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Maryland Indigent Court Cost Suit Settled

On July 1, 1997, U.S. district court judge Marvin Garbis approved the settlement of a class action suit involving the collection of previously waived indigent court costs. In 1991 the Maryland legislature enacted a Budget Reconciliation Act, 1991 Md. Laws, Ch. 3, § 6, which stated:

"Notwithstanding any other provision of law: (a) If any court cost... is waived due to indigency and the individual is committed to the custody of the Division of Correction, the Commissioner... shall deduct the court costs from the individual's financial accounts."

Prisoners filed suit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the law. In 1992 the court certified a class of plaintiffs consisting of all Maryland prisoners whose sentencing judge had ordered their court costs waived due to indigency. Despite such court orders, the prisoners were being subjected to deductions from their prison trust accounts to pay the waived court costs under the above law.

In 1993 the district court granted summary judgment to the plaintiffs, ruling that the Act violated their right to equal protection and due process of law. The statute violated equal protection because it applied only to those defendants whose court costs were waived due to indigency who were imprisoned. Defendants whose costs were waived due to indigency but who were not imprisoned were not subject to the statute. The court relied on Rinaldi v. Yeager , 384 U.S. 305 (1966) and James v. Strange , 407 U.S. 128 (1972) to find an equal protection violation.

The court held the statute violated the due process clause because it allowed the DOC to seize prisoners' money without advance notice or a hearing. The court noted that cost recoupment statutes must provide for notice and a hearing to determine the defendant's ability to repay the assessed costs.

In its July 12, 1993, order, the court granted the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment; ruled the Budget Reconciliation Act was unconstitutional as applied to the plaintiffs and enjoined the prison official defendants from applying the statute to the plaintiffs.

In the July 1, 1997, settlement the defendants agreed to refund to the entire class of Maryland prisoners all those funds which were seized under the Act. The defendants agreed to provide class counsel with the name and address of all class members and to provide an exact accounting of all money seized under the Act as well as the date and amount of the seizure.

The settlement provides various means for the notification of class members entitled to refunds. The state of Maryland also agreed to pay class counsel Robert Pierson $18,563 in attorney fees. The defendants agreed not to appeal the district court's order.

The district court will retain jurisdiction over the case for two years to ensure compliance with the settlement. Readers should note this is an unpublished ruling and settlement. See: Colvin v. Robinson , USDC MD, Case No. MJG-92-3604. [ Editor's Note: We would like to thank Mike McCormick for bringing this ruling and settlement to our attention. We rely on our readers to inform us of local class action suits and settlements which are rarely publicized.

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Related legal case

Colvin v. Robinson