Washington state plans to refund overturned drug conviction fines

State Legislature set aside $50 million for the reimbursements of fines.

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By Logan Washburn | The Center Square

(The Center Square) – Washington state will start refunding drug conviction fines related to the state Supreme Court’s February 2021 ruling that the state’s felony drug possession statue was unconstititional.

On Saturday, the state will begin issuing refunds on online through the Blake Refund Bureau, according to the state Administrative Office of the Courts. The state set up a “Blake hotline” for those seeing reimbursements at 360-586-3164, ext. 218.

Nearly $8 million has already been paid, and millions more will likely be paid in coming years, according to Fox 12.

The state Legislature approved $47 million to help offset the cost of vacating charges and adjusting sentences, and another $50 million was set aside for the reimbursements, according to a news release.

Those seeking refunds must have the court that issued the conviction vacate it and determine refund eligibility. Public defense and civil legal aid lawyers are helping those not currently serving sentences, but resources are limited, according to the Washington State Office of Public Defense. The state recommended individuals file their own motion to vacate the conviction.

“The public will be able to search for their cases by their name or case number,” said Sharon Swanson, state AOC Blake implementation manager, in the news release. “The intent is to have a process that is easy to navigate and will provide for a timely response.”

The Blake decision involved Shannon Blake of Spokane, who received a pair of jeans with methamphetamine in the pocket from a friend. The Washington State Supreme Court ruled in February 2021 that Washington’s felony possession law was unconstitutional, as it allowed people that didn’t realize they were possessing drugs to be convicted for possession.

But the state legislature passed ESB 5536 in May’s special session, making intentional possession or public use of certain amounts of illegal drugs a modified gross misdemeanor.

“To pull back from following Oregon’s decriminalization model is a significant victory,” said Washington State Republican Party Chairman Caleb Heimlich, who recently announced his intention to step down, in a news release. “Communities have suffered the consequences of lax drug policies for far too long.”

More than 200,000 felony drug possession charges dating back to the 1970s may be eligible for vacation, along with another estimated 150,000 misdemeanor marijuana charges, the state AOC news release said. The state likely collected $24 million to $47 million in the 20 years before the ruling that possibly needs to be paid back, according to Crosscut.

“Administrative Office of the Courts is dedicated to working with our justice partners to help inform the vast and diverse Blake-impacted population,” said state Court Administrator Dawn Marie Rubio in the news release, “Collectively working to foster fresh starts.”