Stay Out of It – Inmates Have No Standing to Sue About Phone Bills

Fall River
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Stay Out of It – Inmates Have No Standing to Sue About Phone Bills

  • By: P.J. Van Ert

Many of our county clients maintain contracts with private service providers for a variety of municipal needs. In a recent case, several California counties were sued by a group of inmates, organized by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, claiming that fees for telecommunications service in jails were an unlawful tax, requiring voter approval under Proposition 26.  The fees for use of inmate telephone services were used by the providers to pay commissions to counties for the exclusive right to provide the inmate telephone service. 

The plaintiffs are inmates and their families who claim the fees charged to use the inmate telephone systems are exorbitant and fell disproportionately and unlawfully on African-Americans and Latinos in the jail populations.  It was conceded that the fees and costs associated with inmate telephone service under these contracts are substantially more than those that would be paid for “ordinary” telephone service. The commissions were paid from fees charged to inmates and held in funds for the benefit of inmates. 

The court dispensed with the suit quickly by ruling that the inmate plaintiffs lacked standing to contend that the commissions were an unconstitutional tax. In short, the inmates do not pay the alleged “tax.” The commissions to the counties are paid from the profits received by the telecommunciations providers. The inmates paid nothing directly to the county defendants.  The court declined to liberally construe Proposition 26 to allow these plaintiffs to assert standing for a fee they were not legally obligated to pay. The Court distinguished several cases for fuel taxes, sales taxes and other taxes challenged. The Court also found that the plaintiffs could not show the fees impacted only African-American and Latino inmates. The court further found that the choice between paying the exorbitant telephone charge or foregoing use of the system did not amount to a threat, intimidation or coercion by county defendant’s to pay or impose a tax on the inmates. 

The Court upheld the demurrer by affirming the judgment and ordering that defendants recover their costs on appeal. The California State Association of Counties and League of California Cites filed amici curiae on behalf of defendants. 

See In re County Inmate Telephone Service Cases 48 Cal.App.5th 354 (2d. Dist. Apr. 28, 2020)