ACLU suing Benton County; says court fees collection system "unconstitutional"

BENTON COUNTY, Wash. -- Benton County is being sued by the Washington state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a Seattle law firm because of what they say is an unconstitutional system for collecting court fees. The lawsuit is asking the court to determine Benton County's system as unconstitutional.

The lawsuit was filed as a class action lawsuit on behalf of three people; Jayne Fuentes, Gina Taggart, and Reese Groves. The Terrell Marshall Law Group out of Seattle and the ACLU say these people were made to serve jail time or serve on a work crew after the court fees were imposed unlawfully and without deciding if the defendants could pay back the fees.

Washington state law says that superior courts can impose fines on people that have been convicted in county court, in order to pay back the court fees incurred over the duration of that person's case; these fees, fines, costs, and/or restitution are called legal financial obligations or LFO's.

Benton County Prosecutor referred KEPR to the Benton County District Court for comment, where our calls were not immediately returned Tuesday.

"The county has created a system for collecting debts that punishes people for their poverty. It prioritizes generating revenue at the expense of protecting the rights of the poor," said attorney Toby Marshall of Terrell Marshall Law Group PLLC out of Seattle.

Courts are allowed to set up a monthly payment for people as well to pay back the money owed.

"Benton County operates a modern-day debtors' prison. On any given day, scores of indigent persons sit in jail or do manual labor for the county simply because they are too poor to pay the government," said ACLU attorney Vanessa Hernandez. "The county is trying to squeeze blood from a turnip."

The ACLU and the Terrell Marshall Law Group say Benton County has a history of under-funding and under-training public defenders so that the defendants are not receiving proper legal assistance.

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