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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Slows the Hand That State DOC Sticks Into Prisoners’ Pockets

by David M. Reutter


On December 19, 2023, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled for a prisoner who claimed that the state Department of Corrections (DOC) violated his civil rights by upping the rate at which it docked his prison pay “without pre-deprivation notice and an opportunity to be heard.”

Thomas Washington, 38, was confined at the State Correctional Institution in Houtzdale for what the Court called “serious criminal offenses.” How serious? The last was a 2014 encounter with cops called by someone who spied him driving down an Allentown street with a gun; after a pursuit, they caught up with him, and he allegedly pointed the gun at them before tripping and dropping it. They allegedly found heroin on him, too. Possessing the weapon was also a violation of his parole conditions from a 2004 drug conviction. Pleading no contest, he received a five-to-ten-year sentence and was ordered to pay restitution totaling $15,666.49.

The Court then described Washington’s predicament after that: “He works in the prison for a fraction of the minimum wage and occasionally receives gifts from friends and family, both serving to supplement the meager necessities provided by the institution that controls virtually every other aspect of his life.” Until January 2020, DOC took 20% of all deposits to Washington’s prisoner account, pursuant to the relevant statute, Act 84. But when more started being taken out, Washington discovered that lawmakers had increased the rate to 25%.

After his administrative remedies were exhausted in a challenge to the additional withholding, Washington filed a pro se petition for review in the Commonwealth Court on August 25, 2020, alleging DOC violated his Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process rights by increasing the deduction without notice and without holding a pre-deprivation hearing. In a decision by a divided panel, the Commonwealth Court “sustained the demurrer” by DOC that it “lacks discretion to alter the amount of deductions” under the amended Act 84. Finding that Washington therefore failed to “state a constitutional claim,” it dismissed his case. Washington appealed.

The Supreme Court’s 63-page opinion detailed the parties’ extensive briefing and arguments. “In this case, we consider a government taking of a peculiar sort, one that is authorized by statute and designed to compensate victims and the government for the consequences of criminal acts and the costs of prosecution,” the Court said. The prescribed method for this was laid out in Montañez v. Secr’y Pa. Dep’t of Corr., 773 F.3d 472 (3d Cir. 2014): Prior to deducting monies, DOC must notify a prisoner of 1) the Act 84 policy; 2) the prisoner’s “total financial obligation to the government;” 3) “the rate at which funds will be deducted;” and 4) “the identity of the funds subject to withdrawal.” DOC argued that the legislative amendment to Act 84 “fully apprised Washington of the precise nature of and manner in which the government would take his property.” But the Court rejected that argument.

In doing so, it also rejected the lower court’s holding in Beavers v. Pa. Dep’t of Corr., 271 A.3d 535 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2021), that there was no reason for DOC to provide additional notice to prisoners due to the rate change because “an increase in the rate of the deduction from 20% to 25% did not change the total amount of …court-ordered fines and costs or change the account from which the deductions are made.”

Finally, the Court found that DOC had discretion under Act 84. The 2019 amendment “permits DOC to exercise at least some discretion,” the Court noted, because it set 25% as the minimum deduction rate. “Consequently, DOC is clearly afforded discretion” in making deductions “to deviate upwards from the 25% minimum rate.” By the same rationale, Act 84 also granted DOC “discretion to refrain from making Act 84 deductions” when a prisoner’s balance falls below $10. “Needless to say, a zero-percent deduction rate is a downward departure from the 25% rate,” the Court pointed out.

Thus the Court reaffirmed its holding in Bundy v. Wetzel, 646 Pa.248 (2018), that prior to the first Act 84 deduction, DOC must (a) inform a prisoner of the amount of his debt and the policy governing repayment and then (b) provide “a reasonable opportunity to object.” Though the “government may be entitled to the additional five percent of Washington’s property,” the Court said it was “concerned with the manner of the taking.”

“[A] democratic government must practice fairness to be worthy of its name,” the Court declared, “and procedural due process must be afforded to both heroes and villains with equal vigor when state action infringes on a fundamental right.” The lower court’s order was therefore reversed and the case remanded. Before the Court, Washington was represented by attorneys James C. Martin and Ted A. Hages of Reid Smith LLP in Pittsburgh. See: Washington v. Pa. Dep't of Corr., 306 A.3d 263 (Pa. 2023).


Additional source: Morning Call

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by David M. Reutter On December 19, 2023, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled for a prisoner who claimed that the state Department of Corrections (DOC) violated his civil rights by upping the rate at which it docked his prison pay “without pre-depriv