PORTLAND, Maine — Lawyers learn early in law school that what’s really important often is in a footnote.
That was the case Tuesday when the Maine Supreme Judicial Court unanimously dismissed a Lewiston man’s challenge to the practice of deducting funds from inmates’ prison accounts to pay court fines because his appeal was not filed in a timely fashion.
In a footnote to the eight-page opinion, however, Justice Jon Levy wrote that if the court had ruled on the merits of the case, justices would have upheld the statute that allows up to 25 percent of the money in an inmate’s prisoner account to be deducted to pay back child support, restitution and-or court fines.
The case was argued in June before the state’s high court when it convened in Bangor.
Terry W. Chesnel, 56, of Lewiston was sentenced in July 2008 in Penobscot County Superior Court to five years in prison for continuing to drive after having his license revoked and for drunken driving, according to a brief filed in the case. In addition, he was ordered to pay $4,505 in fines, including surcharges.
During his incarceration, money has been deducted from his prison account to help pay the fine. As of April 21, a total of $1,595 had been collected toward Chesnel’s fines in that manner, according to a brief filed by Assistant District Attorney Susan Pope.
Chesnel, who was receiving about $200 a month from family and friends, objected to having 25 percent of his prison account taken out to pay the fines. He maintained that he did not have to begin paying fines until after his scheduled release on Oct. 8, 2013.
A Penobscot County judge last year denied his request to end the transfer of funds from his prison accounts because he did not have jurisdiction over the Department of Corrections, which falls under the executive branch of government.
Students at the University of Maine School of Law handled the appeal to the state supreme court for Chesnel.
Caitlin Fullerton of Portland maintained during oral arguments that the judge ordered Chesnel to begin paying his fine on Oct. 8, 2013, after his scheduled release.
“This case involves the wrongful infringement of executive power, represented by the [Maine Department of Corrections],” she told the justices.
Fullerton argued that Chesnel was not informed at sentencing or while incarcerated that his prison account could be garnished. The judge’s ruling that payment should begin on a specific date should have trumped the garnishing law, she argued.
“We’re certainly disappointed in the outcome,” Fullerton said Tuesday on behalf of her client. “We knew that jurisdiction would be the biggest issue in the case.”
Pope, who represented the state at oral arguments, said Tuesday she was pleased with the court’s decision.
“I think it’s a fair decision,” Pope said. “When the state is meeting all of a prisoner’s basic needs. including food, clothing, shelter and medical attention, an inmate should be obliged to pay what he owes, whether it’s in child support, restitution or court fines. Even if the inmate is not made of aware of it, the court has said it is legal.”