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Fifth Circuit Denies Qualified Immunity to Louisiana Prison Chief for Prolonging Prisoner’s Detention with Sex Offender Misclassification

by David M. Reutter

On July 17, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed denial of qualified immunity (QI) to Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections (DPSC) Secretary James LeBlanc in a prisoner’s claim alleging his misclassification as a sex offender illegally extended his sentence by 337 days.

Robert Parker was sentenced on March 27, 2017, to two years imprisonment for a probation violation. When he was taken into DPSC custody three days later, employee L. Cato determined Parker had a “Must Serve” date permitting release on October 9, 2017. That date, however, was changed upon review by DPSC employee Brenda Acklin, who crossed out the date and noted Parker was on an “unapproved sex offender registry plan.” Under Louisiana Rev. Stat. Ann. § 15:543, that meant DPSC must verify the legality of Parker’s post-release residence before he could be released from prison.

But Parker was not a sex offender, so he made numerous attempts to have officials at DPSC and its Richwood Correctional Center correct the error. Public Defender Aaron Zagory, who had previously represented Parker, also emailed DPSC on August 24, 2018, stating he did not “believe Mr. Parker has a conviction that requires him to register as a sex offender.” Zagory noted that Parker has a 1997 conviction for indecent behavior with a juvenile and unauthorized entry into an inhabited dwelling, but Parker “was permitted to withdraw that plea and pleaded guilty to a single amended count of simple burglary.”

Charles Romero, DPSC’s sex offender unit coordinator for probation and parole in New Orleans, acknowledged the “honest mistake in the investigation” 12 days later. Five days after that, on September 10, 2018, Parker was released from prison—almost a whole year beyond his scheduled release date. With the aid of attorney Jonathan M. Rhodes of the Rhodes Law Firm in New Orleans, Parker sued in the state’s 19th Judicial District court, alleging the 337 days of extended incarceration violated his constitutional rights.

LeBlanc removed the case to federal court for the Middle District of Louisiana, which granted only part of his motion to dismiss, finding Parker had “adequately pled that there were sufficiently similar prior incidents in sufficient number and of which LeBlanc was aware to overcome [QI] at this stage.” LeBlanc appealed.

The Fifth Circuit found that Parker “cited three pieces of evidence to support his allegations that LeBlanc implemented deficient policies evinced by a pattern of similar constitutional violations by untrained employees.” Specifically, there was a 2017 state legislative report; an editorial by a senator and the attorney general; and testimony by DPSC employees in a case with similar factual allegations. Parker’s allegations that this was evidence of a “pattern of over detention” rendering his case “neither unique nor even unusual” supported the inference, the Court continued, that LeBlanc was aware of the deficiencies of implemented policies which routinely led to errors, like the one that violated his constitutional rights.

The facts, when cast in a light most favorable to Parker, supported an argument that LeBlanc had “fair warning,” the Court said, “that failure to address the delay in prisoners’ timely releases would deny prisoners like [Parker] their immediate or near-immediate release upon conviction.” Therefore the district court’s order was affirmed. See: Parker v. LeBlanc, 73 F.4th 400 (5th Cir. 2023).

Rhodes, Parker’s attorney, said the Fifth Circuit “is seeing it is likely that (LeBlanc) has violated a clearly established constitutional right and … furthering a pattern or practice of these constitutional violations.” He added, “I think it shows the court intends to hold government officials accountable.”

As PLN reported, an investigation by the federal Department of Justice found in January 2023 that about one-quarter of prisoners released by DPSC had been held too long; the median over-detention was 29 days. [See: PLN, Aug. 2023, p.55.] That opened the state to a potential flood of cases like Parker’s, which is likely why LeBlanc asked the full Fifth Circuit on August 11, 2023, for a rehearing en banc. That petition is still pending, and PLN will report updates as they are available. See: Parker v. LeBlanc, 73 F.4th 400 (5th Cir. 2023).  


Additional source: The Advocate

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Related legal case

Parker v. LeBlanc