Handcuffed hand reaching into money jar

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The Kentucky Court of Appeals on Friday upheld a lower court’s ruling allowing Kentucky jailers to take booking fees and daily charges from inmates and keep the money even if the person is found not guilty.

The 2-1 panel ruling goes directly against the intent of the law passed in 2000 meant to let a judge decide once a case ended if a person could afford to pay jail fees and how much is owed, if anything, according to a WDRB News analysis of the legislation.

The dissenting judge, Sara Combs, wrote that the way the law is currently being followed is unconstitutional and implored the Kentucky Supreme Court or General Assembly "to rectify this glaringly unjust state of affairs."

But the majority of the three-member panel, judges Jeff Taylor and Allison Jones, ruled that under the law, jailers are allowed to take money from "prisoners," meaning anyone charged with a crime and taken to jail.

"And, the jailer's ability to bill and collect unpaid fees is not contingent upon an order from a sentencing court," Taylor wrote in the opinion for the majority. "Rather, this authority exists by statute independent of the court."

The issue is likely headed to the state Supreme Court now.

The case centers on the 2013 arrest of David Jones in Clark County near Lexington. Jones was jailed for 14 months as he awaited his trial, paying an initial $35 booking fee and then $10 a day. While he paid more than $250, the jail billed him about $4,000 he owed for his stay after the charges were dismissed, prompting the lawsuit that has slowly wound its way to the appellate court.

Combs wrote that the "ramifications" of the law are "numerous and ponderous. A person unjustly jailed – upon his release – can look forward to becoming an instant debtor through no fault of his own."

The other two judges noted they were following precedent from previous rulings in the state upholding the jail fee law and the way jailers use it, rebuffing defense attorneys, inmates' advocates and even the legislator who wrote the law – all of whom say the keeping of the funds violates due process and other constitutional rights.

The majority ruled that Jones did not prove it is "unconstitutional for the state to collect and keep monies from an innocent person."

"We think, at this point, the law is clearly established to authorize this practice," said Jeffrey Mando, an attorney representing the Clark County jailer. “We’re pleased that the court validated the statutory process that allows jails to assess, deduct and collect booking and per-diem fees from individuals that are brought into custody. Those fees save tax payer money and help offset the operation of jails.”

Attorney Greg Belzley, who represents Jones, said in an interview that he hopes the high court and legislators will look at the issue as Combs requested. 

"This is fundamental," he said. "And as long as I've got breath, I'm fighting this."

Almost every state allows inmates to be charged room and board fees. Kentucky has made millions of dollars since the law went into effect; about half of Kentucky jails use a collection agency to go after inmates who owe fees.

Jails take money when an inmate arrives, and from a commissary account often funded by friends or family.

Before the bill passed the Kentucky General Assembly in 2000, legislators successfully added an amendment requiring the "sentencing court," or judge, to determine how much an inmate owed in jail fees after a conviction.

When the bill was proposed, legislators raised concerns about inmates who couldn't afford the fees, as well as constitutional issues with seizing money from someone who hadn't yet been convicted or had charges dropped, according to audio recordings of hearings at the time.

As a condition to moving the bill forward, legislators agreed to amend it on the Senate floor to address those concerns, adding specific language to "require the sentencing court, rather than allow the county, to order reimbursement" to jails, according to a review of the bill's history.

The author of the bill, former Kentucky Senate President David Williams, now a judge, previously told WDRB he couldn't "understand what authority (jailers have) to take any money for housing a prisoner if not found guilty."

And Combs noted in her dissent that the "statutory language is clear and unambiguous on its face.

"A sentencing court alone is vested with jurisdiction to order payment for lodging in the county jail …," she wrote.

Two weeks ago, Mando argued in front of the judges that there are multiple ways for the fees to be collected, as allowed in the law, including by a judge or jailer.

"The mere fact that a statute authorizes one entity to take an action does not deprive another entity from taking the same or similar action," Mando argued in a court motion.

And he said that arguments about the language in the bill and its constitutionality have already been debated by other Kentucky judges and "rejected," giving jailers the authority to take these fees as reimbursement for inmate expenses, whether the person was eventually convicted or not.

Copyright 2020 WDRB News. All rights reserved. 

Digital Reporter

Jason Riley is a criminal justice reporter for WDRB.com. He joined WDRB News in 2013 after 14 years with The Courier-Journal. He graduated from Western Kentucky University. Jason can be reached at 502-585-0823 and jriley@wdrb.com.