Former Prisoner Can Sue Officials Who Illegally Detained Him for 2 Months, 5th Circuit Says

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Louisiana, which locks up a larger share of its population than any other state except Mississippi, has a longstanding problem with its jail and prison inmates: It likes them so much that it has trouble letting them go, even when they have completed their judicially prescribed sentences. According to a report that the U.S. Justice Department published in January, more than a quarter of Louisiana inmates released from January through April 2022 were incarcerated after they should have been freed. Within that group, the median length of “overdetention” was about a month, but nearly a third of the prisoners were illegally held for at least two months and a quarter were detained for an extra 90 days or more.

A decision that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit issued this week shines a light on the combination of incompetence, indifference, and outright malice that has created this constitutionally intolerable situation. The case involves a former prisoner, Ellis Ray Hicks, who was “detained for sixty days after the expiration of his prison sentence.” Hicks sued several employees of Louisiana’s Department of Public Safety and Corrections (DPSC), arguing that they had violated his 14th Amendment rights by depriving him of his liberty without due process. It is “clear as day,” a three-judge 5th Circuit panel unanimously ruled, that “the government cannot hold an inmate without the legal authority to do so.”

Although that much may seem obvious, DPSC supervisors Tracy DiBenedetto and Sally Gryder claimed it was news to them. They argued that they deserved qualified immunity from Hicks’ claims against them because it was not “clearly established” that he had a due process right to be released after he completed his sentence. This was a version of the defense that George Costanza attempted when he got into trouble at work for having sex with a cleaning woman on his desk: “Was that wrong?” A federal judge did not buy it, and neither did the 5th Circuit.

Before delving into the details of the tragicomic miscalculations that resulted in an extra two months behind bars for Hicks, 5th Circuit Judge Patrick Higginbotham expresses dismay at the prevalence of such liberty-depriving errors. “We are seeing with some frequency claims of ‘overdetention,’ now a euphemism for prisoners illegally incarcerated beyond the terms of their sentence,” he writes. “Unfortunately, many of these cases have come to this Court in recent years. This is yet another from Louisiana.”

Hicks was arrested for second-degree battery in 2008. He was initially sentenced to probation but ended up serving more than a year in prison before he was released on parole in 2013. In July 2016, he was charged with a parole violation based on a conviction in Arkansas for which he had served 455 days in the Faulkner County jail. In January 2017, a Louisiana judge sentenced Hicks to four years of hard labor for the parole violation, with credit for the time he had already served in Louisiana, including 163 days of pretrial detention, plus the time he had served in Arkansas.

In other words, the Arkansas time was supposed to be subtracted from Hicks’ Louisiana prison term in calculating his release date. According to Hicks, he should have been released on February 24, 2018. But in February 2017, DPSC employee Terry Lawson, for reasons that are not entirely clear, calculated a different release date: February 28, 2018. Things only got worse from there.

Hicks alleged that Gryder told Lawson to recalculate his release date. Lawson came up with a new date, May 23, 2019, “essentially removing the credit for time served in Arkansas.” And “although Gryder reviewed the sentence and calculation,” Higginbotham notes, “she did not instruct Lawson to include the credit for time served in Arkansas.”

When Hicks asked about that blatant error, he was told that he needed to obtain documentation of his incarceration in Arkansas. He managed to do that “with the help of his family and friends,” and Lawson calculated yet another release date. But according to Hicks, it still did not give him credit for the 110 days of pretrial detention he had served in Arkansas.

In July 2017, Hicks asked the Louisiana judge who had sentenced him to clarify how much time he was supposed to serve. The judge reiterated that Hicks should get “credit for all time served, including the time served in the State of Arkansas.” In defiance of that instruction, DiBenedetto told Hicks his release date was correct and would not be changed. But Lawson wondered about that. That November, he specifically asked DiBenedetto whether he should count the 110 days of pretrial detention. She told him the answer “depended on whether Hicks was being held ‘under the same circumstances’ or if Louisiana had a ‘hold’ on him.”

Unsure how to apply that guidance, Lawson came up with a fourth release date: July 11, 2018. Two days later, he emailed DiBenedetto, asking whether there had been “any ruling” on the question of whether to count Hicks’ pretrial detention. DiBenedetto “did not answer the question.” Instead she reiterated that Lawson should “determine whether there was a ‘hold’ on Hicks from Louisiana before including the 110 days of pretrial detention in the recalculation of his sentence.”

Hicks went back to court, seeking an order instructing the DPSC (again) to comply with the terms of his sentence. That order was issued in January 2018. But at a hearing the following month, the judge and the district attorney, while confirming once again that “the sentence included time served in Arkansas,” told him “the court could do nothing else to help him.” If he wanted to serve no more than the sentence he had actually received, they said, he would have to “file suit in Baton Rouge against DPSC.”

Hicks’ insistence that he should not have to spend more time in prison than his sentence prescribed apparently irked Lawson. He “told Hicks’ friends and family that ‘an awful lot of people were calling him’ about Hicks, that ‘anyone who messes with me gets longer time,’ and that ‘if someone keeps bothering me about their computations they can do more time.'” During a recorded telephone conversation in April 2018, Lawson told Hicks’ lawyer that “judges have no say whatsoever to us applying our time comp laws.” Regardless of what the sentencing judge thought was appropriate, Lawson said, Hicks would not receive full credit for the time he had served in Arkansas.

