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Oklahoma Prisoner Has Right to File Civil Complaint to Enforce Property Rights

The Court of Civil Appeals of Oklahoma, Division 3, held that the Ottowa County District Court erred when it dismissed a prisoner's complaint citing a statute that suspends prisoners' civil rights.

A prisoner serving a life sentence filed a civil complaint against the Local Oklahoma Bank and loan officer Bill Freeman. The prisoner alleged that the defendants unlawfully placed a lien on his race car and trailer with the intent to defraud him of his property. The defendants denied the allegations and filed motions for summary judgment, pointing out that Oklahoma statute 21 O.S. 1991 § 65 states that a sentence of imprisonment under the Department of Corrections suspends all civil rights of the person sentenced. The district court agreed with the defendants and dismissed the complaint.

The prisoner appealed, and the court of appeals held that a prior Supreme Court decision, Kurdis v. Kurdis, 2001 OK 99, 37 P.3d 866, 72, held that § 65, as depriving a prisoner of his capacity to sue to enforce property rights which vested before his incarceration, would pose serious constitutional concerns and would violate the due process requirements of the federal and state constitutions, as well as the access to the courts provisions of the state constitution. Therefore, the court of appeals held that in light of the prior Supreme Court decisions, the district court erred in dismissing the prisoner's suit based on § 65. The case was reversed and remanded for further proceedings. See: Dopp v. Oklahoma Local Bank, 42 P.3d 300 (Ct of Civil Appeals, OK Div.3 2002).

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Related legal case

Dopp v. Oklahoma Local Bank

42 P.3d 300, 2002 OK CIV APP 21

Court of Civil Appeals of Oklahoma, Division No. 3.

Richard Lynn DOPP, Plaintiff/Appellant,


OKLAHOMA LOCAL BANK, (formerly Green Country Bank), Commerce, Oklahoma Branch,
and Bill D. Freeman, Defendant/Appellees.

No. 96,619.

Released for Publication by Order of the Court of Civil Appeals of Oklahoma,
Division No. 3.

Jan. 11, 2002.

Inmate serving sentence of life without parole brought civil action against bank and loan officer, alleging that they unlawfully placed lien on his automobile with the intent to defraud him of this property. The District Court, Ottawa County, Robert G. Haney, J., dismissed lawsuit. Inmate appealed. The Court of Civil Appeals, Carol M. Hansen, P.J., held that applying statute suspending inmate's civil rights so as to preclude inmate's lawsuit violated access to courts provision of State Constitution.

Reversed and remanded.

Buettner, J., sitting by designation, dissented.

*301 Appeal from the District Court of Ottawa County, Oklahoma; Honorable Robert G. Haney, Trial Judge.


Richard Lynn Dopp, Lawton, OK, Pro Se Appellant.

Dennis J. Watson, Miami, OK, for Defendant/Appellee, Oklahoma Local Bank.

Charles W. Chestnut, Miami, OK, for Defendant/Appellee, Bill D. Freeman.

CAROL M. HANSEN, Presiding Judge.

¶ 1 Appellant, Richard Dopp, while incarcerated by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, [FN1] filed a petition in district court against Defendants, Local Oklahoma Bank and Bill Freeman, alleging they unlawfully placed a lien on his Thunderbird race car and trailer with the intent to defraud him of this property. Bill Freeman was the loan officer. Dopp alleged Defendants encumbered his personal property without his permission. He stated he payed the "fraudulent loan" and is now attempting to be repaid that amount plus interest and punitive damages. Defendants answered, denying all allegations.

FN1. The record reflects Dopp is serving a sentence of life without parole for trafficking in marijuana, running concurrently with two 10 year sentences.

¶ 2 Both defendants filed motions for summary judgment pointing out that Oklahoma statutes deprive an incarcerated person of his civil rights. 21 O.S.1991 § 65 provides:
A sentence of imprisonment under the Department of Corrections suspends all civil rights of the person so sentenced, except the right to make employment contracts during confinement under said sentence, subject to the approval of the Director of the Department of Corrections, when this benefits the vocational training or release preparation of the prisoner, and forfeits all public offices, and all private trusts, authority or power, during the term of such imprisonment. Provided however such persons during confinement shall not be eligible to receive benefits under the unemployment compensation law.

¶ 3 The only decision directly interpreting this statute is a Court of Civil Appeals case, Welborn v. Wallace, 2001 OK CIV APP 2, 18 P.3d 1079. The Court therein upheld a district court order dismissing the plaintiff's petition for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted on the basis that a prisoner may only file a civil suit when he is claiming a violation of constitutional rights. The Court cited Byers v. Sun Savings Bank, 1914 OK 78, 139 P. 948 which distinguished "civil rights" from "natural rights." Natural rights are innate and include life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and self preservation. Natural rights are not lost during imprisonment, while civil rights, the outgrowth of civilization necessary to the maintenance of organized government are lost or at least suspended during imprisonment. Civil rights include the right to bring a civil action. However, the Court in Welborn was not confronted with the constitutional issues before us today.

¶ 4 The concepts of "loss of civil rights" and "civil death" have been said to:
derive from the early common law which treated a person convicted of a felony as beyond the recognition and protection of the law. The present criminal law has moved far from these punitive concepts in the direction of restoring a convicted person to a useful and law abiding citizen. Accordingly, modern decisions and statutory law have been concerned with overturning the effects of these earlier doctrines. National Conference of Commissioners on *302 Uniform Laws proposed "Uniform Act on Status of convicted Persons." [FN2]