April 2012 Bar Bulletin
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April 2012 Bar Bulletin

Small Crimes, Big Consequences:

Why Fairness in Municipal Courts Is So Important

By Nancy Talner and Vanessa Hernandez


Since there are 8–10 million misdemeanor cases in courts around the United States each year,1 and about 295,000 of them in Washington courts in 2010,2 chances are good that you or someone you know may end up facing a misdemeanor charge at some point in their life. Misdemeanor courts are a "window to the judicial branch for many people who do not normally have contact with the judicial system."3

While no one wants to be convicted, some might think a misdemeanor conviction is not that big a deal in the long run; it is just a one-time instance of shoplifting or suspended driver's license or fighting, right? Wrong.

First, there are significant forms of punishment that can be imposed for misdemeanors, including up to a year in jail for each offense, lengthy treatment programs and probation requirements, and various fines, fees and costs called "legal financial obligations." There is a mandatory minimum $500 obligation imposed in gross misdemeanor cases, and failure to pay can result in additional jail time.

Several misdemeanors, including driving while intoxicated, carry penalties such as a period of driver's license suspension and other restrictions on driving privileges. If a person has repeated convictions for certain misdemeanors, such as violation of a no-contact order or driving while intoxicated, the offense may become a felony. Many misdemeanor convictions also may be used to increase a person's sentence if they are later convicted of another offense.

Aside from the jail time, fees and fines that may be imposed as part of a misdemeanor sentence, state and federal laws impose long-lasting consequences for conviction. The American Bar Association has catalogued nearly 40,000 statutes imposing consequences as a result of conviction - 584 in Washington alone. Misdemeanor convictions can result in deportation, loss of gun rights, restrictions on international travel, and ineligibility for student loans, professional licenses, commercial driver's licenses, public housing and food assistance. The Washington Defender Associ­a­tion's guide "Beyond the Convic­tion" has more information on these topics.

Moreover, misdemeanor convictions are reported indefinitely in employment and housing-related background checks.4 In connection with our work on criminal records issues, the ACLU has heard from numerous individuals who have been denied housing or jobs because of a misdemeanor on their records. This is happening even if the offense occurred many years ago and there are no recent arrests or charges.

Some of the most distressing cases involve military veterans who, suffering from PTSD and addiction, rack up multiple misdemeanor charges before they are able to access services that assist them in turning their lives around. Despite their rehabilitation, the consequences of their misdemeanor records continue to haunt them for years.

It is important to note that these consequences may occur even if the case was resolved by something other than a traditional guilty plea and sentence. Deferred sentences and certain other dispositions may be considered an "adverse disposition" and be reported just like a conviction, under RCW 10.97.030(3)– (4) and 10.97.050. And we have heard from many individuals that even court records of dispositions legally considered non-conviction data still show up in background checks, and are used to deny people employment and housing.

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