Inmate sues Luzerne County judge to stop seizure of commissary funds

By Jennifer Learn-Andes and Joe Dolinsky - - | March 31st, 2016 8:00 am

Andre Vancliff is serving sentences for murder, corruption of minors

By Jennifer Learn-Andes and Joe Dolinsky

A state prison inmate has initiated legal action against Luzerne County Judge Michael T. Vough and others, challenging the seizure of $9,675 from his prison commissary account to cover $15,000 in fines and restitution, records show.

The litigation came up during a county council legislative committee meeting with state legislators Tuesday, when state Rep. Tarah Toohil, R-Butler Township, discussed a push for new legislation requiring a percentage of inmate commissary funds to cover fines and restitution.

Inmates use money in their commissary accounts to buy extras, from snacks and toiletries to boots and televisions.

Current law authorizes, but does not require, prison officials to deduct money from inmate accounts to satisfy a prisoners’ court-ordered restitution, which means county and state prison inmates spend money from their accounts on “luxuries” while “ignoring” their obligation to compensate victims, a proposed bill summary says.

County Court Administrator Michael Shucosky pointed to the legal action against Vough as proof legislation is “desperately” needed.

“Judge Vough tried, and Judge Vough got himself sued,” Shucosky said.

A message left for Vough at the judge’s chambers was not immediately returned Wednesday.

The legal action was initiated by Andre Vancliff, 49, who did not challenge charges he molested two girls while housed at the State Correctional Institution at Retreat in Newport Township on a life sentence for a Philadelphia murder.

Vough in July 2014 sentenced Vancliff to an additional 42 to 84 months for his no-contest plea on two counts of corruption of minors, according to court records.

State police said the girls were taken to the prison by Rebecca Ann Butler, 43, of Danville, knowing the girls were going to be molested by Vancliff, court records say.

Butler was convicted by a jury after a trial before Vough in February 2014 on two counts each of endangering the welfare of children and corruption of minors. She was sentenced to 3½ to 10 years in state prison.

Vough granted prosecutors’ request for the maximum fine of $15,000 against Vancliff. Prosecutors argued the additional prison time alone would have no impact because he already was serving a life sentence. Vancliff had the ability to pay the fine, they said, because his prison account contained more than $19,000 in September 2012, according to a past published report.

Butler deposited large sums of money into Vancliff ’s prison account before they were arrested, according to court records.

When Vancliff was sentenced in July 2014, his prison account had more than $9,000, court records say.

County officials said a portion of the $15,000 fine was earmarked for the victims, which would be the two minor children, although the specifics were not immediately available.

Vancliff appealed his sentence, claiming prosecutors did not have sufficient evidence he had the ability to pay the $15,000 fine. The state Superior Court upheld the fine last May, saying the county court “acted within its discretion in finding sufficient evidence to support imposition of the $15,000 fine.”

Representing himself, Vancliff filed documents in the county clerk of courts office earlier this year asking the county court to reduce his fine to $10,000 and accept the $9,772.99 already frozen as payment.

He said the court wrongly relied on the “possibility” he would continue receiving money from family or friends, but no outside money was deposited in his account since the sentencing, leaving his commissary account with a negative $5,000 balance.

Vancliff said his only financial income is from a $0.19-per-hour assignment as a prison block worker, and any funds he receives are automatically put in escrow due to Vough’s court order.

“The order is excessive and causes the petitioner great hardship, even under the normal conditions of a prison life,” he wrote.

He also reiterated past arguments that the forfeiture was not legal.

A petition for review, a case-initiating document, was received Feb. 22 in the Commonwealth Court, one of two intermediate appeals courts in the state.

Named in the docket as respondents are Vough, the Department of Corrections (DOC), and DOC officials John Wetzel and Jeff Paladina.

Records show preliminary objections to Vancliff’s petition were filed March 22, but little other information was available as of press time Wednesday. A Commonwealth Court clerk said the action is currently in its infancy stages and was unavailable to provide further information.

Mechanicsburg attorney Chase M. Defelice, identified as DOC counsel, said he was unable to comment on the pending litigation when reached Wednesday.

At least one of the bills that had been proposed by legislators would require 25 percent of inmates’ wages and 75 percent of the money deposited into their accounts from outside sources to be dedicated to paying back their victims.

“Unfortunately, while inmates are spending millions of dollars at the prison commissary, victims remain unpaid,” said state Rep. Todd Stephens (R-Montgomery), the bill’s sponsor, in a statement.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.