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Court to decide if Maine governor violated prisoners’ rights when she cut off unemployment

53 prisoners received nearly $200,000 in unemployment benefits because they had been laid off from work release programs as the state shut down in 2020

Janet Mills

Gov. Janet Mills called the payments “bad public policy.”

AP Photo/David Sharp

By Judy Harrison
Bangor Daily News, Maine

BOSTON — An appeals court in Boston will decide if Gov. Janet Mills violated an inmate’s constitutional right to due process when she seized his unemployment benefits during the pandemic without a hearing.

The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments in the case on Monday. The court has never ruled on the question of whether the 14th Amendment’s due process protections apply to unemployment benefits in Maine, according to court documents.

Marc Sparks, 36, of Bucksport was one of 53 prisoners who received nearly $200,000 in unemployment benefits because they had been laid off from work release programs as the state shut down in 2020.

He worked full-time at the Applebee’s restaurant in Thomaston as a grill cook while incarcerated at Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren as part of a work release program, according to his attorney, Carol Garvan of Augusta.

“The income from this job was used to reimburse Maine taxpayers for Marc’s room and board and to pay for the basic support of his children and domestic partner,” she said.

Sparks received $10,754 in unemployment benefits from April to early July. About $8,400 of that was in enhanced benefits Congress provided in its first COVID-19 relief package. Mills ordered the Department of Corrections to hold the benefits that had been paid out in trust funds set up for inmates. The governor called the payments “bad public policy,” even though an assistant attorney general had determined the payments were legal.

In June 2020, Sparks sued Mills, Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty, and Maine Department of Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman in U.S. District Court in Bangor. Sparks alleged that because the funds were seized without a hearing about whether he was entitled to the money, the state violated his right to due process under the 14th Amendment.

U.S. District Judge Lance Walker in March 2021 granted the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. He found that Sparks wasn’t denied due process protections because he wasn’t denied financial support he needed for life while incarcerated.

“The state government provides prisoners with the essentials necessary to sustain life,” Walker wrote. “Because [Sparks] is not at risk of losing the ability to sustain life while appealing the state government’s decision in a post-deprivation hearing, that is all the process that is due under the Constitution.”

Attorneys for Sparks claim that Walker’s ruling was wrong while the state maintains that the judge correctly found that Sparks was not constitutionally entitled to a hearing. Attorneys for the governor and commissioners also have argued that Sparks should have made an administrative appeal to the Department of Labor over the seized benefits rather than suing in federal court.

Garvan said she is confident the appellate court will rule in Sparks’ favor and “will vindicate the fundamental constitutional right to due process, especially for those in politically unpopular groups.”

The Maine Attorney General’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Sparks was released in September 2020 but remains on probation. He was sentenced in September 2015 to 10 years in prison with all but two years suspended after pleading no contest to charges that he was driving under the influence of methadone.

He was driving south on Route 15 in Orrington on Sept. 13, 2014, when his Dodge sedan struck an SUV driven by Robin Rie, 59, of Brewer. She died six days later.

Sparks was sent back to prison for two years in March 2019 for violating his probation by using drugs. He was serving that sentence when he and other prisoners received unemployment benefits.

(c)2022 the Bangor Daily News (Bangor, Maine)