A federal case attempting to strike down the practice of billing former Kentucky inmates who were not convicted of any crimes for the cost of their stay in jail faces a setback after a recent court ruling.
David Jones was arrested and held in the Clark County Detention Center for fourteen months before the accusations against him were dismissed. Despite the dismissal, Clark County billed Jones $4,000 for the costs of his time in jail. Mr. Jones paid $20 to the county before his lawyer advised him to halt further payment.
Mr. Jones filed suit against Clark County and Frank Doyle, the Clark County Jailer, both individually and on behalf of all persons who were deprived of their property without due process of law. The complaint alleges that requiring prisoners to pay for their own incarceration after not being convicted or ordered to pay by a court violates Kentucky law and the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
The court rejected these claims, saying that the bill did not deprive Mr. Jones of his property and that , “…no source of law that entitles him to enjoy his money unfettered by government bills, correct or incorrect.”
The opinion goes on to say:
An erroneously high bill from the government, without more, does not deprive the bill’s recipient of a protected property interest; the IRS does not deprive a taxpayer of protected property interest every time it erroneously bills the taxpayer for more unpaid taxes than is due. Jones’s procedural due process claim thus fails at the outset.
The opinion continues:
In this case, process inheres in the action the government takes to get payment of the bill. The prisoner can refuse to pay the bill, leaving the burden on the jailer, who “may file a civil action to seek reimbursement from that prisoner for any amount owed which remains unpaid.” KRS 441.265(3). In such a suit the defendant can raise all the state or federal issues he wants to challenge his liability.
Ultimately, the case was dismissed because the County said it had no plans to take further action to force Mr. Jones to pay the bill.
In plain English, the opinion says that there is nothing you can do until the government drags you into court to sue you for the money they claim you owe for them locking you in jail. However, in civil cases, there is no right to counsel, meaning that those sued by the state are forced to pay out of pocket for legal costs relating to the civil action.
Mr. Jones may not have to pay his bill, but what happens when the government decides to pursue civil penalties against those who do not pay for their own incarceration? When it comes to challenging governments, the penalty is as much in the process as the final outcome. County attorneys could easily have filed suit against Mr. Jones simply to force a settlement in the face of the high legal fees Mr. Jones would incur in challenging the bill.
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