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Outstanding municipal court fines in Sunnyside top $2.4 million

Sunnyside Municipal Court is owed a whopping $2.4 million in court fees and fines. But, court officials can only hope to collect 30 percent of that.

And that's not too bad. According to Debbie Mendoza, court administrator for Sunnyside Municipal Court, when Sunnyside housed a district court in the 1980s the collection rate hovered between 13 and 14 percent.

"In an ideal world collecting 100 percent would be awesome, but it's not going to happen," she said.

Sunnyside Municipal Court handles three types of cases...civil infractions, misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors. When a person is convicted in court they are issued a fine and usually court costs. But what happens when a person fails to pay their fines?

Most people might think they go straight to jail but that's not usually the case.

"The way the law is written you don't throw people in jail for not paying their fines," Sunnyside Police Chief Ed Radder explained. "Most infractions the court will not issue warrants for."

The only type of unpaid infractions a court will issue a warrant for are criminal infractions. If a person is charged with possession of cocaine and doesn't pay their fines, a warrant will be issued for their arrest.

But for traffic infractions, which are not a criminal offense, a warrant will not be issued if the fines are not paid.

"We will send reminders for them to pay," Mendoza said.

If the offending parties still choose not to pay, they will be summoned to court to stand before a judge and answer as to why their fines are not being paid.

It's here that the municipal court can get some leverage. If a person isn't paying their fines chances are they won't appear when summoned to court. In these cases, a failure to appear is issued. This information is passed on to the department of licensing and the offending party's license will be suspended.

If that person is then pulled over driving with a suspended license, that is a criminal offense and the person will be arrested. Once released from jail, if the person still doesn't pay their fines they now have a criminal infraction and will have a warrant issued for their arrest.

Having a failure to appear attached to a person's license can also affect them if they are charged with a misdemeanor. Radder explained a failure to appear can affect the status of someone who is caught shoplifting.

"If a person is caught shoplifting we usually issue them a ticket and release them," he said. "If the person has a failure to appear we will arrest them and hold them for bail."

If a person is issued a warrant and arrested, they might choose to serve time in jail to pay down their fines. This isn't always beneficial to the court system. In these cases, the court doesn't receive any money from the fines and on top of that, there is the expense to house and feed the prisoner until their fines are paid off.

"Some debts are just uncollectable," Radder said. "The judge will purge some debts after they've been on the books for a while."

Mendoza said jurisdiction over the fine amount is 10 years but ordinarily don't go past seven.

The only unpaid fines that get sent to a collection agency are non-traffic civil infractions. The reason being is there isn't any other recourse against the offender. These are infractions such as building code violations, which can draw a fine from the city. With these types of cases the court can't have the offender's driver's license suspended or an arrest warrant issued so a collection agency is the last resort.

"We don't have a good rate of return with collection agencies," Mendoza said.

On criminal fines the state of Washington gets 90 percent and the rest goes to the city of Sunnyside. On civil infractions the state gets $72 right off the top plus 53 percent of the remaining balance. On non-traffic civil infractions the state gets 53 percent.

The municipal court in Sunnyside remits approximately $45,000 each month to the city.

Mendoza cited a recent supreme court decision that mandates courts must give individuals more opportunities to pay off their fines before jailing them.

Sunnyside police have 875 warrants on the books, with 516 of those for people owing money.

Radder said warrant enforcement will be part of a wider plan with other law enforcement agencies performing emphasis patrols for drunk drivers and speeders this summer.

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