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Ruling by state high court to strike down drug possession law could be a budget buster

State Supreme Court building.
State Supreme Court building.
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The ramifications of the Washington Supreme Court's decision to strike down the state’s drug possession law are now starting to come into focus as at least one prominent state lawmaker said Friday that the decision could cost the state and its counties hundreds of millions of dollars.

Washington is currently the only state without a drug possession law after the high court found that the one that had been on the books for decades was unconstitutional.

Some lawmakers say privately that may not be the political will by Democrats, who control the state legislature, to fix the law.

“I think it’s a good time for the legislature to think about a new approach,” said Democratic State Rep. Tarra Simmons of Bremerton, who has a unique perspective because the lawyer is the first convicted felon elected to the legislature. “I was selling a small number of drugs to support my habit and stealing from stores.”

Simmons served 20 months in prison for drug-related crimes that include drug possession, the same law Supreme Court justices struck down.

The mother of three was released in 2013 before going on to study law. She is now one of many who have started the process to get her conviction vacated and seek reimburse of court fees associated with her crime.

“I called my criminal defense attorney and said, 'Can you file a motion to vacate my possession charge and ask for my legal financial obligations to be refunded?'”

Her attorney said Simmons may be eligible to have $7,417 returned to her.

“It’s automatically retroactive, so if anyone has been convicted of simple possession of drugs under the statute then they are entitled to relief,” said King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg.

It is becoming clear to state lawmakers that the refunds to those who want to have their legal fees returned could be a substantial amount of money.

“The cost of re-sentencing thousands of people, vacating the records of thousands of people, refunding the fines and fees that they paid unconstitutionally, goes into the hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Roger Goodman, a Democrat from Kirkland who serves as chairperson of the state House Public Safety Committee.

Said Satterberg: “This was an unconstitutional statute from the moment it was passed 50 years ago. So, we have to go back and erase that from people's records and immediately release the people that are being held on that crime.”

Satterberg, Goodman and Simmons all agree that no one knows who is going to be financially liable for the millions of dollars needed to rehear thousands of cases along with reimbursing offenders who were convicted of the crime.

Six people being held on drug possession charges have been released from the King County Jail after the court’s decision, according to Satterberg, and there are hundreds more prisoners who are incarcerated around the state who could have their sentences restructured and could be released.

Simmons said the range of her original sentence would have been six months shorter without the drug possession conviction.

Currently, Senate Bill 5466 is the only measure that’s been introduced to modify the drug possession law that was tossed out by the high court.

The fix was simply adding the word “knowingly” to the law. But the bill has not had a hearing and with two weeks left in the legislative session, it may never get a hearing.

Satterberg said the current backlog of felony cases in King County is approaching 7,000.

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“That represents three years of work, without any new cases added to the mix,” he said.

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