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Wash. Supreme Court says Thurston County can’t bill cities for inmate medical costs

Thurston County Sheriff’s deputies make rounds through the maximum security unit at the county jail in Tumwater in 2017.
Thurston County Sheriff’s deputies make rounds through the maximum security unit at the county jail in Tumwater in 2017. toverman@theolympian.com

Washington’s Supreme Court says Thurston County is responsible for unpaid medical costs for jail inmates held on felony charges brought by county prosecutors, regardless of who made the arrest.

State law allows a jail’s governing unit to be reimbursed for inmate medical expenses from the government “whose law enforcement officers initiated the charges on which the person is being held.”

Thurston County, which runs the jail, had argued “initiated” meant an arrest by a city’s police department, citing a 2005 opinion from the state’s attorney general.

In 2016, it sued for two and a half years’ worth of medical costs for inmates without insurance and not covered by state-run programs, depending on which police department made the arrest. That came to $174,000 from Olympia, $43,000 from Lacey, $48,000 from Tumwater and $1,400 from Yelm

The cities refused to pay, arguing counties are responsible for costs associated with prosecuting felonies, including medical costs.

A lower court judge ruled in favor of the cities. The case went straight to the Supreme Court, which heard oral argument Feb. 21 and issued its unanimous ruling Thursday.

Olympia City Attorney Mark Barber said he was not surprised by the ruling but was surprised by how soon it came.

“I think Olympia and all the cities felt we were on a strong legal basis,” he said. “Once (inmates) are booked into the county jail on felony charges, that’s the county’s responsibility.”

In a statement, Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza said he was pleased to have “final clarifying guidance” on the issue.

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