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Second Circuit Affirms Denial of Qualified Immunity to N.Y. Prison Official Who Imposed Post-Release Supervision on Prisoner – But Reverses Damages Award

by David M. Reutter

On March 23, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held it was not error to deny qualified immunity (QI) to a New York prison official who “affirmatively decided” not to heed a federal court decision that it was unconstitutional to administratively impose post-release supervision (PRS) on a state prisoner. But it reversed an award for resulting damages, sending the case back to a district court to determine when exactly they should begin to be calculated.

The case follows another recently heard concerning administratively imposed PRS, which the Court first found unconstitutional in 2006, holding that PRS may be imposed only by a court, not by the state Department of Corrections and Community Services (DOCCS). [See: PLN, Apr. 2010, p.46.] In March 2022, the federal court for the Southern District of New York refused a bid by DOCCS to decertify the class in suit then action brought by prisoners subjected to illegally imposed PRS. [See: PLN, Oct. 2022, p.50.]

This case involved the illegal imposition of PRS on state prisoner Shawn Michael Vincent. As PLN has previously reported, Vincent was sentenced in 2001 to five years imprisonment and released conditionally on January 15, 2005. At his release, DOCCS unilaterally imposed a five-year PRS term. Vincent was then arrested on October 14, 2005, for violating his PRS by possessing a credit card. He was released on March 21, 2007, and arrested again two weeks later for violating his PRS by failing to report an address change.

While Vincent was in custody on the first violation, the Court decided that administrative imposition of PRS was unconstitutional in Earley v. Murray, 451 F.3d 71 (2d Cir. 2006). Vincent then filed a habeas corpus petition, which was granted in March 2008. He was released from the sentence he was serving for his second PRS violation in July 2008, having been confined a total of 686 days after the Earley ruling made it clear that no PRS should ever have been imposed.

Vincent sued for damages in federal court for the Western District of New York, which dismissed the case on QI grounds. But the Second Circuit reversed that ruling on appeal, noting that Early clearly established that administratively imposed PRS was unconstitutional. See: Vincent v. Yelich, 718 F.3d 157 (2d Cir. 2013).

On remand, the district court found that Anthony Annucci, then Deputy Commissioner and legal counsel for DOCCS, was not entitled to QI. It then awarded Vincent $175,000 in damages. [See: PLN, Jan. 2022, p.56.] Annucci appealed.

Taking up the case again, the Second Circuit affirmed the denial of QI to Annucci, rejecting his invitation to revisit the prior rulings in this case and Earley. Annucci argued that he deserved QI because the law was not “clearly established,” since certain state courts had rejected Earley’s logic. But the Second Circuit swatted that aside, noting that “[u]nder the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, [the Earley decision] was binding on state courts and state officials, regardless of their willingness to accept it.”

However, the Court reversed the award of damages. It noted that in its 2013 decision in Vincent’s case, it had said it was incumbent on state officials to cure the ongoing constitutional violations. Annucci also acknowledged that the New York Court of Appeals held in 2010 that resentencing after a defendant completed the lawful portion of his sentence and had been released from custody violates the “double jeopardy” clause of the federal constitution.

Annucci admitted that “nothing prevented” him from complying with Earley and that he “affirmatively decided not to do so” for over a year and a half. But the Second Circuit concluded that the record “is not clear whether there was any impediment, legal or otherwise, to Annucci’s simply and unilaterally releasing Vincent.” It therefore remanded the case for the district court to resolve that question “to establish the onset date for calculating any compensatory damages” that Vincent may be entitled to.

Thus the district court’s order was affirmed in part and reversed in part. Vincent was represented before the Court by attorneys Jon P. Getz of Rochester and K. Wade Eaton of the Eaton Law Firm in Pittsford. See: Vincent v. Annucci, 63 F.4th 145, (2nd Cir. 2023).