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FONTANEZ v. O’BRIEN, NO. 14-7607

Decided: December 2, 2015

The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s order and remanded the case for proceedings on the merits.

In 2004, Defendant Jeremy Fontanez (“Fontanez”) plead guilty and was convicted for his involvement in a series of armed robberies. The sentencing court imposed restitution in the amount of $27,972.61. The Inmate Financial Responsibility Program (“IFRP”) is a program initiated by the Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”) that enables prisoners to make payments from their inmate accounts towards court ordered financial obligations. IFRP is a voluntary program, therefore, the BOP cannot compel an inmate to make a payment. However, inmates with financial obligations who refuse to participate in the IFRP might lose many other privileges in prison, including more desirable housing or work outside the prison. In April of 2013, Fontanez was moved to the United States Penitentiary- Hazelton (“USP-Hazelton”), where he signed an Inmate Financial Plan. One year later, he filed a written request to be released from the IFRP, arguing that the BOP’s requirement that he make IFRP payments violated the Mandatory Victims Restitution Act of 1966 (“MVRA”). The MVRA obligates a district court to “specify in [a] restitution order the manner in which, and the schedule according to which, the restitution is to be paid.” Fontanez argued that the sentencing court had failed to set a schedule for his restitution payments, and instead delegated its power to the BOP. He contended that the BOP lacked the authority to require him to make restitution payments through the IFRP or to punish him for refusing to pay. The Warden of USP Hazelton, Terry O’Brien (“O’Brien”), denied Fontanez’s request.

In June 2014, Fontanez filed an application for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 in the Northern District of West Virginia. Fontanez argued that he had a claim under § 2241 because he was challenging the execution and not the validity of his sentence. The matter was referred to a magistrate judge, who issued a report that the government’s motion to dismiss be granted and Fontanez’s position be denied. The district court adopted the ruling of the magistrate judge and dismissed the case.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reviewed the district court’s denial of habeas corpus relief de novo. The Court reasoned that the district court denied Fontanez’s petition because it understood his claim to be challenging the validity of his sentencing order, not the execution of his sentence. However, the Court noted that Fontanez was instead only challenging the execution of his sentence by the BOP. Fontanez did not seek to have the sentencing order set aside. The Court stressed, “it is well established that attacks on the execution of a sentence are properly raised in a §2241 petition.” Therefore, the Court held that an inmate’s challenge to the BOP’s administration of the IFRP is a challenge to the execution of a sentence, not the validity of the sentence, and is therefore cognizable under § 2241.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the district court’s order and because the district court did not reach the merits of the case, remanded it for further proceedings.  

Full Opinion

Meredith Weisler