Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

PLRA's IFP Restrictions Do Not Apply To Civil Commitments

By Brandon Sample

Sex offenders that are civilly committed upon completion of their sentences are not "prisoners" within the meaning of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit decided October 19, 2009.

Dustin Merryfield was civilly committed under the Kansas Sexually Violent Predator Act and placed in a sex offender treatment program. Merryfield filed a § 1983 action challenging his involuntary commitment. The district court allowed Merryfield to proceed in forma pauperis. In doing so, though, the court required Merryfield to pay an initial partial filing fee, along with additional payments until the filing was paid in full. Ultimately, the district court denied relief on Merryfield's substantive claims. Merryfield appealed.

The Tenth Circuit quickly disposed of Merryfield's complaints regarding the district court's rejection of his underlying claims, affirming for the reasons stated by the district court. The court took issue, however, with the district court's order requiring Merryfield to pay the filing fee in the case as a part of being granted in forma pauperis status.

Under the PLRA, "if a prisoner brings a civil action or files an appeal in forma pauperis, the prisoner shall be required to pay the full amount of a filing fee." 28 U.S.C. § 1915(b) (1). The question became them, was Merryfield a "prisoner" due to his civil commitment?

Joining the Fourth Eighth, Ninth and Eleventh Circuits, the Tenth Circuit decided that Merryfield was not a "prisoner." The PLRA defined "prisoner," the court wrote, as "any person incarcerated or detained in any facility who is accused of, convicted of, sentenced for, or adjudicated delinquent for, violations of criminal law or the terms and conditions of parole, probation, pretrial release, or diversionary program." 28 U.S.C. § 1915(h).

Merryfield's "civil commitment and detention" simply do not meet this definition, the court held. Accordingly, the district court's order directing payment of the filing fee in the case, and on appeal, was vacated. See: Merryfield v. Jordan, 584 F.3d 923 (10th Cir. 2009).

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Merryfield v. Jordan