The Kentucky Court of Appeals says county jails can continue to charge inmates for the cost of confinement even if they are acquitted or the charges against them are dropped. An attorney for a former inmate says the practice runs afoul of state law.
The case out of Clark County could have implications for every county jail in Kentucky. The appeals court upheld a lower court’s ruling allowing jailers to charge booking and housing fees, and keep the money even if the charges are dismissed or the inmate is found not guilty.
A lawsuit was brought by David Jones of Clark County who was jailed 14 months until the charges against him were dropped, but the jail billed him more than $4,000 for his stay.
"This isn’t the Holiday Inn," said Greg Belzley, the attorney for David Jones.
Belzley maintained the accused have a presumption of innocence, and keeping their money after their case is dismissed violates their constitutional right of due process.
"Until and unless you plead guilty to a crime or are found guilty of a crime, you can’t be punished, and this is a punishment," argued Belzley
The Prospect attorney told WKU Public Radio the 2-1 ruling contradicts a state law passed in 2000 that leaves it to a sentencing judge to determine if an inmate, once his case is resolved, can afford jail fees and how much is owed.
"When a poor defendant appears before court, it’s the court that asks that person questions and decides whether or not they can afford a lawyer, not the prosecutor, and that’s exactly what we’re doing here," Belzley explained. "Instead of a judge making a determination of whether additional punishment of requiring reimbursement for the cost of confinement is warranted and fair, we have the jail doing it. That’s like the prosecutor deciding whether someone gets a lawyer or not. It’s ridiculous.”
The majority of the court said they were following precedent from previous rulings in the state, but Belzley argued those court opinions didn’t deal with individuals against whom all charges were dropped, such as his client. He said federal courts have ruled jailers can collect confinement fees, but if the inmate is acquitted or the charges are dismissed, the money must be returned.
Kentucky jails have become increasingly dependent on inmate fees amid tight budgets and swelling inmate populations, but Belzley said that shouldn't matter.
"I’ve been mugged twice, and I think on both occasions, the person who mugged me thought he needed the money," said Belzley. "It didn’t make it any less of a crime than this.”
Attorney Jeffrey Mando represented the Clark County Jail. He didn’t return a call seeking comment, but successfully argued before the appeals court that state law allows jailers to charge inmates and the right to collect fees isn’t dependent on a sentencing judge.
The case is now headed to the Kentucky Supreme Court.