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First Circuit Lets BOP Take Prisoner’s Entire $10,956.36 Trust Account Balance for Restitution

Douglas Ankney

Prisoners beware: On June 5, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit refused to stop the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) from “turn[ing] over the full amount” in a prisoner’s trust account to be applied toward “his outstanding restitution obligation.”

In 2019, Christopher Saemisch was sentenced to 360 months in prison and a lifetime of supervised release for distributing child pornography. He was also ordered to pay $18,000 in restitution to his victims, payment that “shall begin immediately” in accordance with BOP’s Inmate Financial Responsibility Program (IFRP) and continue so long as Saemisch “is incarcerated and according to a court-ordered repayment schedule during the term of supervised release.” Under IFRP, 50% of Saemisch’s monthly earnings from his prison job went to pay down his restitution obligation.

Then the government learned his inmate trust account held a balance of $10,956.36. Citing the Mandatory Victims Restitution Act (MVRA), 18 U.S.C. § 3664, it moved the federal court for the District of Massachusetts to order BOP to turnover “all funds held” in Saemisch’s account “as payment towards” his restitution obligation. Over Saemisch’s objections, the district court issued the turnover order. He appealed, arguing (1) that the turnover order “impermissibly superseded” the provisions of the restitution order imposed at his sentencing and (2) that the district court failed to make relevant findings as to which portions of the funds in his inmate trust account were susceptible to turnover.

The First Circuit began by observing that under MVRA, “a person obligated to provide restitution” who then “receives substantial resources from any source … during a period of incarceration” is thereby “required to apply the value of such resources to any restitution … still owed.” Receipt of “substantial resources,” furthermore, has been held to mean a “windfall or sudden financial injection,” as laid out in United States v. Hughes, 914 F.3d 947 (5th Cir. 2019).

Saemisch’s monthly wages from his prison job ranged from just $23.23 to $138.98. But between October 1, 2020, and August 13, 2021, he received another $10,555 from settlement of a lawsuit, plus $1,725 in COVID-19 stimulus payments. The settlement qualified as “substantial resources,” the Court noted, under United States v. Carson, 55 F.4th 1053 (6th Cir. 2022). The stimulus payments also qualified under United States v. Stark, 56 F.4th 1039 (5th Cir. 2023).

As a result, addressing Saemisch’s second argument, the Court said it was now impossible to determine which funds in his account came from his prison job earnings and which from the settlement and stimulus payments. From November 2020 to March 2021, a total of $12,280 in funds fitting the definition of “substantial resources” went into Saemisch’s account, along with his prison earnings. But those deposits were commingled with expenditures for books, gift purchases and commissary.

“[W]hen legitimate money and illegitimate money are placed in the same account, and various withdrawals and other deposits occur over time, there is no method to determine the exact source of any specific dollar or dollars,” the Court said, pointing to United States v. Ayika, 837 F.3d 460 (5th Cir. 2016). Because the total amount of funds qualifying as “substantial earnings” was $12,280 and the account balance then was less than $11,000, the Court concluded that Saemisch had already spent at least some of the qualifying funds.

As to Saemisch’s first argument, the Court observed that MVRA “authorizes the use of all ‘available and reasonable means’ to enforce restitution.” The payment schedule ordered at sentencing was based on Saemisch’s foreseeable earnings while incarcerated and did not take into account an unforeseeable “windfall or sudden injection.” It would “make no sense to construe the initial order’s payment schedule as a bar to the district court’s authority” to go after those additional funds, the Court concluded. Accordingly, the turnover order was affirmed. Seamisch was represented at the Court by Assistant Federal Public Defender Zainabu Rumala. See: United States v. Saemisch, 70 F.4th 1 (1st Cir. 2023).  

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Related legal case

United States v. Saemisch