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Texas Must Afford Prisoners Due Process in Trust Fund Garnishment

by Matthew T. Clarke

In an unprecedented decision, a Texas court of appeals held that the state must give a prisoner notice and other due process protection when garnishing his trust fund for payment of criminal fines.

Zakee Kaleem Abdullah, a Texas state prisoner, filed an appeal after the trial court in his criminal case ordered $1,517.25 be taken from his trust fund account---by judicial fiat--to recover court costs from his criminal trial. About a decade earlier, Abdullah had been convicted and sentenced to 60 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. In Abdullah?s original judgment of conviction, the section on ?costs? was left blank.
The amount ordered reimbursed in the trial court?s order was based on the district clerk?s summary of costs.

On appeal, Abdullah raised the issues of lack of notice and lack of due process. The court of appeals agreed that he had been accorded neither.

Section 501.04(e), Texas Government Code, allows the prison system to remove funds from a prisoner?s trust fund account after receiving an order from a court to pay child support, restitution, court fees, fines and other ?court order, judgment or writ.? Section 14.006, Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code (TCPRC) allows a court to order a prisoner to pay court fees, court costs and other costs when the prisoner files a civil suit. However, this order was for costs in a criminal trial, so Section 14.006 does not apply even though the trial court?s order tracked the statutory language of that Section.

Section 63.007, TCPRC, provides for the garnishment of prisoners? trust funds via writ of garnishment. These procedures were not followed. They are the only procedures set forth for garnishing a prisoner?s trust fund.

A prisoner has a property interest in his trust fund. Thus, he is protected by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution against deprivation of the property without due process. Garnishment of the account for criminal court costs is no different from any other type of garnishment. Therefore, procedural due process must be accorded and notice given. A judicial fiat is insufficient to provide due process. Instead, the process set forth in Section 63.007, TCPRC, and Rule 663a, Texas Rules of Civil Procedure (TRCP) must be followed and the form set forth in Rule 661, TRCP, used. Simply said, Abdullah was entitled to actual notice of the garnishment and of his rights to regain his property. Neither was given.

Because no proper procedure was used and no proper notice given, the court of appeals reversed the order of the trial court. See: Abdullah v. State, 211 S.W.3d 938 (Tex.App.-Texarkana 2007).

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Related legal case

Abdullah v. State