Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Inmate not required to pay court fees under PLRA

This case may not be of interest to lawyers who handle federal appeals, but it's important for inmates who handle their cases pro se. The Second Circuit holds that a civil detainee who completed his criminal sentence is not subject to the fee provisions of the Prison Litigation Reform Act.

The case is Jones v. Cuomo, issued on June 22. Plaintiff was convicted of sexual abuse and attempted rape. Following his criminal sentence, he was sent to civil confinement under the Mental Health Law. This often happens to sex offenders. While in civil confinement, plaintiff brought suit under Section 1983 challenging aspects of his commitment proceedings and the confinement itself. 

Under the PLRA, inmates have to pay their court costs from their inmate account. But when plaintiff filed this lawsuit, he was not a "prisoner" under the PLRA because he was in civil confinement, not jail. He was not locked up for the criminal offense any longer but instead detained because it was determined that he remains a danger to the public. A fine distinction to be sure, but that's how the Court interprets the plain language of the statute. Other circuits have interpreted the PLRA similarly, and now the Second Circuit (Menashi, Parker and Lohier) joins them. Under this ruling, plaintiff gets his fees back, as they were originally deducted from his account when he brought this appeal.

Interesting footnote at the start of the opinion for Second Circuit junkies. The Court decides to make this a published, presidential opinion rather than a summary order, even though this was a motion to restore fees and not a true appeal on the merits. The Court does not normally publish rulings like this, but it finds that motions like this will not normally be filed when inmates have counsel (this one does not have a lawyer), and this issue may recur in the future with other inmates. 

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