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All Florida Prison Claims Challenging Gaintime Awards Preclude Lien for Filing Fee

By David M. Reutter

The Florida Supreme Court has held that imposition of a lien on a prisoner’s trust account to recover applicable filing fees is precluded in all gaintime actions, regardless of their nature, in which, if successful, the complaining party’s claim would directly affect his or her time in prison.

That holding came in an action filed by Florida prisoner Leo J. Cox, who filed a habeas petition that argued Safe Streets Initiative of 1994, which restricts the awarding of basic gaintime to prisoners whose crimes occurred before January 1, 1994, violates the single-subject rule of the Florida Constitution.

The Leon County Circuit Court found Cox indigent but held that the prisoner indigency statute applied to him. That statute, §57.085, Florida statute, requires a lien be placed on prisoner trust accounts to pay the filing fee of all actions that are not collateral criminal proceedings.” Florida’s First District Court of Appeal reversed on grounds that Cox’s action was a criminal collateral proceeding because it would affect the time he spent in prison, but certified the question to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court extended its holding in Schmidt v. Crusoe, 878 So. 2d 361 (Fla. 2003) to Cox. In rejecting the Florida Department of Corrections’ arguments, the Supreme Court said it is irrelevant whether the claims involved “revoked” gaintime versus “withheld” gaintime, or whether the prisoners acted within rigid time frames versus general time frames, or whether the cases involve unique facts versus general facts.

The Court said the prisoner indigency statute was intended “to discourage the filing of frivolous civil lawsuits” with respect to prison conditions, not “to prevent the filing of claims contesting the computation of criminal sentences.” Under Schmidt, the bright-line test is whether “the amount of time an inmate has to spend in prison…is directly affected.”

Because Cox’s action will affect the time he spends in prison if successful, the prison indigency statute does not apply because his claim is a criminal collateral proceeding that challenges his gaintime award. The district court’s order was affirmed. See: McNeil v. Cox, 997 So.2d 343 (Fla. 2008).

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Related legal case

McNeil v. Cox