Fines and Fees Win in Minnesota
Minnesota, like many states, have enacted idiotic pay-to-stay laws. Because Minnesota is Minnesota, our laws are slightly less idiotic because they require the sheriff to consider a person’s ability to pay before assessing the fees. Unfortunately, many sheriffs just ignore that part of the law. The Legal Assistance to Minnesota Prisoners (LAMP) Clinic at Mitchell Hamline School of Law got the federal court to order the sheriff to follow the law – which is harder than it sounds.
Minn. Stat. § 641.12, subd. 3(a), authorizes Minnesota county jails to “pay the cost of the person’s room, board, clothing, medical, dental, and other correctional services.” The sheriff is given the discretion as to how to collect the “pay-to-stay” fees, but the statute also provides that the “sheriff shall waive payment of the costs” if the person does not have the ability to pay.
The Martin County Sheriff assessed our client $7,625 in pay-to-stay fees without considering his ability to pay. We sent two letters to the Sheriff stating that our client did not have the ability to pay the pay-for-stay costs and requested that the Sheriff waive the payment of the costs, pursuant to the statute. The Sheriff did not respond.
We finally sent a third letter to the Martin County Sheriff, along with a summons and complaint in state district court, asking the Sheriff to follow the statute or accept service. The Sheriff did not respond to the letter, but instead removed the matter to federal district court.
After conducting discovery, the Sheriff moved for summary judgment and the District Court, sua sponte, granted summary judgment – to our client.
The District Court determined that the statute required the Martin County Sheriff to consider a person’s ability to pay at some time in the process. The District Court found that the Sheriff did not consider whether our client had the ability to pay and, in fact, did not have any procedures in place to make such a determination.
The Court declared that the Sheriff violated the statute, ordered the Sheriff to create procedures to comply with the statute, and enjoined the Sheriff from trying to collect anything from our client.
The Court also expressed its displeasure at the Sheriff for not responding to our letters. The Court noted that the letters “kindly” asked the Sheriff to revisit the pay-for-stay charges and the Sheriff’s “decision to ignore Christianson’s letter accomplishes only one thing: it engenders a belief among citizens that our legal institutions cannot be trusted.”
The case is: Christianson v. Markquart, No. CV 16-1034 (JRT/KMM), 2018 WL 461134 (D. Minn. Jan. 17, 2018)