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Overdetained California Prisoner Wins $21,800 for False Imprisonment

by John E. Dannenberg

The California Court of Appeal upheld a Superior Court verdict of $21,800 against state prison officials in a lawsuit filed by a prisoner whose eventually-corrected good time credit earning rate resulted in his being released nine months late. Suing under a theory of false imprisonment, he defeated defenses of failure to exhaust administrative remedies and statutory immunity for government actors.

Jorge Gallegos was convicted of continuing child molestation from July 1993 to July 1994. On September 14, 1995, he was sentenced to 12 years. At that time his crime was eligible for half-time credit earning; however, on September 21, 1994, Penal Code § 2933.1 became effective which reduced his crime category’s credit earning status to 15%. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) incorrectly applied the new, lower credit earning rate to Gallegos’ prison sentence, projecting his release on September 9, 2005.

In July 2002, Gallegos’ attorney pointed out the error in a letter to CDCR, noting that the crimes of conviction had occurred before the statutory credit rate change. The CDCR corrected the release date to December 7, 2001. Gallegos was released to INS custody on August 6, 2002, nine months late, and then deported to Mexico.

One year later Gallegos filed suit against the state for false imprisonment and violations of his civil rights. The state first moved for a directed verdict under Gallegos’ Civil Code § 52.1 claim on grounds that the overdetention was not “coerced.” The trial court granted the motion. The state then moved for dismissal because Gallegos had never exhausted administrative remedies, and also moved for immunity from liability under Government Code (GC) § 845.8. The trial court denied these motions, and following a jury trial Gallegos was awarded $1,800 in lost (foreign) wages plus $20,000 for physical discomfort, inconvenience and loss of time.

On appeal, the Court of Appeal upheld the directed verdict because the requisite ill will of “coercion” was plainly not present in this case. But the appellate court also upheld the denial of the state’s motions related to administrative exhaustion and immunity.

As to the former, the state had relied upon Wright v. State of California, 128 Cal.App.4th 1123, 1136 (2004), which held that a prisoner must first exhaust administrative remedies when seeking damages even though damages cannot be awarded by CDCR in its Form 602 appeals process.

However, the key distinction was that Gallegos had sued for false imprisonment, not for miscalculation of his release date. While a miscalculation claim would require first seeking administrative relief, false imprisonment was a completed (and corrected) act for which no internal damage remedy was available.

Similarly, the Court of Appeal found the state’s immunity defense failed. Relying upon Sullivan v. County of Los Angeles, 12 Cal.3d 710 (1974) [county not immune from false imprisonment when it knew prisoner should be released], the court held that the state’s failure to perform its mandatory duty under Penal Code § 1384 to release an overdetained prisoner could not operate to immunize it from a tort claim for negligence. “[The state’s] mistake in keeping [Gallegos] in custody beyond that date when it should have known that his term had expired was not subject to immunity,” the appellate court stated.

Accordingly, Gallegos’ false imprisonment judgment was affirmed. Gallegos was represented by Oakland attorney Robert Beles. See: Gallegos v. State of California, 2008 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 3230 (Cal. App. 1st Dist. 2008) (unpublished), petition for review denied.

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Related legal case

Gallegos v. State of California