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Washington Supreme Court: Failure to Pay Fines Don’t Increase Sentencing Score

by Anthony Accurso

The Supreme Court of Washington held that time spent in jail for failure to pay court fines does not count against an offender at sentencing for a new crime.

Matthew T. Schwartz pleaded guilty to failure to register as a sex offender in 2017 after failing to update his address for three months after moving from Klickitat County, Washington.

At sentencing, Schwartz stipulated that his 1998 felony for sexually motivated second-degree assault and 2014 felony for possession of methamphetamine would result in an offender score of four points for the purposes of sentencing, resulting in a sentencing range of 12 to 14 months’ confinement.

The State disagreed, arguing that his 1997 felony for forgery and 2001 felony for failure to register should also count, resulting in a score of six and a sentencing range of 17 to 22 months.

This disagreement hinged on the language of the state’s “washout” statute, which prevents a district court from considering certain felonies at sentencing if the offender has been “released from confinement” and has remained in the community for five consecutive years without committing another crime. RCW 9.94A.525(2)(c). The district court agreed with the State’s interpretation to count the 1997 and 2001 convictions because Schwartz had been jailed for failure to pay his legal financial obligations (“LFOs”) that were part of these sentences; this extended the beginning of the five-year washout period.

Division Three of the Court of Appeals reversed the sentence, agreeing with Schwartz’s interpretation of the statute. The State appealed the ruling, and the Washington Supreme Court upheld the ruling upon appeal.

At issue was the proper interpretation of the phrase “the last date of release from confinement ... pursuant to a felony conviction” contained in RCW 9.94A.525(2)(c).

“If the meaning of the statute is plain on its face, we must give effect to that plain meaning.” State v. Roggenkamp, 106 P.3d 196 (Wash. 2005). “If, however, the statute is susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation, the statute is ambiguous.” Id. “Legislative history, principles of statutory construction, and relevant case law may provide guidance in construing the meaning of an ambiguous statute.” Id.

The Court referred to a difference in wording between the washout statute and former RCW 9.94A.640(2)(f), known as “the vacation statute.” The latter allowed a court to vacate a class C felony when the defendant was “discharged from confinement,” which it defined as “[having] completed all requirements of the sentence, including any and all [LFOs].” RCW 9.94A(637)(1)(a). Because the phrase “release from confinement” was used in the washout statute instead of “discharge,” the Court interpreted the legislature’s intent to not include time used to enforce LFOs.

Also, because some defendants might spend decades working to pay off their LFOs, the Court decided Schwartz’s interpretation of the statute would more comport with the Legislature’s intent to sentence defendants with similar criminal histories similarly, without regard to their ability to repay court fines. The Court observed that a defendant “may owe LFOs for decades after he or she has been released from incarceration—sometimes even long after the statutory maximum sentence for the convicted offense has expired.”

The Court held that “jail time for failing to pay LFOs does not constitute ‘confinement … pursuant to a felony conviction,’ and a prior Class C felony conviction should not be included in a defendant’s offender score when he or she has been sanctioned for failing to pay LFOs but has nonetheless been in the community for five years without committing an offense resulting in conviction.”

Accordingly, the Court upheld the decision of the Court of Appeals to vacate Schwartz’s sentence for failure to register on the basis that the district court erred when it included jail time for nonpayment of fines as part of confinement for a felony conviction and increased his sentence. See: State v. Schwartz, 2019 Wash. LEXIS 658 (2019).

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Related legal case

State v. Schwartz

 

 

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