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Hopkins v. Smith

Court of Appeals of Kentucky

December 20, 2019



          BRIEF FOR APPELLANT: Ronald Hopkins, Pro Se LaGrange, Kentucky.

          BRIEF FOR APPELLEE: Kristin Wehking Department of Corrections Frankfort, Kentucky.



          TAYLOR, JUDGE:

         Ronald Hopkins, pro se, brings this appeal from a June 7, 2018, Order of the Franklin Circuit Court dismissing his Petition for a Declaration of Rights regarding the Department of Corrections' Policies and Procedures (CPP) governing inmates' finances. We affirm.

         Hopkins is an inmate at the Kentucky State Reformatory in LaGrange. According to Hopkins, in 2016, an inmate account supervisor helped him open an account at a bank in Lexington, Kentucky, in which he eventually deposited over $6, 200, by way of transfers from his institutional account at the prison. Effective October 1, 2016, the Department of Corrections amended CPP 15.7 to prohibit an inmate from sending money outside the institution and limited an inmate from having access to more than $1, 000 in their institutional account (with any amounts over that cap to be frozen).[1]

         In July 2017, Hopkins sent Warden Aaron Smith a letter asking to send money from his institutional account to his bank in Lexington, claiming he was at the $1, 000 maximum in his institutional account. Smith responded simply, "Unfortunately, I will not be able to grant your request." Record on appeal at 28. Hopkins then filed a grievance, writing on the grievance form that he "was told that I can't send the money from my inmate account that is at the $1000.00 limit too [sic] my bank in Lexington[, ] Ky." Record on appeal at 20. In the "action requested" section of the grievance form Hopkins wrote that he "would like to be able to send my money off my books/account to my bank in Lexington[, ] Ky." Id.

         The grievance was summarily denied at the informal resolution stage due to the prohibition in CPP 15.7 on inmates sending money outside the institution. Hopkins then requested relief from the grievance committee, but a majority of that body affirmed, though one member of the committee dissented. Warden Smith then denied Hopkins' request for relief in February 2018. Hopkins then sought review by the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections, but the record does not contain any ruling by the Commissioner. Hopkins filed his Petition for Declaratory Judgment in the Franklin Circuit Court on May 4, 2018.[2]

         Hopkins' petition named Warden Smith and James Erwin, then-Commissioner of the Department of Corrections, as respondents. In lieu of filing an answer, on June 4, 2018, Smith and Erwin filed a joint motion to dismiss/motion for summary judgment arguing, as they do before this Court, that the petition was without merit because CPP 15.7 related to "institutional safety, including, but not limited to[, ] preventing inmates from using external unmonitored accounts to hire others to engage in activities that incarceration prevents them from doing-engaging in illicit activities, harassing victims, etc." Record on appeal at 45. Three days later, the trial court issued an order granting the motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted pursuant to Kentucky Rules of Civil Procedure (CR) 12.02(f).[3] Hopkins then filed a motion to alter, amend, or vacate, urging the court to reconsider due to the allegedly draconian impact of the policies at issue. By order entered June 27, 2018, the trial court denied Hopkins' motion to alter, amend, or vacate. This appeal follows.

         A motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under CR 12.02(f) is a question of law and is therefore subject to de novo review. Campbell v. Ballard, 559 S.W.3d 869, 870 (Ky. App. 2018) (citing Carruthers v. Edwards, 395 S.W.3d 488, 491 (Ky. App. 2012)). The pleadings must be liberally construed in a light most favorable to petitioner, and the allegations contained in the complaint are taken as true. Id. at 870-71.

         Courts generally give "deference and flexibility" to prison officials "in the fine-tuning of the ordinary incidents of prison life." Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472, 482-83 (1995) (citations omitted). Thus, though "prisoners do not shed all constitutional rights at the prison gate," incarceration inherently limits a prisoner's rights. Id. at 485 (citations omitted). To set forth an actionable violation of a liberty interest protected by the Due Process Clause, a prisoner must show that the challenged institutional action "imposes [an] atypical and significant hardship on the inmate in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life." Id. at 484. In short, "a highly deferential standard of judicial review is constitutionally appropriate with respect to both the factfinding that underlies prison disciplinary decisions and the construction of prison regulations." Smith v. O'Dea, 939 S.W.2d 353, 357 (Ky. App. 1997).

         Hopkins' primary argument, as we have gleaned from his pro se brief, is that CPP 15.7 violates his rights by limiting his control over, and access to, his monetary funds. The parties have not cited, nor have we independently located, any precedent addressing the propriety of the challenged portions of CPP 15.7.[4]Hopkins' argument to the contrary notwithstanding, the validity and interpretation of the relevant policies present questions of law, not issues of disputed facts. For purposes of our review, we accept Hopkins' contentions that he has an outside bank account in which he cannot deposit funds and is only able to access $1, 000 in his institutional account.

         Contrary to Hopkins' belief, CPP 15.7 does not confiscate his funds. The money in his outside bank account remains his, as do the funds in his inmate account. Even if we accept, solely for the sake of argument, that Hopkins has a property interest in his prison account and his outside account, his money is not being taken. Instead, CPP 15.7 temporarily restricts his access to some of his funds and "there is a difference between the inmate's ownership rights in the ...

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