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Bundy v. Wetzel

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

May 4, 2018

KEVIN A. BUNDY, Appellant

          SUBMITTED: May 2, 2018

          Appeal from the Order of the Commonwealth Court dated 10/19/16 at No. 553 MD 2016



         This pro se direct appeal arises from Appellant's challenge to the deduction of funds from his prisoner account to satisfy financial obligations imposed as part of his criminal sentences. He contends, primarily, that he was constitutionally entitled to pre-deprivation notice and a hearing before such deductions began.

         Appellant is an inmate confined at SCI-Benner Township. After exhausting administrative remedies, he initiated the present litigation by filing a complaint in the Centre County Court of Common Pleas, [1] naming as defendants various officials of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections in their official capacity. The primary focus of the complaint concerned the Department's withdrawals from his inmate account to satisfy obligations imposed on him at sentencing.[2] The Department made the deductions pursuant to Section 9728(b)(5) of the Sentencing Code, which states:

The county correctional facility to which the offender has been sentenced or the Department of Corrections shall be authorized to make monetary deductions from inmate personal accounts for the purpose of collecting restitution or any other court-ordered obligation or costs . . .. Any amount deducted shall be transmitted . . . to the probation department of the county or other agent designated by the county commissioners of the county with the approval of the president judge of the county in which the offender was convicted. The Department of Corrections shall develop guidelines relating to its responsibilities under this paragraph.

42 Pa.C.S. §9728(b)(5). Withdrawals made per this statutory authorization are known as "Act 84 deductions" because the provision was added to Section 9728 by Act 84 of 1998. See Act of June 18, 1998, P.L. 640, No. 84, §4.

         According to the allegations in Appellant's complaint, [3] Appellant was subject to financial obligations based on criminal convictions in Jefferson and Clearfield Counties. As a result of the Jefferson County prosecution, he was responsible to pay a total of $1, 135; in Clearfield County, the sum was $8, 033. Consistent with Act 84 and the Department's policy statement entitled DC-ADM-005 (relating to the collection of inmate debts), to recover these costs the Department began deducting twenty percent of all deposits into Appellant's account, which have solely consisted of monetary gifts from friends and relatives. Deductions made as of the complaint's filing have totaled $681.19, and they have only pertained to the Jefferson County matter.

         Appellant has no tangible assets and no source of income other than the occasional gifts mentioned above. He needs to use these gifted funds, inter alia, to litigate a PCRA petition he previously filed.

         At his sentencing hearing in Jefferson County, the common pleas court did not consider his ability to pay the financial obligations imposed, and it did not inform him the Department would be making deductions from his inmate account to satisfy those obligations. That tribunal subsequently rejected Appellant's "Petition to Vacate Fine or Extend Time to Pay Fines, Costs and Restitution" on jurisdictional grounds.

         In light of these circumstances, Appellant claimed he was not afforded any pre-deprivation process - as required by Montanez v. Secretary Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, 773 F.3d 472 (3d Cir. 2014) - by either the sentencing court or the Department before the first deduction occurred. He thus asserted a violation of his due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. Appellant additionally questioned whether the Department could make deductions from monies gifted to him by others, as his criminal sentences were imposed on him personally and not on the individuals making the gifts.

         In terms of relief, Appellant sought an injunction preventing further deductions from his account, a declaratory judgment, compensatory damages in the form of a return of all funds already deducted, and the costs of litigation. He additionally couched his request for a return of the deducted funds in terms of an action of replevin. See generally Pa.R.C.P. No. 1071 (prescribing that the procedure in actions of replevin is to conform with the rules for civil actions).

          Appellees filed a preliminary objection challenging the county court's jurisdiction over the dispute, and another in the nature of a demurrer. The common pleas court agreed it lacked jurisdiction and transferred the matter to the Commonwealth Court because the complaint was filed against Commonwealth officers acting in their official capacity. See 42 Pa.C.S. §761(a)(1), (b) (giving the Commonwealth Court exclusive original jurisdiction over actions against Commonwealth officers acting in their official capacity).

         In a two-page unsigned filing, the Commonwealth Court sustained Appellees' preliminary objection in the nature of a demurrer and dismissed the complaint. See Bundy v. Wetzel, No. 553 M.D. 2016, Memorandum and Order, slip op. at 1 (Pa. Cmwlth. Oct. 19, 2016). The court explained that: the Department is statutorily authorized to collect court-ordered costs, see id. at 2 (citing 42 Pa.C.S. §9728(b)); an inmate is not entitled to a hearing on his ability to pay, see id. (citing Buck v. Beard, 583 Pa. 431, 879 A.2d 157 (2005)); and the fact that the funds originated from gifts is of no moment because the General Assembly has not created an exception for gifts made to an inmate's account, see id. (citing Danysh v. Dep't of Corr., 845 A.2d 260 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2004)). Also, the court ...

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