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Florida Judge Criticizes State’s Efforts to Seize Prisoner’s Federal Civil Rights Judgment

Florida Judge Criticizes State’s Efforts to Seize Prisoner’s Federal Civil Rights Judgment

by David M. Reutter

In a concurring opinion that affirmed the imposition of a “civil restitution” lien of $50 per day for a prisoner’s cost of incarceration, a Florida appellate court judge said he was “troubled” by the actions of the Office of the Attorney General.

While incarcerated at Florida’s Santa Rosa Correctional Institution, Carlos Green filed a federal lawsuit against prison and medical staff related to a cell extraction in which he was beaten and pepper sprayed, then denied adequate medical care. He prevailed at trial against two prison guards and was awarded $180,000. The guards appealed to the Eleventh Circuit, which affirmed the verdict. [See: PLN, Sept. 2006, p.16].

One month after the unsuccessful appeal, the Attorney General’s office filed a “motion for imposition of civil restitution lien judgment” in Green’s criminal case in state court. The court rejected Green’s opposition to the motion and entered a lien of $273,750 in “restitution” for the 5,475 days Green was expected to serve on his 15-year sentence at the statutory rate of $50 per day, pursuant to Fla. Stat. § 960.293.

Florida’s Second District Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court in a per curiam order without a written ruling, and Judge Chris Altenbernd issued a concurring opinion “with reluctance.” Altenbernd said he had no problem with a policy of requiring prisoners to pay the costs of their incarceration. What was worrisome, however, was “the State’s tactic of filing a motion in the criminal court to obtain a civil restitution lien essentially to serve as a setoff against the federal judgment for the violation of the prisoner’s civil rights.”

“This case appears to permit the State of Florida to allow its prison guards to violate the civil rights of any prisoner with impunity so long as the judgment entered against the prison guards does not exceed the $50 per day ‘civil restitution lien’ for ‘damages or losses’ the State can obtain for the costs of incarceration,” Altenbernd noted.

It was apparent to Judge Altenbernd that the state planned to pay the federal civil rights judgment into Green’s prison account, then immediately garnish those funds to satisfy the restitution lien entered in state court. He opined that it was “debatable whether federal law permits this action,” citing Hankins v. Finnel, 964 F.2d 853 (8th Cir. 1992), which held that 42 U.S.C § 1983 preempts a state cost-of-incarceration reimbursement act.

Judge Altenbernd noted that federal civil rights statutes serve as a tool to deter abuses by public officials, including abuses inflicted against prisoners. Absent that tool, the only other effective means of deterrence is criminal prosecution – and PLN readers are well aware that abusive prison officials are rarely prosecuted.

Altenbernd concluded his concurring opinion by saying, “As a citizen of this state, I am troubled by the tactics of the Office of the Attorney General in its legal disputes with Mr. Green.” See: Green v. State of Florida, 998 So.2d 1149 (Fla.Dist.Ct.App. 2d Dist. 2008), per curiam (unpublished).

Green has since filed a pro se suit in U.S. District Court challenging the state’s attempt to seize his federal civil rights judgment through a restitution lien. See: Green v. State of Florida, USDC (MD Fla.), Case No. 8:09-mc-00023-JDW-EAJ.

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Related legal cases

Green v. State of Florida

Green v. State of Florida