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$30,000 Paid by Michigan to Prisoner Wrongfully Classified as Sex Offender

by David M. Reutter

On March 6, 2023, a Michigan prisoner dismissed his complaint against officials with the state Department of Corrections (DOC) after agreeing to accept $30,000 to settle claims that he suffered the “stigmatizing consequences” of being falsely classified as a sex offender.

In January 2018, Willie E. Harper, Jr. entered DOC custody, after pleading guilty to First Degree Home Invasion. As part of his plea agreement, prosecutors dropped a charge of Criminal Sexual Conduct. Yet when Harper arrived at Charles Egeler Reception & Guidance Center, a DOC “Classification Director” named Egbuchulam assigned him a “high assaultive risk,” apparently based in part on the dropped charge.

Worse, Harper was assigned to Muskegon Correctional Facility (MCF), site of the state Sex Offender Program (SOP), in which his classification meant he would be enrolled. Worse still, he would have to “admit” to sex offenses in order to complete SOP, and if he didn’t, his parole might be denied or delayed.

Harper objected and asked for an administrative hearing, but none was provided before he was transferred to MCF. There two mental health practitioners named Arkesteyn and Foster oversaw SOP. Harper named them in a grievance he filed and carried all the way through DOC’s three-step grievance process, to no avail.

He then filed suit pro se in federal court for the Western District of Michigan in April 2019. Proceeding under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, he accused the mental health providers of violating his civil rights under the First and Fourteenth amendments. The district court screened the complaint and dismissed it for failure to state a cause of action. Harper appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, aided by Bloomfield Hills attorney Frank J. Lawrence, Jr.

The Court began its analysis with the First Amendment claim, which noted that Harper had then been transferred to Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility (BCCF) – a move he alleged was made in retaliation for the grievance he filed against Arkesteyn and Foster. Aside from the transfer, though, the district court found no facts alleged to support a retaliatory motive, and the Sixth Circuit agreed.

But Harper also filed claims under the Fourteenth Amendment, saying that the classification and assignment to SOP, with its requirement that he confess to crimes he was never convicted of, violated his protection from self-incrimination. The district court construed this as a challenge to Harper’s prison assignment and denied the claim, concluding he did not have a right to imprisonment at a certain lockup or to any specific security designation.

The Sixth Circuit found error in dismissal of these claims. Harper’s objection to the sex-offender classification was not limited to the prison transfer, the Court said, noting that “Harper also alleged that the stigmatizing consequences of being labeled a sex offender, when coupled with mandated behavioral-modification therapy, constituted the kind of deprivation of liberty that requires procedural protections.” It was also error to dismiss the claim that his protection from self-incrimination was violated, the Court said. Vacating those parts of the order, the Sixth Circuit remanded the case on April 28, 2020. See: Harper v. [Unknown] Arkesteyn, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 13665 (6th Cir.).

On remand on February 4, 2022, a magistrate recommended denying Egbuchulum’s motion for summary judgment, also denying the other defendants’ motion to dismiss. Quoting Pearson v. City of Grand Blanc, 961 F.2d 1211, 1217 (6th Cir. 1992), the judge said that “classifying Harper as a sex offender and requiring him to take sex offender programing to be eligible for parole without providing him an administrative hearing, can be considered an ‘arbitrary or capricious’ action that ‘shocks the conscience,’ in violation of his substantive due process rights.” See: Harper v. Arkesteyn, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 20178 (E.D. Mich.). The district court adopted that and the rest of the magistrate’s recommendations on February 24, 2022. See: Harper v. Arkesteyn, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 33101 (E.D. Mich.).

The parties then proceeded to reach their settlement agreement, which included $10,000 in fees and costs for Lawrence, Harper’s counsel. Harper’s $20,000 share was subject to $1,875.30 deduction to settle his account with DOC. See: Harper v. Arkestyn, USDC (E.D. Mich.), Case No. 19-cv-11106.