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Arkansas Suing Prisoners for Incarceration Costs

Arkansas officials are suing prisoners under the State Prison Inmate Care and Custody Reimbursement Act (Act), seeking reimbursement for the costs of their incarceration by obtaining court orders and seizing money from their prison trust accounts.

For example, a state court entered an order requiring prisoner Michael R. MacKool to pay reimbursement costs, and the state sought a similar judgment against prisoner Deral Plunk. Both were subject to orders that confiscated the funds in their accounts for placement in a court account pending the outcome of the litigation.

MacKool is serving a cumulative 60-year sentence for first-degree murder and theft of property. In October 2010, Arkansas filed a petition against him in state court under the Act. Following a show-cause hearing, $5,016.61 in MacKool’s prison account was ordered deposited into the state treasury; he appealed that judgment, which was affirmed. See: MacKool v. State, 2012 Ark. 287 (Ark. 2012).

On rehearing, he argued the court had incorrectly held that his lack-of-due-process argument had not been presented to the circuit court. Next, he claimed money he had received from his mother was not part of his “estate” as that term is used in the Act. Finally, he argued his equal protection rights had been violated.

The due process claim was based on the funds in MacKool’s prison account being ordered confiscated on October 18, 2010, but the court did not provide him with notice until over two weeks later. The Arkansas Supreme Court found the only time that MacKool pointed to this issue was during opening statements, which the Court held is not an occasion for argument; an opening statement is an outline of the evidence to be introduced and the nature of the issues to be tried. Thus, MacKool had failed to properly present the due process argument before the circuit court and could not raise it on appeal.

As to the definition of “estate,” the Supreme Court held the plain language of the Act “reflects that any money received by an inmate, including a gift from a family member, is part of his ‘estate’ for purposes of this statute.” Finally, the Court refused to hear the equal protection claim because MacKool had failed to raise it in his original briefs. See: MacKool v. State, 2012 Ark. 341 (Ark. 2012).

The state also filed a petition under the Act to seek reimbursement of incarceration costs from prisoner Deral Plunk. It secured an order to confiscate $7,007.47 from his prison account to hold in a court account until the litigation was concluded. Plunk moved to dismiss the action, and the state moved to transfer the case to another circuit court.

That court denied Plunk’s motion but granted the state’s motion. Plunk appealed. The Arkansas Supreme Court held that because neither part of the order constituted a final order, it was unappealable. As a result, Plunk’s motion to proceed in forma pauperis on appeal was denied. See: Plunk v. State, 2012 Ark. 362 (Ark. 2012).

More recently, on October 31, 2013, a U.S. District Court in Arkansas ruled against state prisoner Michael Williams, who challenged the seizure of funds from his prison account that he had received as a judgment in a § 1983 lawsuit against jailers at the Miller County Detention Center. In March 2013, the district court had awarded Williams $10,350 in damages and costs in the suit. Pursuant to a state court order under the Act, however, $8,530.95 was confiscated from the judgment funds after they were deposited in his prison account.

Williams moved the district court to enjoin the state from seizing the judgment awarded in his § 1983 suit, which the court construed as a motion under Fed.R.Civ.P. 69, “invoking the Court’s inherent power to enforce its judgments.” However, the district court held it did not have jurisdiction to grant the motion after the judgment had been satisfied by the payment of funds to Williams.

The court noted that the Eighth Circuit “has previously held a state may not attach to section 1983 judgment proceeds awarded to an inmate for the purpose of recouping incarceration costs,” citing Hankins v. Finnel, 964 F.2d 853 (8th Cir. 1992); however, “the facts presented here do not fit within the narrow parameters of that precedent.” The district court found that the prohibition against the state’s seizure of funds obtained in a § 1983 lawsuit for reimbursement of incarceration costs does not apply when the judgment in the suit was obtained from a non-state party – in this case, from Miller County.

“Therefore, the entity paying Williams’s judgment proceeds and the entity seeking to attach to the judgment proceeds are entirely distinct, thus, eliminating any Hankins type concerns over the deterrent effect of a section 1983 award,” the district court concluded. See: Williams v. Rambo, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Ark.), Case No. 4:09-cv-4088; 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 156458 (W.D. Ark. 2013).

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