Fuentes v. Benton County

This case challenged Benton County, Washington’s practice of incarcerating indigent defendants for failure to pay court fines and fees without any inquiry into their financial status or ability to pay. People were offered three options: to pay their “legal financial obligations” immediately; be incarcerated; or participate on a work crew. The County actually received more money through incarceration of individuals than through its collection efforts. Local cities paid the County approximately $70 for each day of incarceration while individuals sat out their debt in jail at $25/day. Further, placing individuals on the work crew cut costs for the City because they eliminated the need to hire for janitorial and landscaping services. A warrant was issued when a person failed to appear at a debt proceeding and immediately after a period of nonpayment. When the warrant was issued, the person had to pay $100 to schedule a hearing to explain the reasons for nonpayment or nonappearance; there was no pre-warrant hearing. No meaningful assistance of counsel was provided, and the public defender program was severely underfunded.

Settlement: June 2016

Parties entered a settlement agreement in June 2016. Prior to agreement, all warrants issued for failure to pay, show up to work crew, or appear at a hearing were quashed. The settlement included:

  • Court must inquire into ability to pay at any hearing on nonpayment of court debt.
  • County must accept payments in any amount at any time and can only send a case to collections after 90 days and only if no motion for relief is pending.
  • Increased funding and training for public defenders on fines and fees.
  • Ongoing training for judges, prosecutors, and defenders on the collection of fines and fees.
  • Improved data collection on fines and fees.

You can find a detailed summary and case documents via the Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse as well as the ACLU website.

42 U.S.C. § 1983 (alleging due process and equal protection violations)
15-2-02976-1 (State Court)
October 2015
ACLU National