In State v. Sleater, the WA Court of Appeals Div. III held an arrest warrant may not issue for a defendant who fails to schedule an appearance in court to explain why she had failed to pay her court fines.
The Defendant Ms. Sleater had prior convictions for various drug offenses. As of April 2014, she was making a combined monthly payment of$75 toward three cases. She was also entered into Benton County’s “pay or appear” program. It required her to make her legal financial obligation (LFO) payments every month or appear to schedule a hearing to explain why she could not make the payments. The program agreement also stated that if the defendant did not make a payment and failed to schedule a hearing, “a warrant will be issued for the Defendant’s arrest.”
For months, Ms. Sleater’s mother paid the monthly fines. Her mother made a $150 on-line payment on April 17, 2014. Unfortunately, the computer did not apportion the sum among the three accounts, but applied all of the money to only one case number identified with the payment. AS a result, The other two counts were four and seven months behind.
On April 22, 2014 the clerk’s office obtained arrest warrants for Ms. Sleater since she had not made payments on those two cases and had not scheduled a hearing to explain the lack of payments.
On May 16, 2014 officers arrested Ms. Sleater on the two warrants. She possessed methamphetamine at the time of her arrest. Consequently, the prosecutor filed one count of possession of a controlled substance. Her attorney moved to suppress the evidence under CrR 3.6 on the claim that the warrants were wrongly issued. However, the trial court denied the motion and found Ms. Sleater guilty at trial. She appealed.
The Court reasoned that the Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable seizures, and that seizure is reasonable if it serves a governmental interest which is adequate to justify imposing on the liberty of the individual.” However, it violates due process to punish defendants for failing to pay fines if the defendant cannot pay simply because they are impoverished.
“Nor can a state impose a fine and convert it to jail time solely because a defendant has no ability to pay the fine. The State must afford the defendant a hearing before jailing him for failing to pay his obligations. While the court can put the burden to prove inability to pay on the defendant, it still has a duty to inquire into a defendant’s ability to pay fines prior to jailing him.”
Here, the Court reasoned that the effect of the arrest warrants was to require Ms. Sleater to go to jail for failing to pay her LFOs without first conducting an inquiry into her ability to pay them:
“The facts of this case demonstrate the need for such an inquiry. Ms. Sleater’s mother did make a payment toward her daughter’s LFOs, but through some type of error the payment was not reflected in all three files. A hearing before the warrants issued would have allowed the court to resolve the problem without the necessity of an arrest.”
Here, reasoned the Court, a warrant should not have issued for defendant’s failure to pay without first determining the willfulness of that violation. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed Ms Sleater’s conviction for possessing methamphetamine.