County tax-payer funds could pay back millions for drug convictions now deemed unconstitutional

SPOKANE, Wash. — Thousands of people in Washington will get their records wiped clean and their money back because of a state Supreme Court decision that changed drug laws in the state. The decision came down last February, but getting people their money back is no easy process.

In the State v. Blake case, the Supreme Court struck down the state’s simple drug possession law because it did not require the state to prove intent that a person knowingly possessed illegal drugs. What sounds complicated boils down to something very simple: thousands of people in Washington were convicted of a crime that’s now been proven unconstitutional.

So far, $74,000 in tax-payer funds have gone out to pay back fines in Spokane County. The County Clerk says there’s $3.8 million in other refunds the county could pay out in the future. Much more could be on the way as more cases are processed.

“State v. Blake gives people a clean slate on these issues,” said Steve Graham. He’s a criminal defense attorney in the Law Office of Steve Graham and is helping people through this process. “We’ve got a lot of calls from former clients looking to clean up their record, and it has taken a long time. The process has been very slow.”

One of the reasons for this is because there’s a lot of cases. The County Clerk’s office has gathered records through 1993 so far, and this ruling already affects 14,380 cases in the county.

People are either having their records totally cleared from simple drug possession charges, being re-sentenced if incarcerated for other crimes and getting paid back money they’ve paid into the system in the form of fines.

“These folks deserve their money back. They deserve to have those vacates and dismisses done, and if they’re in incarceration, they deserve to have a new score put because that will reduce their time in incarceration,” said Tim Fitzgerald, the Spokane County Clerk tasked with overseeing the countywide process. “The State Supreme Court has made a ruling, so we need to act on that ruling. That’s what we’re doing in good faith.”

Fitzgerald is overseeing the process that isn’t as simple as it seems.

“I clean up all the legal documentation with Washington State Patrol and police records and my own county records and the state records,” he said.

“It’s kind of meaningless if the court clerk down the street seals a file and doesn’t allow public access to it,” Graham said. “That’s meaningless if these background check companies, some in the U.S. and some overseas, still have these records and will sell it to people.”

Graham says he’s struggling to get background check companies to comply which means the ruling may be in place, but people are still seeing past convictions hold them back.

“That’s really the hurdle people have faced to try to take these drug convictions from five, 10, 20 years ago and seal them so people can get a fresh start,” Graham concluded.

The clerks office has just scratched the surface of cases dated back to 1993. The new ruling goes back five decades. Fitzgerald says it will take a couple more years to process cases through 1971, and this means the final payout for fines could also increase.