7th Circuit orders district court to review injured inmate’s restitution modification request

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A district court must consider on the merits an inmate’s request to modify the terms of his restitution obligation, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled.

In 2010, Von Eric Sweatt pleaded guilty to five counts of armed bank robbery and was sentenced to 32 years.

As part of his sentence, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana ordered him to pay his victims a total of $20,038.52 under the Mandatory Victims Restitution

On the section of the judgment form titled “Payment Schedule,” the court selected “immediately.” The judgment didn’t set a pre-release payment plan but instead imposed one for the balance remaining when Sweatt begins serving supervised release.

Then in January 2023, on the government’s motion, the district court authorized the Bureau of Prisons to turn over $600 from Sweatt’s prison trust account, which held about $1,100, to be applied toward his restitution debt. The government relied on 18 U.S.C.§ 3664(n), which provides that any financial resources prisoners receive during incarceration must be applied toward restitution.

Around the same time, Sweatt was transferred to a medical center within the bureau for hip replacement surgery, which prevented him from working for a little more than a year.

Because he couldn’t work, and because more than half of his funds had gone toward restitution, Sweatt declined to participate in the bureau’s Inmate Financial Responsibility Program. Participation in the program isn’t mandatory, but prisoners who opt out lose various privileges.

Sweatt then filed a motion to modify his judgment to halt his restitution payments until he recovered from surgery and resumed working again. He relied on 18 U.S.C. § 3664(k).

The government responded that the district court lacked authority to review bureau decisions regarding program payments. The district court agreed and denied the motion.

But the 7th Circuit reversed, remanding for the district court to consider Sweatt’s motion on the merits.

On appeal, Sweatt argued that the government took inconsistent positions on the scope of the district court’s authority. He claimed that the government was judicially estopped from disputing the court authority to modify his payment schedule under Section 3664(k) when it had previously argued under Section 3664(n) that the district court could modify his payments based on his finances.

While the 7th Circuit determined judicial estoppel “has no role here,” it also determined the district court did have authority under Section 3664(k) to modify the restitution schedule.

“To be clear, we take no position on whether the district court should grant Sweatt the relief he seeks. The defendant’s ability to pay cannot be a factor in setting the amount of restitution,” the per curiam opinion states. “… But the defendant’s economic outlook factors into the repayment schedule and any changes to it. … Therefore, the district court must determine whether Sweatt satisfies the criteria of §3664(k) and, if so, whether any relief is warranted.”

The case is United States of America v. Von Eric Sweatt, 23-1752.

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