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Freed inmates can’t be charged confinement costs, Kentucky justices rule

Kentucky inmates freed after acquittal or dismissal of their charges cannot be billed by local governments for booking and housing fees, according to a ruling from the state’s high court.

FRANKFORT, Ky. (CN) — County governments cannot recoup confinement costs from inmates who are acquitted at trial or have their charges dismissed, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The unanimous decision from the commonwealth's high court overturned rulings from both a trial and appeals court, and nullified a bill of over $4,000 assessed to a former inmate of the Clark County Jail.

David Jones spent 14 months in the Clark County Detention Center, or CCDC, beginning in October 2013, but was eventually released after all charges against him were dismissed.

Despite the dismissal, Jones was sent a bill from the county for over $4,000 to allegedly cover "the remaining balance of the costs of his confinement."

A federal class action against Clark County was dismissed after the judge ruled Jones met the statutory definition of "prisoner" under Kentucky law. After an unsuccessful appeal to the Sixth Circuit, he tried again in state circuit court.

The class action filed in state court was also dismissed, but Jones argued before Kentucky's high court in April that only "sentenced prisoners" can be assessed confinement costs.

The justices agreed, ruling in Thursday's terse, 12-page opinion that the lower courts misinterpreted state law.

In part, the statute in question reads: "A prisoner in a county or local jail shall be required by the sentencing court to reimburse the county for expenses incurred by reason of the prisoner's confinement as set out in this section, except for good cause shown."

Justice Robert Conley wrote the court's opinion, and said the trial court's focus on the definition of "prisoner" prevented a proper interpretation of the statute as a whole.

"Only the sentencing court is vested with the authority to order the payment of fees associated with incarceration of a prisoner in a county jail," Conley said. "The inclusion of 'sentencing court' implies that a criminal conviction occurred since without a conviction there would be no need for a sentencing court."

He added, "Jones was never convicted. All charges against him were dropped. As a result, he was never brought before a sentencing court in this matter."

Conley decried the trial court's analysis of the law, calling the potential outcome "absurd."

"To ignore the term 'sentencing court' in KRS 441.256, as the trial court did," he said, "leads to the absurd result that Jones would have more protections under the law with the oversight of the sentencing court if he had been convicted of a crime, instead of having all charges dropped."

Conley also pointed out the amount of fees owed by an inmate is calculated by a sentencing court and handed down in an order, which did not exist in Jones' cases.

"Together, [the statutes] make it clear that the sentencing court is the only entity able to order the reimbursement and billing of incarceration fees, not the county jail," he wrote.

In addition to wiping out the $4,000 bill sent to Jones, the court also ordered the CCDC to refund over $250 that was automatically deducted from his commissary account while he was incarcerated.

"In presenting the $4,008.85 bill to Jones upon his release and keeping the $256.44 automatically deducted from Jones' canteen account after it became clear no order for reimbursement from a sentencing court would be issued, the CCDC violated the statute. As a result, the $256.44 ... should be refunded to Jones," the ruling states.

It is unclear how the court's ruling will affect potential class members, but the case was remanded to the Clark County Circuit Court for further proceedings.

Representatives for Jones and Clark County did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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