Civil Survival Project Sues Washington State and Counties for Unconstitutional Simple Drug Possession Penalties
Civil Survival Project (Civil Survival) announced today that it is suing Washington State, King County, and Snohomish County on behalf of participants wrongfully convicted of simple narcotics possession under RCW 69.50.4013. As these participants had been convicted under an invalidated and unconstitutional law, Civil Survival is pursuing the cancellation of all legal financial obligations imposed under the statute, as well as return of all funds paid to date by individuals sentenced for simple possession. Representing Civil Survival and its members are the law firms of Outten & Golden LLP and Frank Freed Subit & Thomas LLP, as well as the Public Defender Association.
On February 25, 2021 in State v. Blake, the Supreme Court of the State of Washington struck down RCW 69.50.4013, the state’s strict liability felony drug possession statute, as unconstitutional. Under this statute, thousands of Washingtonians have been unduly penalized for simple possession of drugs. Drug prohibition has historically had a disproportionate impact on communities of color, putting legally innocent individuals under the duress of crippling debt, in addition to incarceration and other adverse consequences.
Civil Survival’s suit begins the process of remediation for the impacts of criminalization of drug possession and repairing harms against those who have been unjustly punished. Fines and fees are only a part of the injury that Civil Survival members and many others have suffered, but restoring these funds and canceling outstanding debt owed from these convictions is an immediate first step.
“I’ve seen first-hand how families were torn apart in the name of a war on drugs and tough-on- crime policies starting with minor offenses like possession,” said Cory Walster, community organizer for Civil Survival. “Rather than receiving help and wrap-around services [after my first drug conviction], we were given punitive punishment and a criminal record. Since the Blake decision, I have seen people in our community break down in tears thinking about all of the ‘what if’s’ and ‘if only’s,’ imagining what they could have been had they not gotten caught up in this system. Although we cannot change the past, now is the time to begin making things right."
“As a result of the Blake decision, I have seen hope restored to many of those in the Civil Survival community as they think about the freedom that comes with vacating felony drug possession charges,” said Kelly Olson, policy manager for Civil Survival. “We have to stop criminalizing mental health issues and substance use disorders and treat the underlying trauma people are trying to heal from.”
In recent years, King and Snohomish Counties have been leaders in reducing the number of individuals facing prosecution and conviction for simple possession. These counties have instituted alternatives to prosecution and declined to file many drug possession cases in recognition that substance use issues do not belong in the criminal legal system. Their elected prosecutors recently both testified in support of HB 1499, a legislative proposal to decriminalize simple possession of drugs and instead invest in outreach, treatment and recovery supports for people with substance use disorders. Additionally, King County supported that effort with legislative advocacy. These two counties are defendants, not because they are uniquely responsible, but because the entire machinery of the criminal legal system throughout our state has been engaged in imposition of penalties under this invalid law. We now need a process to rapidly undo that harm, even in the jurisdictions that commendably have recently recognized that we have been on the wrong path for decades.
“The Washington Supreme Court’s Blake decision is a victory for racial justice and the rule of law,” said Adam T. Klein, managing partner for Outten & Golden LLP. “As noted by the Court, the felony drug possession statute ‘has affected thousands upon thousands of lives, and its impact has hit young men of color especially hard.’ This lawsuit is intended to restore the rights of people - and notably a disproportionate number of Black and Latino people - who were convicted of an unconstitutional and unduly harsh statute that included prison time and severe costs and fines.”
About Civil Survival
Founded in 2015, Civil Survival organizes people in the state of Washington who have been directly impacted by the criminal justice system to build connections, gain knowledge and increase political participation. Civil Survival’s work promotes successful family and community reintegration for people being released from incarceration by removing the many financial, political and legal barriers to reentry. For more information, visit civilsurvival.org.
About Public Defender Association
The Public Defender Association (PDA) is a non-profit corporation which advocates for criminal legal system reform and develops alternatives that shift from a punishment paradigm to a system that supports individual and community health. PDA also provides technical assistance to community partners who are committed to these goals. For more information, visit defender.org.