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Money May Be Withdrawn From Texas Prisoner's Trust Fund without Prior Notice

On June 5, 2009, the Supreme Court of Texas held that funds may be removed from a state prisoner's trust fund account to satisfy a court order without prior notice to the prisoner.

Walter E. Harrell, a Texas state prisoner, was assessed $748 in court costs and court-appointed attorney fees when he was convicted in state district court. Three years later, the convicting court sent the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) an order to withdraw $748 from Harrell's trust fund account to pay the costs and fees. Harrell received a copy of the order the same day the funds were withdrawn.

Harrell filed a motion to rescind the order on the grounds that he had been denied due process in that he had not been allowed to present evidence of his inability to pay the assessed costs. The motion was denied and Harrell appealed. The court of appeals dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction. Harrell filed a petition for review with the Texas Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court held that this was a civil matter, not a criminal one. Therefore, it had jurisdiction. The Supreme Court noted that § 501.04, Texas Government Code, authorizes TDCJ to withdraw money from a prisoner's trust fund account to satisfy any court order. It found that there was only a modest risk of erroneous deprivation since Harrell had already had a chance to contest the court costs and attorney fees during his criminal trial.

However, it did note that there had been several instances of erroneous billings due to clerical errors. Thus, even though the state had an interest in the prompt and efficient recoupment of court costs, some measure of post-deprivation due process was in order.
Therefore, it held that a prisoner was entitled to notice and an opportunity to be heard regarding the withdrawal of funds, but neither need happen before the funds are withdrawn. For this purpose, sending the prisoner a copy of the court order and allowing appellate review similar to that used in civil post-judgment enforcement actions would suffice.

The judgment of the court of appeals dismissing the appeal for want of jurisdiction was reversed and judgment was rendered affirming the trial court's denial of the motion the rescind the withdrawal order. See: Harrell v. State, 286 S.W.3d 315 (Tex. 2009).

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Related legal case

Harrell v. State