That same month, “Gryder asked Lawson to call the Faulkner County Sheriff’s Office to determine how much time Hicks spent in pretrial detention in Arkansas.” Lawson did that and informed another supervisor, Angela Griffin, that Hicks “had enough credit to get released.” Gryder “then manually recalculated Hicks’ sentence, inputting dates for all time served in Arkansas.” In case you lost count, this was the fifth time that the DPSC calculated Hicks’ release date. And “although Hicks was eligible for immediate release,” Gryder arbitrarily “changed his release date from April 20, 2018 to April 25, 2018,” which is when he finally got out.

If you multiply these inscrutable decisions and mysterious calculations by the 30,000 or so people in Louisiana’s prisons and jails, you can start to see why so many of them end up behind bars after they were supposed to be released. As the Justice Department noted, Louisiana has been aware of this problem for more than a decade but has done almost nothing to resolve it. State officials so far have been unmoved by considerations of justice or by the waste of taxpayer money spent to incarcerate people past their correct release dates.

Cases like this one might give Louisiana an additional financial incentive, since routine indemnification means that settlements and damage awards are ultimately covered by public funds even when officials are sued as individuals. But first plaintiffs like Hicks need to overcome claims of qualified immunity. Judging from this case, that should not be hard.

In 2020, the 5th Circuit agreed that Lawson was not entitled to qualified immunity. “Lawson’s alleged actions were objectively unreasonable in light of clearly established law at the time of his misconduct,” it said. In addition to letting Hicks pursue his due process claim against Lawson, the court said he had plausibly stated a First Amendment claim based on Lawson’s alleged threats to lengthen Hicks’ prison term as punishment for his attempts to vindicate his rights. “No reasonable DPSC employee,” the court said, “could have assumed that she could retaliate against a prisoner and extend his sentence simply because he pursued judicial remedies to confirm his timely release.”

This week’s decision reaches similar conclusions regarding Gryder and DiBenedetto, Lawson’s supervisors. “It is clearly established that inmates have the right to timely release from prison consistent with the terms of their sentences, a holding we have long-held and repeatedly reaffirmed,” Higginbotham writes. “Relevant here, the right to timely release was clearly established well before 2017….Hicks’ right to timely release is clearly established, not just as a general proposition of law, but specifically by the multiple state-court orders declaring that the Arkansas time was to be credited.”

Hicks argued that Gryder and DiBenedetto were liable for his illegally extended prison term because they directly participated in the violation of his rights and because they showed “deliberate indifference” in failing to properly supervise or train Lawson. The 5th Circuit thought both claims were plausible.

“Hicks plausibly alleges that DiBenedetto and Gryder were direct participants in violating his right to timely release from prison,” Higginbotham writes. According to the lawsuit, he notes, “DiBenedetto reviewed all of Hicks’ [administrative grievances], knew he was not being credited for the Arkansas time, yet did not take any action to correct the error. Indeed, she personally informed Hicks that her (incorrect) calculation was correct and refused to modify it despite Hicks’ pointing out that his Arkansas time was not credited. And when Lawson asked DiBenedetto whether he should include the Arkansas time credits, DiBenedetto did not instruct Lawson to include the time—even though by then the state court had clarified that Hicks’ Arkansas time was to be credited. Gryder, too, directly participated in Hicks’ overdetention by manually altering Hicks’ release date to extend the period of imprisonment despite knowing that Hicks was, at that point, already being held past the expiration of his sentence.”

As for Gryder and DiBenedetto’s failures as supervisors, Higginbotham says, the alleged facts would support a finding of deliberate indifference, even though that is “a stringent standard of fault,” requiring proof that an official “disregarded a known or obvious consequence of his action.” According to Hicks, “DiBenedetto and Gryder both knew—for months—that Hicks had on numerous occasions contested Lawson’s failure to apply the Arkansas credit, yet neither trained nor supervised Lawson even after it was confirmed that the Arkansas credit was to be applied to Hicks’ sentence.”

When “Lawson asked DiBenedetto (his supervisor) ‘whether he should include’ the Arkansas time,” Higginbotham notes, she “did not instruct Lawson to follow the court’s clarifying order.” In fact, “it appears she did not give him any training or supervision on this issue for nearly a month.” She “also did nothing in response to one of Hicks’ (several) administrative grievances ‘specifically regarding Lawson refusing [to] consider [the] Arkansas time’ even though, by then, multiple authorities had unequivocally stated that the Arkansas time was to be included. Worst of all, DiBenedetto knew that ‘DOC staff have discovered approximately one case of overdetention per week for the last nine years,’ with ‘inmates…sometimes incorrectly incarcerated for periods of up to a year.’ Yet she did nothing.”

Gryder likewise “knew of Lawson’s lack of training and supervision as he miscalculated—over and over again—Hicks’ time credits,” Higginbotham writes. “Importantly, upon learning that Hicks was entitled to ‘immediate release,’ she ‘manually changed his release date from April 20, 2018 to April 25, 2018, deliberately holding him'” for another five days.

The deliberate indifference that Hicks describes is just one example of a broader problem that affects thousands of prisoners whom Louisiana officials cannot be bothered to release when they complete their legally prescribed terms. The DPSC routinely “denies individuals’ due process rights to timely release from incarceration,” the Justice Department noted, adding that its “failure to implement adequate policies and procedures causes systemic overdetentions,” showing it is “deliberately indifferent to the systemic overdetention of people in its custody.”

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