A lawsuit challenging a Connecticut law enabling the state to recoup imprisonment costs from formerly incarcerated people will move forward this week with a set of new plaintiffs after a judge dismissed elements of it last month.
Connecticut has long collected so-called pay-to-stay fees from former prison inmates after their term of incarceration ends. The fees amount to hundreds a day, which the state can claim against property owned by someone who was incarcerated. In 2021, the state assessed more than $5.7 million in prison costs, according to the Office of Fiscal Analysis.
Last year, Stamford resident Teresa Beatty sued the state as lead plaintiff in an ACLU-backed class action lawsuit challenging the law. Beatty, who did a two-and-a-half year prison bid on drug charges around 20 years ago, inherited her mother’s home in 2020, after which the state sought more than $83,700 in years-old prison expenses.
However, the state legislature curtailed the pay-to-stay law during last year’s session. Under the changes, the state exempts up to $50,000 of assets except for people convicted of serious crimes like murder and sexual assault.
According to the Office of Legislative Research, the law still allows the state to claim a lien for up to 50% of the cost of incarceration against inheritances. That means Beatty would be on the hook for the house she received after her mother died.
Last month, a federal court judge granted an order dismissing the case, though he left the door open for it to continue. Judge Jeffrey Meyer concluded that while other plaintiffs could not demonstrate a state action against them, Beatty’s claim failed because it was improperly directed at the state attorney general when the Department of Administrative Services had made the claim against her.
“[I]f a plaintiff has a complaint about the state tax department’s collection of taxes, he cannot then sue the state parks commissioner who lacks any official authority to grant the requested tax relief,” the judge wrote.
Meanwhile, Meyer said the recent changes to the law apparently resolved the claims made by other plaintiffs Michael Llorens and Karl Weissinger.
“If the law was thus amended, it would appear that the challenges of Weissinger and Llorens to [the pay-to-stay law] may be moot, because both these plaintiffs were convicted of crimes that are no longer within the scope of the statute,” the judge wrote.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs disputed this point, arguing that conflicts in the language of the statute potentially defeated its intent. The judge declined to weigh in on that claim, but in allowing the plaintiffs to file an amended complaint, he questioned whether pursuing the matter risked putting last year’s changes in jeopardy.
“I trust that [the plaintiffs] will carefully consider whether it serves their interests—and the interests of the class as a whole — to seek to negate an apparent legislative victory not questioned by the Attorney General and that would vastly narrow the application of Connecticut’s pay-to-stay law in prisoners’ favor,” Meyer wrote.
A new complaint, filed Friday, drops references to the attorney general and is instead directed at DAS Commissioner Michelle Gilman and Correction Commissioner Angel Quiros.
It also adds two new plaintiffs. They include Natasha Tosado, a pharmacy technician from Hamden, who was incarcerated between 2016 and 2018. Tosado received a portion of a settlement with the city of Bridgeport after a police officer there shot and killed her son, Jayson.
Another new plaintiff, Doug Johnson, a mason from Branford, was locked up for two years between 2002 and 2004. Johnson received inheritances following the deaths of his mother and father.
According to the lawsuit, the state is seeking more than $74,600 from Johnson and $83,700 from Tosado. The complaint asks the court to declare null and void those prison debts and thousands of others as well as rule the law unconstitutional.
“I paid the price for my actions dearly when I lost my freedom, and I thought my debt was paid,” Johnson said in a press release from the ACLU of Connecticut. “Nobody told me that 20 years down the line, the state would be asking me and my family to pay the price again.”