Thousands of people whose drug possession convictions got nixed by the state Supreme Court’s Blake decision will soon have a simpler path to get money back for fines they paid.
Next month, the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts will launch the Blake Refund Bureau, an online portal through which individuals can obtain reimbursements for court-ordered fines or fees tied to convictions vacated as a result of the landmark 2021 ruling.
This bureau, accessible through www.courts.wa.gov, will offer a searchable database for a person to determine if they are owed money. If so, they can apply for it online and once the amount is confirmed by the court in which the person was originally convicted, a refund will be issued.
While the portal is intended to streamline refund processing, it will also contain information aimed at helping individuals clear their convictions and seek legal help. Data comes from courts serving all 39 counties and 112 municipalities across the state.
“The intent is to have a process that is easy to navigate and will provide for a timely response for individuals to receive their refunds,” said Sharon Swanson, Blake implementation manager for the Administrative Office of the Courts. “The public will be able to search for their cases by their name or case number.”
In its 2021 decision, the court ruled that the state’s felony drug possession law was unconstitutional because it didn’t require someone to “knowingly” possess drugs for conviction.
As a result, those convicted of drug possession on or before Feb. 25, 2021 became eligible to have their convictions vacated and removed from their criminal record, and their paid court-ordered fines and costs, known as legal financial obligations, reimbursed, according to the state agency.
The magnitude of the challenge posed by the Blake ruling is immense.
There have been 262,767 convictions for felony drug possession since 1971, according to the Washington State Patrol. Of those, it is estimated 150,000 people could be owed money when their convictions are vacated.
An additional 150,000 misdemeanor marijuana charges may also be eligible for vacation, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts.
Following the ruling, judges, prosecutors, public defenders and county clerks were overwhelmed with the volume of cases and refunds to process. They pressed lawmakers for money to handle the workload and a better means of distributing reimbursements.
A Senate bill introduced last year to create a central refund bureau stalled. But the Legislature, through a provision in the 2022 supplemental budget, did direct and fund the Administrative Office of the Courts to start the work of the refund bureau.
Lawmakers earmarked $50 million for reimbursements and $47 million to help defray costs to courts, prosecutors, and defense attorneys tied to vacating charges and adjusting sentences of incarcerated or supervised people with convictions under the old law.
To date, $8,045,000 of legal financial obligations have been refunded, according to data provided by Swanson.
Many people may not know they are eligible to get some money back, she explained in an email. Courts have been vacating convictions on an “ex parte” basis, meaning an impacted individual would not have necessarily noticed their case has been processed, she said.
In that case, the person would not know they may also have a refund coming. By going through the portal, they’ll be able to find out, she said.
The time it takes to receive a refund will vary.
If the Administrative Office of the Courts has the refund amount when a person applies, we will be able to process the refund within days, Swanson said.
In many situations, staff will need to contact the court of record to determine if the person has a refund and how much, and to relay the information back to the state agency.
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