By Cate Berenato

On December 2, 2015, in the published case Fontanez v. O’Brien, the Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded the Northern District of West Virginia’s decision to dismiss a federal inmate’s habeas corpus petition. The Fourth Circuit held that Jeremy Fontanez properly brought his claim under 28 U.S.C. § 2241.

The issue in this case was whether Mr. Fontanez’s claim was cognizable under 28 U.S.C. § 2241.

In 2004, Mr. Fontanez was convicted for his involvement in several armed robberies, and “the sentencing court imposed restitution in the amount of $ 27, 972.61. The sentencing court’s instructions read: Mr. Fontanez “shall make restitution payments from any wages he may earn in prison in accordance with the Inmate Financial Responsibility Program.” The Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”) runs the Inmate Financial Responsibility Program (“IFRP”), which allows prisoners to make periodic payments from their inmate accounts toward restitution obligations. While voluntary, prisoners with financial obligations who do not participate in the program become ineligible for various privileges. In 2013, Mr. Fontanez signed an Inmate Financial plan but requested to be released from it a year later.

Mandatory Victims Restitution Act and 28 U.S.C. § 2241

Mr. Fontanez argued that the requirement that he participate in the IFRP violated the Mandatory Victims Restitution Act of 1996, which requires 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.” Mr. Fontanez argued that the sentencing court unlawfully delegated the BOP with the task of setting his restitution payment schedule.

A federal prisoner must challenge the execution of a sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2241, and he or she must challenge the sentence itself under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Mr. Fontanez brought his claim under § 2241 because he was challenging the execution of his sentence, and he asked the district court to enjoin the BOP from requiring him to make payments through the IFRP.

The Northern District of West Virginia dismissed Fontanez’s claim because it held that he challenged the sentence “as imposed” rather than “as executed” and thus improperly brought his claim under § 2241.

Mr. Fontanez Properly Brought His Claim Under § 28 U.S.C. § 2241

The Fourth Circuit held that Mr. Fontanez properly brought his claim under § 2241 because he sought relief from the way that the BOP, rather than the sentencing court, executed his sentence. Because prisoners must challenge the execution of sentences under § 2241, Mr. Fontanez properly brought his claim under that section.