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Prisoner Education Guide

Minnesota Prisoner Wins Reprieve from Jail Debt in Federal Court

by Ed Lyon

Erik Daniel Christianson spent time in the Martin County jail in Minnesota on four occasions between 2013 and 2014. Under state “pay for stay” laws, prisoners are required to pay $25 for each day spent in jail. Accordingly, Christianson accrued a total of $7,625 in jail debt.

Indigent persons are entitled to be absolved from such debts if they request a waiver. Christianson’s attorney, Bradford W. Colbert with Legal Assistance to Minnesota Prisoners at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law, sent three letters to Martin County Sheriff Jeffrey Markquart, requesting debt forgiveness for his client. Receiving no answer to the first two letters, Colbert asked for either debt forgiveness or for Markquart to accept summons and service.

After receiving no reply to his third letter, Colbert filed suit on Christianson’s behalf. Markquart moved for summary judgment. Finding no genuine issue of material fact, and that Markquart had violated state law, the federal district court denied his motion.

The court held the Minnesota statutes were written with unambiguously mandatory language that require all sheriffs to implement policies and procedures to assess a prisoner’s ability to pay jail debt. Sheriff Markquart had wholly failed to obey the statutory requirements to promulgate required policies and procedures.

The district court entered summary judgment in favor of Christianson on January 18, 2018. Markquart was ordered to create the policies necessary to satisfy state law requirements with respect to jail debt and debt forgiveness within 60 days. The court also ordered Markquart not to try to collect any debts from Christianson until after the policies and procedures had been completed and an affidavit to that effect had been filed with the court.

On March 6, 2018, Martin County officials passed a resolution that terminated the pay-for-stay program at the county jail and stopped “all collection activities against past inmates.”

The case remains pending on Christianson’s motion for attorney fees. See: Christianson v. Markquart, U.S.D.C. (D. Minn.), Case No. 0:16-cv-01034-JRT-KMM. 

 

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