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Hawai’i Supreme Court Holds Takings Clause Requires Payment of Interest on Prisoner Trust Accounts

Hawai’i Supreme Court Holds Takings Clause Requires Payment of Interest on Prisoner Trust Accounts

by David M. Reutter

The Hawai’i Supreme Court has held that prison officials have no statutory authority to divide a prisoner’s trust account into two accounts, one of which was restricted as to withdrawals. More importantly, the Court held that state prisoners have a federal constitutional right to payment of accrued interest on funds in their prison trust accounts.

Hawai’i prisoner Richard Blaisdell, acting pro se, filed a declaratory judgment action against the Department of Public Safety (DPS), challenging the placement of his prison earnings into a restricted trust account. He cited Hawai’i Revised Statutes (HRS) § 353-20, which provides that all sums collected for prisoners “shall be deposited by the department into an individual trust account to the credit of the committed person.”

Such funds can only be garnished under four specific provisions of HRS § 353-22.5. Garnishment may occur only for restitution to victims, court-ordered child support, replacement and other expenses associated with damage the prisoner may cause while incarcerated, and reimbursement for copying and postage costs advanced for litigation. None of those factors were applicable to Blaisdell.

The DPS did not dispute that it was splitting the money that Blaisdell earned over $20 between two trust accounts, or that one account could only be accessed “upon his release, or for uses such as family emergencies, legal obligations, or program necessities.”
Nevertheless, the Intermediate Court of Appeals granted summary judgment to the defendant prison officials.

The Hawai’i Supreme Court held this was error, as the plain language of the statute only allows one individual trust account. Also, because the statute includes no guidelines on how DPS may restrict withdrawals from that account “for such purposes as it may deem proper,” there can be no restrictions on withdrawals.

The Supreme Court then turned to Blaisdell’s claim that the DPS’s failure to “pay accused interest on the inmates’ money in their trust account was a violation of the takings clause of the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments of the U.S. Constitution.” The Court agreed, citing Schneider v. California Dep’t of Corrections, 151 F.3d 1194, 1199-1200 (9th Cir. 1998), which relied “upon the traditional common law rule that interest follows principal” in recognizing a protected property interest in earned interest income under the Takings Clause.

On remand, the appellate court was directed to vacate its summary judgment order, to enter declatory judgment declaring the “restricted” prisoner account was in violation of HRS § 353-20, and to order payment of interest due but not credited to Blaisdell’s trust account. See: Blaisdell v. Department of Public Safety, 119 Haw. 275, 196 P.3d 277 (Hawaii 2008).

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Related legal case

Blaisdell v. Department of Public Safety