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Fourth Circuit: IFRP Challenges Cognizable Under § 2241

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held in December 2015 that a federal habeas corpus petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 is the proper means for a federal prisoner to challenge their obligation to make restitution payments through the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) Inmate Financial Responsibility Program (IFRP). In this case, however, the district court dismissed the petitioner’s IFRP challenge following remand.

Jeremy Fontanez pleaded guilty to bank robbery and was sentenced to 420 months in prison. He was also ordered to pay $27,972.61 in restitution in accordance with the IFRP.

The IFRP is a BOP program that requires prisoners to make scheduled payments from their prison accounts toward court-ordered financial obligations. The IFRP is voluntary and the BOP cannot compel prisoners to participate. A prisoner with financial obligations who refuses to participate in the IFRP, however, may be denied numerous privileges, including preferred housing and work assignments. See: 28 C.F.R. § 545.11(d).

Fontanez signed a financial plan, agreeing to pay $25 each quarter toward his court-ordered financial obligations through the IFRP. One year later he filed a written request to be released from the IFRP, arguing that the IFRP payment requirement violated the Mandatory Victims Restitution Act of 1996. Fontanez claimed that rather than setting a restitution payment schedule, the sentencing court had unlawfully delegated that power to the BOP; he also asserted that the BOP lacked authority to require him to make restitution payments through the IFRP or punish him for refusing to participate.

After Fontanez’s request was denied by his counselor and the warden, he filed a habeas corpus petition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2241. A federal prisoner generally must challenge the execution of his sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 and the sentence itself under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. See: In re Vial, 115 F.3d 1192 (4th Cir. 1997).

Fontanez argued that § 2241 was the proper vehicle for his claim because he was challenging the “execution,” not the validity, of his sentence. The district court disagreed, holding that Fontanez was challenging his sentence “as imposed,” not as executed, and could not bring his petition directly under 28 U.S.C. § 2241. Yet the court also concluded that his claims were not cognizable under § 2255.

The Fourth Circuit reversed on appeal, holding “that an inmate’s challenge to the BOP’s administration of the IFRP is a challenge to the ‘execution’ of a sentence that is cognizable under 28 U.S.C. § 2241.”

Although the appellate court remanded for a decision on the merits, it noted “that the distance between the parties appears to have narrowed,” because the warden had subsequently taken the position that “the IFRP is a purely voluntary program” and Fontanez was “entitled to stop participating at any time.” It was not clear, though, what privileges he would forfeit for choosing not to take part in the IFRP. See: Fontanez v. O’Brien, 807 F.3d 84 (4th Cir. 2015).

Following remand, the district court wrote in a January 9, 2017 order that the “Petitioner argues that the sentencing court improperly delegated its authority in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 3664(f)(2) which provides that, ‘[u]pon determination of the amount of restitution owed to each victim, the court shall, pursuant to section 3572, specify in the restitution order the manner in which, and the schedule according to which, the restitution is to be paid....’ The [court] is unpersuaded by the Petitioner’s argument.”

The district court found that Fontanez had agreed to participate in the IFRP, and that the BOP’s policies related to the collection of restitution did not constitute an improper delegation of the court’s authority. Accordingly, the case was dismissed and Fontanez has appealed the dismissal to the Fourth Circuit. See: Fontanez v. O’Brien, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12395 (N.D. W.Va. 2017). 

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