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Prisoners Deserve Notice Before State Takes Their Funds: 3rd Cir.

By Mark Wilson, Esq. on August 18, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In addition to paying for their crimes figuratively by going to prison, defendants also have to pay literally in the form of restitution, fines, and fees. In Pennsylvania, prisoners have inmate accounts that they use for purchasing such things as soap, toothpaste, and over-the-counter medications. A Pennsylvania law allows the state to deduct a prisoner's fines and fees from this inmate account -- although sometimes inmates aren't told this can happen.

Domingo Montanez and Timothy Hale are two such prisoners. They sued the Department of Corrections, alleging due process violations when the state automatically deducted funds from their inmate accounts to pay their fines and fees. The Third Circuit reversed summary judgment against Hale, and affirmed summary judgment against Montanez.

Blocked by the Statute of Limitations

The court affirmed summary judgment against Montanez, who didn't file his case quickly enough. The statute of limitations is two years for a Section 1983 claim in Pennsylvania. Montanez missed that deadline by 12 days.

Though Montanez argued that the statute shouldn't apply to him, the court could think of no reason why it shouldn't. He might have gotten a reprieve had he been unaware of the automatic deductions, but his own grievance paperwork and court filings show that he was aware of them for the entire two-year period.

A Ruling on the Merits

Hale, on the other hand, filed on time. As a result, the court could address the merits of his claim. It's well-established not only that prisoners have property rights in inmate accounts, but also that the state can withdraw money from those accounts. But does it have to tell the prisoners when it does; or, does it have to let them know that a withdrawal is a possibility?

You bet. Wherever it's feasible, the court said, a prisoner is entitled to a hearing before he's deprived of property. In this case, it's feasible because there are no exigent circumstances and no harm to the state or the DOC if it had to wait a little while to get its money. The court disagreed with the state's contention that letting the inmate know at sentencing that he'd be subject to fines and fees wasn't enough; no one told Hale that the state could automatically deduct money from his inmate account whenever they felt like it.

In this situation, a full-blown hearing with judges and tables and chairs isn't necessary, but some amount of notice is required. It can be as simple as a written statement, provided some time in advance, letting the inmate know that the state is going to take money out of his account, and giving him an opportunity to dispute it. Another win for prisoner civil rights.

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