Friday, June 09, 2006

Webster City Refuses to Pay Sheriff's Booking Fee

It was reported in The Messenger that the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department has been charging cities within its jurisdiction a 'booking fee' of $55 per head which Webster City has refused to pay. The total amount that the city has refused to pay exceeds $30,000. The county jail is currently running a deficit of over $175,000 for unpaid debt incurred by prisoners.

No doubt this controversy will ultimately be decided by the courts, but it does point to the enormous pressures county sheriffs are under to recover some of the costs of housing and caring for inmates when the inmates themselves cannot pay.

Under Iowa Code 331.658, the sheriff is responsible for the care and feeding of inmates in his custody with the Board of Supervisors bearing the ultimate responsibility for payment. This principle has existed in Iowa law for many years. See, Teague v. Mosley, 552 N.W.2d 646 (Iowa 1996); Hamil v. Carroll County, 69 N.W. 1122 (Iowa 1897); Grubb v. Louisa County, 40 Iowa 314 (Iowa 1875).

Of course, such a simple question as "What is 'custody'?" is one on which many dollars may hang.

In Mercy Hospital Medical Center v. County of Marion, 590 N.W.2d 41 (Iowa 1999), Kluge, an escapee from a Department of Corrections work release program was injured in Marion County while driving a car stolen in Woodbury County. His injuries were such that the trooper involved had Kluge directly airlifted to Mercy rather than taking him to the Marion County jail. When he had recovered, he was taken into custody by Woodbury County on the stolen car charges. A Marion County warrant was later issued and Kluge was taken into custody in Marion County, the charges were dismissed, and Kluge remained in the custody of the Department of Corrections.

The hospital sued the Department of Corrections, Woodbury County and Marion County for the cost of treating Kluge, and the DOC was dismissed afther paying 1/2 of the bill. The hospital pursued the counties, but the Supreme Court held that the prisoner had to be in the custody of the Sheriff, and that had never happened with Kluge until after he was treated by the hospital. At the time of his arrest Kluge was legally in the custody of the Department.

Of course, if a prisoner is in ill health and in custody in a county, one may find that a defense attorney will not strenuously argue for his release on bail or pretrial release, and might also waive speedy trial so as to keep the inmate's care coming.

A tip o' the hat to Deputy Jason Barnes of the Madison County Sheriff's Office for pointing me to the latest iteration of this long standing controversy.


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