you wait three months to pay and then it's $600, I would think that they would probably have a level of understanding that perhaps that was the $100 bill — that that was the reason that was increased," Morrison said.
Gower said the postcard system doesn't amount to proper notice, and does not give defendants a mechanism to appeal the collection fee. The number of people charged late fees since 1999 is likely to be "huge," Gower said.
"This really comes back to the question of whether the clerk's action is violating this defendant's and all defendants' rights to due process, by not providing any notice that the fee is to be collected," he said.
Jefferson Robbins: 664-7123