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Texas Supreme Court Rules Inmate Trust Accounts Are Civil in Nature

On June 5, 2009 U.S. Justice Willett reversed in part a petition from the Court of Appeals for the Seventh District of Texas of a due-process claim for funds withdrawn from inmate trust accounts.

In 2006, Texas prisoner Walter E. Harrell pled guilty to drug charges in 1997 and 2003. The trial courts issued an order for Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to withdraw $748 from his inmate trust account to pay for court costs and appointed-counsel fees. Upon receiving the withdrawal orders from the court, Harrell motioned to rescind them on the grounds that he was denied due-process to present evidence of his inability to pay the fees. The trial court denied his motion and the court of appeals dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction, citing its earlier holding in Gross v. State (that there is no statutory mechanism for appealing a withdrawal order).

Harrell did not contest the assessed costs or the court's authority to assess them, nor did the total withdrawal not match the $748 assessed costs. Harrell claimed that the State gave him notice and opportunity to be heard in regards to his liberty but not his property, which the State just took.

In deciding whether the jurisdiction is civil or criminal matter, the Supreme Court stated that Harrell was not contesting the chief feature of a criminal proceeding: guilt, innocence, or punishment. Instead, Harrell raised a due-process claim, which should be a civil matter. The Supreme Court agreed and stated the claim is a civil post-judgment collection action because the trial court assessed a fee as a part of judgment that while tangentially related to the underlying criminal judgment, is none the less removed from them.

Because Texas courts recognize prisoner property interest in their inmate trust account, the Supreme Court addressed Harrell's due-process claim in which he and TDCJ received the trial courts withdrawal orders, and it required nothing more. The Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals' dismissal of Harrell's appeal for want of jurisdiction. The Supreme Court also ruled the withdrawal of funds from inmate trust accounts are civil in nature and affirmed the trial court's denial of Harrell's motion to rescind.

See: Harrell v. State of Texas, Sup. Ct. No. 07-806, November 13, 2008.

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Related legal case

Harrell v. State of Texas