Due Process Requires Notice Prior to Court-Ordered Deduction from Prisoners’ Accounts
by David Reutter
The Third Circuit Court of Appeals held on August 14, 2014 that prison officials must provide due process before seizing funds from prisoners’ institutional accounts to satisfy fines, restitution and other costs assessed at sentencing.
Before the appellate court were the consolidated appeals of Pennsylvania state prisoners Domingo Colón Montañez and Timothy A. Hale. In both cases the federal district court had granted summary judgment to the defendants, who were Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PDOC) officials.
Montañez and Hale alleged violations of their Due Process Clause rights by the PDOC’s implementation of a program that automatically deducts funds from prisoners’ accounts to pay court-ordered restitution, fines and costs. To implement the 1998 Act 84 that authorized the deductions, prison officials enacted policy DC-ADM-005, which requires the seizure of 20% of a prisoner’s account balance that exceeds $10 for payment towards court-ordered financial obligations.
After they were subjected to the policy and funds were deducted from their accounts without notice or an opportunity to be heard, Montañez and Hale filed suit.
The Third Circuit agreed with the district court that Montañez’s claim was barred by the applicable two-year statute of limitations. His claim accrued in April or May 2000 after the PDOC made the first deduction from his account under the policy, yet Montañez did not file his federal complaint until November 29, 2004.
However, the Court of Appeals found Hale’s suit was timely filed and addressed the merits of his argument. The Court noted his claim was narrowly focused on whether prisoners must be provided with notice of the PDOC’s policy before the first deduction from their accounts and, if so, whether the procedures were sufficient.
To satisfy due process, prior to the first deduction from a prisoner’s account the PDOC must disclose the total amount owed pursuant to his or her sentence, the rate at which funds will be deducted and which funds are subject to deduction. Further, prisoners must be provided a meaningful opportunity to object to the policy’s application before the first deduction.
The PDOC need not provide a formal, judicial-like hearing before the deductions. The appellate court also found the PDOC’s “refusal to provide exceptions to its across-the-board 20% rate of deduction” was not substantively unreasonable. Nonetheless, prison officials must provide an opportunity for prisoners to object to potential errors in the deduction process; they need only be provided with an initial notice and not an opportunity to be heard before each deduction.
Finally, the Third Circuit held the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. The district court’s order was therefore affirmed in part and reversed in part, and the case remains pending on remand. See: Montañez v. Secretary Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, 763 F.3d 257 (3d Cir. 2014).
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