Fight Over Probation Fees Not Ready for Ruling

After considering the matter for nearly a year, a split Missouri Supreme Court said a man’s claim that he is exempt from the cost of his supervised probation needs more time to develop. 

On Oct. 5, the court ruled 4-3 that it is “purely speculative and hypothetical” whether parole officials will require Randall Graves to pay a $30 monthly “intervention fee” out of his federal supplemental security income, or SSI.

The ruling delays but doesn’t deny Graves’ underlying contention that requiring such payments from individuals on SSI is forbidden by federal law. Matthew Mueller of MGM Law in St. Louis, an attorney for Graves, said a ruling in his client’s favor could have affected numerous people across the state who face the possibility of prison for failing to make payments out of meager income that should be protected.

“Do we really have to wait for poor Mr. Graves to be revoked and sent to the Department of Corrections before he can actually raise this as a viable claim?” he said. “That doesn’t make much sense.”

Graves is serving a five-year term of probation after pleading guilty in 2018 to receiving stolen property. Two months into his probation, he received a letter from the Missouri Department of Corrections’ probation and parole division informing him that he was required to pay a monthly intervention fee of $30 for the duration of his supervision. The letter said he had an overdue balance of $60 and that he could face collection efforts and the revocation of his probation if he didn’t make timely payments. 

Graves filed a declaratory judgment action, alleging that his only income is $771 a month in SSI and that forcing him to pay the intervention fee would violate a federal anti-attachment provision that bars SSI from being subject to garnishment or “other legal process.”

Writing for the majority, Judge W. Brent Powell said Graves’ claim isn’t ripe because the probation division hasn’t taken any definitive steps to force Graves to pay the fee or to revoke his probation for lack of payment. Powell went so far as to check the status on Case.net of Graves’ underlying criminal proceedings in Platte County Circuit Court, which shows no violation reports since he was placed on probation in early 2019.

“Graves’ case could be ripe if the Division made a concrete, binding, immediate decision to classify him with violation status should his nonpayment continue or the Division took other definitive action to collect the fee,” Powell wrote. “But the Division has made no effort to collect the fee other than sending the letter to Graves, and the letter itself was non-binding. It had no legal effect on Graves’ rights.”

The majority dismissed the case but specified that Graves could refile it if his situation changes.

In a dissent, Judge Patricia Breckenridge, joined by Judges Mary R. Russell and George W. Draper III, argued that Graves’ claim should be allowed to proceed. Breckenridge wrote that “the controversy relates to what the division has already done in imposing monthly intervention fees as a condition of Mr. Graves’ probation, not what it may do in the future.”

“No further factual development is necessary for a court to make an accurate determination of the facts and resolve, with specific relief of a conclusive nature, whether the imposition of intervention fees as a condition of Mr. Graves’ supervised probation violates” the federal anti-attachment law. “Mr. Graves is not required to subject himself to the risk of sanctions, as the principal opinion holds, before he can maintain an action for declaratory judgment.”

The ruling came out almost a year to the day after it was argued on Oct. 6, 2020. Since then, the court has seen a change in personnel: Judge Laura Denvir Stith retired in March after taking part in last year’s argument, and Gov. Mike Parson appointed Judge Robin Ransom in May to succeed her. 

According to court records, Stith was briefly named to the case as a senior judge, but that order was almost immediately rescinded. Instead, the court said in July that it was considering the case on the basis of the submitted briefs, a procedural move that allowed Ransom to vote on the case. She sided with the majority. 

Mueller said he believed the case would have come out differently if Stith were still on the court — particularly as the Supreme Court’s ruling mirrors a 2020 decision in the Court of Appeals Western District. Had the then-majority of the Supreme Court agreed with the result in that case, Mueller reasoned, there would have been no reason to accept his case on transfer.

In the meantime, Mueller urged public defenders to watch for opportunities to make a similar argument on behalf of clients whose fees already are coming from their SSI.

“They’re not shooting down my claim,” he said. “They’re basically saying we’re going to wait for a better case, someone who is actually at risk of being revoked for not paying.”

The attorney general’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The case is Graves v. Missouri Department of Corrections, SC98501. 

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