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Thursday, July 25, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Oregon’s Handling of Ex-Inmate’s Funds Upheld

(CN) - An Oregon man has no case against state officials who garnished his settlement proceeds to pay for his incarceration, the 9th Circuit ruled Thursday.

Lester Shinault served two felony stretches with the Oregon Department of Corrections, once from 2005 to 2007, and again from 2008 to 2009. Before he went in the second time, Shinault filed a product-liability claim against a company whose drugs he alleged gave him diabetes. The company agreed to a $107,416 settlement while Shinault was in prison, and his attorney deposited the money in Shinault's inmate trust account.

Under Oregon law, inmates are liable for the cost of their incarceration, though officials have wide latitude to waive the bill if they determine that an inmate can't pay. Finding that this was not the case with Shinault, officials in May 2009 froze some $65,000 in Shinault's trust account to pay for the estimated cost of keeping him in prison during both his sentences.

Shinault did manage to have that amount reduced to $61,000, but his appeals were otherwise unsuccessful and he filed suit in Portland for violations of his rights under the Eighth and 14th Amendments.

Shinault alleged that the department had violated due process by failing to hold a hearing before withdrawing the money from his account. He also claimed that it had ruined his chances of paying for health care after his release by taking such a big chunk of his settlement.

U.S. District Judge Anna Brown granted the defendants summary judgment on all counts, and a unanimous three-judge appeals panel affirmed on Thursday.

Though the panel did find that the department's failure to hold a pre-withdrawal hearing violated basic principles of due process, they let the officials off the hook based on qualified immunity, finding that "the constitutional obligation was not clearly established at the time of the conduct."

The panel found no evidence that the withdrawal had endangered Shinault's health, in violation the Eighth Amendment.

"Prison officials did not deprive Shinault of care during his period of incarceration, and he received a sixty-day supply of medication upon release," the ruling states.

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