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Tribal Funds Exempt from Washington LFO Seizures

In an unpublished order, a federal court in Washington granted a Native American prisoner's motion for summary judgment on the issue of liability of prison officials in seizing monthly tribal per capita allotments from his prison account to satisfy court-ordered legal financial obligations (LFOs) pursuant to RCW 71.11.020. The court held that those funds are exempt from attachment under 25 U.S.C. § 410, and that RCW 72.11.020 is preempted by § 410.

Washington prisoner Kyle Corpuz, a member of the Yakima Indian Nation, received monthly per capita shares of tribal funds held in trust by the United States. Although those funds are protected by 25 U.S.C. § 410 (1906), prison officials seized a total of $625.52 from Corpuz's prison account to satisfy his LFOs under RCW 72.11.020.

Corpuz filed a pro se complaint seeking compensatory and punitive damages, and injunctive relief. The court appointed George A. Critchlow and legal intern Justin Lee of University Legal Assistance to represent Corpuz.

On May 11, 2001, the court issued an order granting plaintiff's motion for summary judgment on the issue of liability. At the outset, the court found that the decision in Wright v. Riveland, Case No. C95-53810FDB (WD Wash. 1997), aff'd in part, rev'd on other grounds, 219 F.3d 905 (9th Cir. 2000) did not collaterally estop defendants from litigating the issue because "Wright dealt with the mandatory 35% deduction for state costs under RCW 72.09.480, rather than LFOs assessed by the county courts as part of a criminal sentence under RCW 72.11.020." The court found, however, that "there is a significant interdependence between the statutes analyzed in the Wright case and the case at bar, as both involve automatic deductions for payments of costs associated with a criminal conviction."

Ultimately, the court found that "[i]n light of Taylor [v. Grant, 220 Or. 114, 349 P.2d 282 (1960)] and Vitale [v. Tabbytite, 942 P.2d 1141 (1997)] opinions as well as the opinion . . . in Wright . . . the interdependence of the relevant state statutes, and the liberal construction accorded to 25 U.S.C. § 410, Plaintiff's per capita funds are exempt from mandatory deductions for payment of LFOs, absent approval and consent of the Secretary of the Interior." As such, the court held that RCW 72.11.020 as applied to per capita funds is preempted by § 410.

The court also denied defendants' motion for qualified immunity, concluding that "the only reasonable conclusion from existing authority is that state law is preempted by § 410[]" and that defendants failed to prove that their actions were reasonable in light of that preemption, which the State appeared to recognize in Wright.

On August 9, 2001, the court issued an order concluding that there was insufficient evidence to send the issue of punitive damages to a jury because there was no evidence that defendants acted recklessly, callously, with evil motive or intent, or with knowledge that their actions would result in constitutional injury to plaintiff.

On November 28, 2001, the court issued an order granting defendants' motion for summary judgment dismissal of all remaining damage claims. The court noted that in response to the court's order on liability, prison officials deposited $625.52 - the total amount of all LFOs previously seized - into plaintiffs prison account. Accordingly, the court concluded that plaintiff was no longer entitled to additional compensatory damages. Finally, the court directed the parties to submit additional briefing on the availability of injunctive relief, "specifically as to the application of Gomez v. Vernon, 255 F.3d 1118, 1128-29 (9th Cir. 2001).

Finally, on March 26, 2002, the court issued an order denying plaintiff's request for a permanent injunction and prospective declaratory relief, finding that there was "no evidence LFO deductions have been made from exempted funds after July 2001" and "Defendants have represented they will not revert to the prior practice of deducting LFOs from exempt Indian per capita funds. See: Corpuz v. Lehman, et al., USDC No. CT-99-301-CI (ED Wash).

Following the court's holding on liability, however, prison officials have not refunded any improperly seized tribal funds to any prisoners other than Corpuz. As such, a class action suit was recently filed, seeking the return of those funds. See: Stensgar v. Lehman, et al., USDC No. CV02-5165 FDB (WD Wash), reported in this issue. [See p.19 for a related story.]

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Related legal case

Corpuz v. Lehman