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New York Not Liable for DOCS’ Unauthorized Addition of Post-Release Supervision

The New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, has held that the state cannot be held liable for the Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) adding post-release supervision to prisoners’ sentences when such supervision had not been ordered by the sentencing court.

Farrah Donald, Shakira Eanes, Jonathan Orellanes and Ismael Ortiz were convicted of felony offenses and received determinate sentences without the sentencing court orally pronouncing they were subject to a period of post-release supervision (PRS). In each case, the DOCS added PRS when they were released. All except Orellanes were reincarcerated for violating the conditions of their PRS, and they filed separate actions in the state Court of Claims alleging false imprisonment. The Court of Claims granted partial summary judgment to Donald but dismissed the other cases.

On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed the partial summary judgment in Donald’s case and affirmed the dismissal of the other cases. All four claimants then appealed to the Court of Appeals. [See: PLN, April 2010, p.46].

On June 23, 2011, the Court of Appeals held that Orellanes’ claim should be dismissed because, although the judge failed to orally pronounce a period of PRS, the commitment sheet from the court did include PRS. Therefore, the DOCS had merely carried out the mandate of the trial court and the court alone was responsible for the error in failing to orally pronounce the PRS.

The Court of Appeals also held that Donald, Eanes and Ortiz had failed to plead that they were falsely imprisoned, an essential element of the tort. Donald and Eanes further failed to plead another essential element – that their confinement was not privileged. “A detention, otherwise unlawful, is privileged where the confinement was by arrest under a valid process issued by a court having jurisdiction.” Neither Donald nor Eanes alleged defects in the process that resulted in their arrests for violating their PRS, even though they were improperly placed on PRS in the first place.

Their claims also could be interpreted as asserting that the state negligently subjected Donald, Eanes and Ortiz to unauthorized PRS, the Court of Appeals found. However, the state is immune from suit for discretionary acts of its officials, and this applies even when the official was mistaken. Such was the case when the DOCS added PRS to the claimants’ determinate sentences.

The DOCS did not have authority to add the PRS, but the DOCS often has to interpret the directions it receives from judges. “Because DOCS was exercising – albeit mistakenly – the discretion given it by law, its acts cannot be a basis for State liability,” the Court of Appeals wrote. Thus, the dismissals of the cases by the Appellate Division were affirmed. See: Donald v. State, 17 N.Y.3d 389, 953 N.E.2d 790 (N.Y. 2011).

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Related legal case

Donald v. State