COA affirms jail phone commissions

Jennifer Nelson
January 1, 2008
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After years of litigation, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled today that the Marion County Sheriff and the Indiana Department of Administration were allowed to enter into contracts with a phone company that provided commissions to the sheriff and IDOA on phone calls made from the jail and prison facilities.

In Chanelle Linet Alexander, et al. v. The Marion County Sheriff and the Commissioner of the Indiana Department of Administration, No. 49A02-0708-CV-716, the plaintiffs are a class of people who have been charged or paid for collect phone calls from inmates at the Marion County Jail and those incarcerated at Indiana Department of Correction facilities.

The suit was first filed in 2000, dismissed by the trial court for lack of subject jurisdiction, and appealed to the Court of Appeals. In Alexander I, the Court of Appeals remanded the case to the trial court to determine whether the sheriff and commissioner of IDOA were allowed to enter into contracts with Ameritech and AT&T that provided commissions and other compensation paid by the phone company to the sheriff and state, and if the rates charged for collect calls in the jail and DOC facilities were reasonable.

On remand, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the sheriff and IDOA, leading to the second appeal to the Court of Appeals by the plaintiffs.

In the instant case, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's grant of summary judgment. After examining Indiana statute, the appellate court found the defendants didn't violate any of the prohibition against excessive license fees, unreasonable user fees, or combinations in restraint of trade.

"Finding no statutory constraints on the Sheriff's or the State's authority to enter into contracts that call for the service providers to pay commissions to the Sheriff and the State in accordance with their respective contracts, and in light of the General Assembly's recognition of the Sheriff's and the State's authority to accept commissions from telephone service providers, we conclude that the trial court properly decided the threshold issue, i.e., the Sheriff and the State had the authority to enter into contracts which provided that they would receive commissions from providers of telephone services to their respective facilities," wrote Judge Ezra Friedlander.

The Court of Appeals also found that the defendants met their initial burden of proof showing the rates charged to inmates in the jail or DOC facilities were reasonable as they were no more than rates charged to the public for a similar service. The plaintiffs failed to meet their burden of establishing there is a genuine issue of fact regarding the reasonableness of the rates charged by the phone companies, he wrote.

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