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Fifth Circuit Finds No Liability for Dallas DA Who Improperly Relied on Polygraph to Imprison Sex Offender for 13 Years

by Benjamin Tschirhart

In November 2022, Dallas resident Christopher Arnone was charged with sexually abusing his son. He struck a deal and entered a plea of nolo contendere to one charge of injury to a child. The state court sentenced him to ten years ‘deferred adjudication community supervision,’ the conditions of which required Arnone to submit to sex-offender treatment and polygraph tests. After failing two polygraph tests, Arnone was dismissed from sex offender treatment. The district attorney then moved to proceed to an adjudication of guilt, which the trial court granted where and sentenced Arnone to prison.

Almost 13 years later, on October 7, 2015, the state Court of Criminal Appeals ordered him released pursuant to Leonard v. Texas, which found that polygraph tests unreliable and thus inadmissible under Texas evidence law. Arnone then brought suit in federal court for the Northern District of Texas under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Dallas County, former district attorney (DA) William Hill, and the former director of the county Community Supervision and Probation Department, Ron Goethals, complaining that the use of polygraphs was a violation of his constitutional rights.

All claims were dismissed, except a single complaint against Dallas County. That was then also dismissed on May 10, 2021, when the district court found Arnone had failed to state a claim against anyone acting on behalf of the county since “DA Hill’s decision cannot fairly be attributed to a Dallas County policy” because “his authority for such a decision does not derive from his county office; instead, the decision fell within the scope of his prosecutorial duties to enforce state laws.” See: Arnone v. Syed, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88540 (N.D. Tex.).

Arnone turned to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which began with Arnone’s argument that Dallas County was liable for failure to train its employees in legal usage of polygraphs under Monell v. Dep’t of Soc. Svcs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978). That decision, the Court noted, required a finding of three elements: “(1) a policymaker, (2) an official policy, and (3) a violation of a constitutional right who’s ‘moving force’ is the policy or custom.” The problem here, the Court said, was that Arnone lacked the first element, since “Dallas County can be held liable only for those [policies] decided or acquiesced to buy a county policymaker”; however, when acting in their official capacities, both the county sheriff and the DA were actually acting as agents of the State of Texas

Thus, even though the officials in question may have been elected at the county level, may have had county positions and been paid by the county, they were enforcing and enacting state laws when they imprisoned Arnone based on the polygraph tests. Therefore they cannot be sued in their capacity as county officials, the Court said, affirming the lower court’s decision on March 23, 2022. Arnone was represented by attorney Stanley Rafe Foreman of Hutchison & Foreman, P.L.L.C., in Lubbock. See: Arnone v. Cty. of Dall., 29 F.4th 262 (5th Cir. 2022).

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