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Oregon Garnishment Exemption Protects Funds in Prisoners’ Accounts

Oregon Garnishment Exemption Protects Funds in Prisoners’ Accounts

by Mark Wilson

An Oregon judge has held that a prosecutor improperly seized money from a prisoner’s trust account to pay a court-ordered “compensatory fine.”

In 2006, Norman Earl Schlunt was convicted of poisoning and suffocating his business partner and sentenced to life in prison. He also was ordered to pay a $20,000 “compensatory fine” to the victim’s daughters, Trenna Landers and Krisanna Clark.

In August 2012, prosecutors learned that Schlunt had $1,222 in his prison trust account; they immediately garnished the entire sum for partial payment of the compensatory fine. Within days Schlunt had another $225 deposited in his account, but that money was seized, too.

Schlunt challenged both garnishments, arguing that prosecutors had improperly seized $625. Relying on a $400 personal property exemption under Oregon’s garnishment law, Schlunt argued that prosecutors could not take $400 of the initial $1,222. Further, since the full amount of the second garnishment fell below the $400 threshold, Schlunt argued that the entire $225 was exempt from garnishment.

On March 1, 2013, Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Jerome LaBarre held a hearing on the issue.

Prosecutors and attorneys for Landers and Clark argued that they were entitled to seize all of Schlunt’s assets because Oregon crime victims have a right under the state constitution “to receive prompt restitution from the convicted criminal who caused the victim’s loss or injury.” They asserted that right trumps any statutory personal property exemptions provided by the garnishment laws. Besides, Schlunt doesn’t need any money, they argued, because the prison system take cares of his basic needs.

Oregon Department of Justice (DOJ) attorneys appeared at the hearing as an unlikely ally in support of Schlunt’s legal position. While they agreed that victims have a constitutional right to speedy “restitution,” the DOJ attorneys noted that Schlunt was ordered to pay a compensatory fine – not restitution – as part of his sentence.

Prosecutors argued that the right to restitution encompasses compensatory fines, because “restitution and compensatory fines serve much the same purpose, both designed to pay victims for their losses.”

Judge LaBarre didn’t buy it. “Very simply ... words matter,” he said. “The court is bound to follow the wording of the Oregon Constitution and the Oregon statutes.” He therefore ordered prosecutors to reimburse $625 of the $1,447 seized from Schlunt’s prison trust account. See: State of Oregon v. Schlunt, Multnomah County Circuit Court (OR), Case No. 06-03-31323.

Noting that she is a single mother with very little disposable income, Trenna Landers vowed to appeal the ruling because it “bugged” her that Schlunt can buy snack foods from the prison commissary using the money in his account. “There are no Doritos and ice cream in my kitchen,” she observed.

Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill announced he plans to use Schlunt’s case to urge legislators to change the garnishment law. Prisoners should not be able to claim the $400 exemption when the state seeks to collect restitution, compensatory fines, court fees and child support, he opined. But he also said the state shouldn’t take all the money prisoners have, noting that the funds in their accounts help manage prisons because only well-behaved prisoners earn the privilege of purchasing incentive items like televisions and MP3 players. Instead, Underhill said the state should be able to take half the funds in prisoners’ accounts to satisfy court-ordered financial obligations.

Until the law is changed, however, based on Judge LaBarre’s ruling the $400 personal property exemption under Oregon’s garnishment law applies to prisoners’ trust accounts.

Source: The Oregonian


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Related legal case

State of Oregon v. Schlunt