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Kentucky Supreme Court Rules ‘Incarceration Fees’ May Not Be Collected After Charges Are Dismissed

by Casey J. Bastian

On October 28, 2021, the Supreme Court of Kentucky unanimously ruled that when criminal charges are dismissed, a detainee then released is not required to pay costs associated with incarceration under Kentucky law.

The decision reversed lower state court rulings and found that under Kentucky Revised Statutes (KRS) 441.265, a requirement to reimburse those costs must be imposed by an order of the sentencing court in the criminal proceedings. Since the appellant, Daniel Jones, was never convicted or sentenced, the Clark County Detention Center (CCDC) where he was held was required to return money collected from him and rescind any additional unpaid costs levied against him.

Jones was arrested and booked into CCDC on October 26, 2013. Pursuant to KRS 441.265(2), the jail assessed a $35 booking fee, a $10 fee per day for room and board, $5 for a hygiene kit, plus $2.69 for each additional hygiene kit provided during his incarceration. By the time he posted bond and was released on December 15, 2014, he had been assessed a total of $4,008.85 in fees. By then, CCDC had deducted $256.44 in repayment from Jones’ inmate account; he also paid an additional $20 of the balance until advised by his attorney to cease.

On April 2, 2015, all charges against Jones were dismissed. With assistance from attorney Gregory A. Belzley of Belzley, Bathurst, & Bentley in Prospect, Jones filed a class-action complaint against Clark County and CCDC jailer Frank Doyle in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky. But that case was dismissed for failure to find a federal civil rights violation, a decision affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit on December 19, 2016, when it also declined to exercise jurisdiction over Jones’ state-law claims. See: Jones v. Clark Cty., 666 F. App’x 483 (6th Cir. 2016).

Jones then re-filed those claims in Clark County Circuit Court on February 3, 2017. In the complaint, he argued that the law on which CCDC based its fees did not allow costs to be imposed or collected after charges were dismissed. Jones made several other claims that did not result in any relief. Defendants answered with a motion for summary judgment, which the trial court granted and the Court of Appeals affirmed on February 14, 2020. With additional assistance from Lexington attorney Matt Boyd, Jones appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Taking up the case, the Court began by analyzing the statute at the root of the controversy. KRS 441.265, in relevant part, states that “a prisoner in a county or local jail shall be required by the sentencing court to reimburse the county for expenses incurred by reason of the prisoner’s confinement ...”

The Court allowed that the trial court was correct in observing that the specific provisions say nothing about applying only to convicted prisoners. The Court also acknowledged that entities like CCDC are able to collect unpaid fees after a prisoner has been released, noting that the definition of a “prisoner” under KRS 441.005(3) means “any person confined in jail...and who is: (a) charged with a crime or convicted with a crime.”

The problem the Court found was that in focusing on the definition of prisoner and whether costs may be imposed, the lower courts ignored the phrase “sentencing court” found in KRS 441.265. Pursuant to statutory construction, the Court said, the precedent is clear: “the sections of KRS 441.265 cannot be separated from each other, nor can KRS 441.265 exist in a vacuum without reference to other statutes.”

So when the lower courts ignored the importance of the sentencing court in the statute, they made KRS 441.265 inconsistent with other statutes regarding reimbursement of incarceration fees, namely KRS 532.352 and 532.538. The former makes clear that costs shall be paid in the “amount specified in a written order of the court,” also emphasizing that this amount is the one “designated by the sentencing court.” To ignore the term “sentencing court” in KRS 441.265, as the lower courts had done, leads to the “absurd” consequence of Jones having more rights if he had been convicted rather than having all his charges dropped!

Thus the Court held that the lower courts erred when ruling in favor of the defendants. KRS 441.265 had been violated “because the billing and collecting of fees by the CCDC cannot be carried out without the order of the sentencing court,” and there was no sentencing court in Jones’ case. The summary judgment against him was vacated, and the amount of $276.44 previously collected must be returned, plus Jones shall not be obligated to pay the remaining assessed amount.

The Court also noted that while the complaint was identified as a class action, it was never certified as such by the circuit court. There is no comment as to whether parties who have had fees collected in similar circumstances may be able to recover them. See: Jones v. Clark Cty., 635 S.W.3d 54 (Ky. 2021). 

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Related legal case

Jones v. Clark Cty.