Fifth Circuit: No Liability for Texas County that Improperly Relied on Polygraph to Imprison Released Sex Offender Additional 13 Years
by Benjamin Tschirhart
In a maddening decision issued on March 23, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit performed legal gymnastics to deny a former Texas prisoner’s damages claim for unlawful imprisonment after Dallas County improperly relied on polygraph tests to keep him locked up 13 years after his release.
After Christopher Arnone was charged with sexually abusing his son in 2002, he struck a deal and pleaded nolo contendere to one charge of injury to a child. A state court then 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 Dallas County District Attorney (DA) then moved the trial court to proceed to an adjudication of guilt. Arnone was found guilty and sentenced to prison.
Almost 13 years later, on October 7, 2015, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ordered him released pursuant to Leonard v. State, 385 S.W.3d 570 (Tex. Crim. App. 2012). In that case, the same court found that polygraph tests are not reliable and thus inadmissible under Texas evidence law.
Arnone then brought a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in federal court for the Northern District of Texas against Dallas County, former DA William Hill, and former director of the county Community Supervision and Probation Department Ron Goethals, seeking to hold them liable for the unlawful use of his polygraph test results. The district court dismissed all of Arnone’s claims except a single count against Dallas County, and then it dismissed that one, too. Arnone appealed.
At the Fifth Circuit, it was noted that Arnone’s “notice of appeal suggested that he was appealing both the dismissal of his claims against Dallas County and the dismissal of his claims against the individual defendants.” However, the Court determined that he failed to state a claim against any of the individual defendants in his appeal, and “[f]ailure adequately to brief an issue on appeal constitutes waiver of that argument.”
But that left his appeal alive of the dismissed claims against Dallas County. Arnone argued that the county was liable for failure to train its employees in legal usage of polygraphs, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Monell v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978), which allowed suits against local governing bodies under such circumstances.
The Court then noted that a Monell claim requires 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.” In this case, however, it said that Arnone was missing the first element. Why? Because “Dallas County can be held liable only for those [policies] decided or acquiesced to by a county policymaker,” the Court said. When acting in their official capacities, though, both the county sheriff and DA were acting as agents not of Dallas County but of the State of Texas.
True, acknowledged presiding Circuit Judge Don R. Willett, the officials in question may have been elected at the county level. They may have had county positions and been paid by the county. But 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. Thus it affirmed dismissal of the case.
Arnone was represented by Lubbock attorney Stanley R. Foreman of Hutchison & Foreman, P.L.L.C. See: Arnone v. Cty. of Dall. Cty., 29 F.4th 262 (5th Cir. 2022).
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