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Ninth Circuit Holds Hawaii Prison Officials Entitled to Qualified Immunity when Calculating Release Dates in Accordance with State Law

In an interlocutory appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed a Hawaii district court’s denial of qualified immunity to prison officials who, in apparent conformity with Hawaii state law, treated a prisoner’s sentences issued at different times for different crimes as being presumptively consecutive rather than concurrent. This was despite the prisoner’s objections – which ultimately proved to be well-founded – that the sentencing court in his case had ordered the sentences to “run concurrent with each other.”

Cornelius Alston was sentenced in 1991 for robbery. In 1997, while on parole for that offense, he was sentenced on two counts of promoting a dangerous drug, which the judge ordered were to run concurrently. The judge later ordered that the sentences on the drug-related counts also run concurrent with the remainder of Alston’s robbery sentence, but a copy of that order was apparently never received by the Hawaii Department of Public Safety (DPS).

Alston’s release date was originally calculated as August 4, 2007 under a DPS policy that treated sentences issued at different times for different crimes as concurrent unless the judgment specified otherwise. That policy was inconsistent with Hawaii state law (HRS § 706-668.5), which presumes that such sentences are consecutive unless the court orders otherwise, and DPS changed its practice to conform with the law in 2005.

Pursuant to its updated policy, DPS recalculated Alston’s release date to be November 17, 2011 – more than four years after his original release date. In response to Alston’s complaints, DPS explained that his sentences in the two drug-related cases were running concurrently, consistent with the court’s order, but because there was no order on file for those sentences to run concurrent with his sentence for the robbery conviction, that sentence was run consecutively.

With the help of a public defender, Alston was able to obtain an amended judgment reflecting the judge’s order that all of the sentences were to “run concurrent with each other.” He was released on December 27, 2007, the same day the amended judgment was issued – 145 days after his original release date.

Alston and other similarly situated prisoners filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging they were held past their release dates in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. The district court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment with respect to state law claims, but found there were “genuine issues of fact as to whether Alston had been deprived of meaningful process in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and whether [the defendants] had acted with deliberate indifference in response to Alston’s overdetention claim in violation of the Eighth Amendment.” The court declined to grant the defendants qualified immunity.

In a December 14, 2011 opinion, the Ninth Circuit had little trouble finding that no reasonable prison official would have known that he or she had a duty to obtain the prisoner’s original courthouse file in order to determine whether or not the prisoner was in fact being detained past his or her release date. Thus, the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity and the case was reversed and remanded. See: Alston v. Read, 663 F.3d 1094 (9th Cir. 2011).

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Related legal case

Alston v. Read