The opinion of the court was delivered by: LARIMAR
Defendant Richard Riley, the Secretary of Education ("the Secretary") has moved to dismiss the complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. In addition, plaintiff has filed motions for a preliminary injunction and for class certification.
The complaint alleges that plaintiff has been incarcerated within New York State penal institutions since April 3, 1990. He has been taking college courses since the Spring 1991 semester. Among other financial aid, he had been receiving federal Pell Grants.
Prior to the enactment of the Violent Crime Control Act, Pell Grants were available to prisoners other than those on death row or serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. In 1994, however, the Violent Crime Control Act amended the HEA to prohibit the award of Pell Grant funds to all prisoners in state or federal penal institutions.
Plaintiff alleges that as a result of this amendment, he will no longer be able to take college courses and he will not be able to accumulate the 120 credit hours that he needs to receive a Bachelor's degree.
Based on these allegations, plaintiff contends that the Violent Crime Control Act violates the Constitution's prohibition of ex post facto laws, Art. I, § 9, cl. 3; that it violates the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fifth Amendment; and that the Act constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
Defendant's motion to dismiss is granted and the complaint is dismissed.
"An ex post facto law is one which reaches back in time to punish acts which occurred before enactment of the law." Peeler v. Heckler, 781 F.2d 649, 651 (8th Cir. 1986). Plaintiff alleges that the Violent Crime Control Act is an ex post facto law because it imposes a punishment--the denial of Pell Grants--for criminal conduct that occurred prior to passage of the Act.
The ex post facto clause applies only to punitive measures. "Essential to the success" of this claim, therefore, "is the validity of characterizing as 'punishment' in the constitutional sense the termination of [plaintiff's] benefits ..." Flemming v. Nestor, 363 U.S. 603, 613, 4 L. Ed. 2d 1435, 80 S. Ct. 1367 (1960).
I find that plaintiffs claim fails on this ground. The denial of Pell Grant funds to state and federal inmates is not "punitive" as that term has been construed by the courts.
Although there do not appear to be any reported cases addressing the ex post facto implications of the Violent Crime Control Act, several cases involving the denial of various types of benefits to different classes of persons are instructive.
The standard that the Court set forth for the assessment of ex post facto challenges to federal statutes was not a light one. The Court stated that "the presumption of constitutionality with which this enactment, like any other, comes to us forbids us lightly to choose that reading of the statute's setting which will invalidate it over that which will save it." Id. The Court further added that "unmistakable evidence of punitive intent ... is required before a Congressional enactment of this kind may be struck down." Id. at 619.
The Court also made clear that even if there is some punitive intent behind a statute, that alone is an insufficient basis to strike it down as an ex post facto law. The Court stated that a court reviewing a statute "cannot with confidence reject all those alternatives which imaginativeness can bring to mind, save that one which might require the invalidation of the statute." Id. at 621.
Applying the holding of Flemming, a number of reported cases in the 1980s uniformly rejected ex post facto challenges to an amendment to the Social Security Act ("the SSA amendment") that suspended disability and other benefits for incarcerated felons. In Jensen v. Heckler, 766 F.2d 383, 386 (8th Cir.) (per curiam), cert. denied, 474 U.S. 945, 88 L. Ed. 2d 288, 106 S. Ct. 311 (1985), for example, the Eighth Circuit held that the SSA amendment was not an ex post facto law, "because the suspension of a noncontractual benefit cannot be considered a punishment." Adhering to that holding one year later in Peeler, the court stated that "if the law in question is focused on the past crime, then it is likely intended as a punishment, while if the focus is upon the benefit from which the person is barred, it is not, even thought the impact on the individual may be harsh. The mere denial of a noncontractual government benefit ... without a showing of penal intent, does not fall within the ex post facto prohibition." 781 F.2d at ...