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Fifth Circuit Greenlights Suit by Louisiana Prisoners Held in Local Jails Beyond Release Date

by Matt Clarke

On June 10, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that Louisiana prison officials were not entitled to qualified immunity (QI) for delays in calculating release dates that left some state prisoners incarcerated for months beyond their sentences.

After Jessie Crittindon, Leon Burse, Eddie Copelin, Phillip Domomock III and Donald Guidry were booked into Orleans Parish Jail, they were transferred due to overcrowding to await trial at the lockup in East Carroll Parish, 250 miles away. Once convicted, the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections (DPSC) assumed legal custody of them. But they were left in the parish jail due to overcrowding in the state prison system.

This is fairly common. In fact, there are procedures in place directing parish jails to advise DPSC of any state prisoner held there so that a release date can be calculated. For these five men, however, there were two parishes involved; each thought the other was responsible for informing the state they were being held, so no one did. DPSC also had no system to flag missing classification paperwork from new state prisoners still waiting in local jails.

The day they were sentenced, four of the five should have been released, given time served. All should have been out of jail within two months. But 100 days later, they were still incarcerated. The mothers of two plaintiffs contacted DPSC to ask why their sons still had no release date. Perry Stagg, then-Assistant Secretary of DPSC, and Angela Griffin, Director of DPSC’s Pre-Classification Department, knew about the phone calls. Yet they waited another 17 days before requesting an updated list of convicted Orleans Parish prisoners being held by the East Carroll Sheriff’s Office. That same day they received a list of 57 prisoners, which was updated three weeks later to include around 100 prisoners.

DPSC officials then got around to asking Orleans Parish for the prisoners’ paperwork, receiving it over a month later. Within a day of its receipt, DPSC calculated release dates and discharged them; but by then the men had been over-detained between 92 and 164 days.

With the help of attorneys from the Roderick & Solange MacAuthur Justice Center, the five filed suit in August 2017 in federal court for the Middle District of Louisiana against DPSC Secretary James LeBlanc, Stagg and Griffin, along with various parish and jail officials, making both federal civil rights claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and supplemental state law claims. Defendants asserted QI and moved for summary judgment. When they were denied, the DPSC defendants filed an interlocutory appeal.

The Fifth Circuit began by noting that Defendants conceded they were aware of the problem with delayed transmission of pre-classification paperwork; a 2012 DPSC study had shown this resulted in the over-detention of 83.44% of state prisoners received from local jails – an average every year of 2,252 prisoners, each over-detained an average of 72 days. Further, DPSC had the authority to impose policy on parish jails, but it failed to address the problem. The Court said “Defendants have not pointed to a single effort that any of them took to identify immediate releases more quickly.” And that could amount to deliberate indifference to the known risk of over-detention that Plaintiffs faced, in violation of their rights.

“While courts have declined to define the amount of delay that is reasonable,” the Court continued, pointing to Berry v. Baca, 379 F.3d 764 (9th Cir. 2004), “it is without question that holding without legal notice a prisoner for a month beyond the expiration of his sentence constitutes a denial of due process,” citing Douthit v. Jones, 619 F.2d 527 (5th Cir. 1980).

Because Griffin and Stagg delayed 17 days before requesting the prisoner list from East Carroll Parish, the Court affirmed denial of QI to them on claims they participated in this constitutional violation. But the other DPSC defendants should not have been denied QI, since they moved to release the prisoners as soon as they received pre-classification paperwork. So that part of the district court’s order was reversed.

In an extraordinarily lengthy dissent, Judge Andrew S. Oldham took the majority to task for “turn[ing] the three DPSC defendants into scapegoats for the State’s problems writ large.” He would have found Plaintiffs’ claims barred by Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), which held that any prayer for release is a habeas corpus action, not one that proceeds under civil rights law. And he certainly couldn’t find sufficient evidence of deliberate indifference to deny QI to any Defendant. The majority countered there “was no statutory directive or DPSC policy that directed jails to submit pre-classification paperwork to DPSC by a given deadline,” but there should have been – especially after the study put Defendants on notice there was a problem. See: Crittindon v. LeBlanc, 37 F.4th 177 (5th Cir. 2022).

Defendants then filed a petition for a rehearing before the full Fifth Circuit en banc, but that request was denied on January 31, 2023. See: Crittindon v. LeBlanc, 2023 U.S. App. LEXIS 2481 (5th Cir.).

The case has now returned to the district court, and PLN will update developments as they are available. In addition to MacArthur attorneys Emily M. Washington and James W. Craig, Plaintiffs are represented by Katharine M. Schwartzmann from Tulane University School of Law. See: Crittindon v. Gusman, USDC (M.D. La.), Case No. 3:17-cv-00512. 

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