Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Archive for the ‘Supreme Court Watch’ Category

Supreme Court Upholds Jailhouse Strip Searches, Even for Traffic Infractions

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A 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court has ruled that jails may constitutionally strip-search anyone admitted to the jail, no matter how minor the reason they’re in jail. Writing in dissent, Justice Breyer observed that “the harm to privacy interests would seem particularly acute where the person searched may well have no expectation of being subject to such a search, say, because she had simply received a traffic ticket for failing to buckle a seatbelt…”

Actually, in the case at issue in this decision, the subject of the strip-search was erroneously arrested for something that isn’t even a crime: Albert Florence was arrested for not paying a fine that in fact he had paid, and in any event not paying a fine is not a crime under New Jersey law, it’s a civil infraction. As I noted previously about this case:

This line of cases should be extraordinarily troubling for civil libertarians. When you combine cases finding no Fourth Amendment violation when the police arrest and detain you even for very minor offenses — even offenses that aren’t actually arrestable offenses under state law — with cases finding no Fourth Amendment violation when jail guards strip-search you after booking on a minor offense, basically we’re giving the police a green card to find any pretext to have anyone they don’t like arrested, jailed, and strip-searched. Read the Atwater dissent, Part II, if you don’t think this could be a real problem.

I haven’t yet had time to read the full SCOTUS opinions, so perhaps I’ll have additional thoughts later, but you can find all the opinions and other materials here at SCOTUSblog.

Some Twitter reactions:

Written by sara

April 2, 2012 at 11:16 am

Supreme Court Blocks Federal Lawsuit against Private Prison Employees

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Earlier this week the Supreme Court threw out a federal prisoner’s federal lawsuit against employees of the GEO Group, saying the inmate should have pursued his claims in state court. (Which he’s now missed the deadline to do.) As Jess Bravin explains:

Under high-court precedents, inmates in federal institutions can file federal lawsuits against prison employees for mistreatment that violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishments.”

By an 8-1 vote, however, the court refused to extend that right to inmates held in private prisons operated under contract to the U.S. government. In an opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer, the court observed that in contrast to federal employees, whom prisoners generally can’t sue in state court, employees of the private company enjoy no such immunity.

The AP has these details about the suit:

[Inmate Richard Lee] Pollard wanted to sue for his treatment after he fell and fractured both of his elbows at the privately run Taft Correctional Institution in Taft, Calif.

Pollard said GEO officials put him in a metal restraint that caused him pain, and refused to provide him with a splint, making his injuries worse and causing permanent impairment. He sued in federal court for money, claiming GEO officials had violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the sole dissenter, writing, “Were Pollard incarcerated in a federal- or state-operated facility, she would have a federal remedy for the Eighth Amendment violation he alleges. I would not deny the same character of relief to Pollard, a prisoner placed by federal contact in a privately operated prison.”

The case is Minneci v. Pollard; you can read the full opinion as well as lots of commentary over at SCOTUSblog.

More Notable Plata News and Commentary

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This roundup will be sort of haphazard, but I just wanted to flag a few things that have come across the transom worth your attention:

  • Here’s an informative article by Jeanine Sharrock at New America Media that puts into perspective Gov. Jerry Brown’s “realignment” proposal, which would comply with Plata by shifting responsibility for low-level offenders down to the county level. About a third of California prisoners come from Los Angeles County, where the county jails have their own overcrowding problems, not to mention their own ongoing unconstitutional conditions litigation.
  • Linda Greenhouse of the New York Times has now weighed in. She characterizes the Kennedy opinion as a blast from the past to the 1970s era of sweeping structural reform injunctions. (As, of course, does the Scalia dissent, though Scalia comes to bury, not to praise.) Overall Greenhouse seems to approve, given the uniquely dire state of affairs in California’s prisons: “if the court can’t solve such problems, it still has the power to illuminate them and to summon our better selves. The court uses that power rarely these days, but in this one decision, it found a nearly forgotten voice from long ago.”
  • And here’s a detailed analysis of the opinion from Stuart Taylor, who has some sympathy for both the majority opinion and the Alito dissent but describes the Scalia dissent as “overheated.”

EDITED TO ADD: I meant to include one more:

  • Dan Morain of the Sacramento Bee gives some additional context to the Justice Kennedy opinion. J. Clark Kelso, the court-appointed federal receiver in charge of CDCR, was a Kennedy clerk back in Kennedy’s Ninth Circuit days.

More Plata Commentary: Experts Edition

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From folks who know what they’re talking about:

  • Jonathan Simon, Berkeley professor and criminal-justice scholar: “this is the first decision to move beyond evaluating prison conditions, to place mass incarceration itself on trial.” And on the Scalia dissent: “In Scalia’s universe, a court could order the release of a prisoner from Auschwitz, but not the closing of Auschwitz. This is a coherent vision of the Constitution, but one that renders the Constitution largely irrelevant to modern society.”
  • Doug Berman, Ohio State professor and expert on criminal sentencing: “anyone who does not like the idea of federal courts ordering a state to release prisoners really should be complaining about the fact that [a Republican] Congress in 1996 clearly contemplated and clearly authorized federal courts to enter such an order through the enactment of the PLRA.”
  • More Doug Berman [this is from the comments section to the above link]: “I continue to find it hard to contemplate that a responsible state could/would let things get so bad in their prisons so as to have made such a factual record to justify the need for the federal court involvement. It is truly an embarrassment to CA, and I commen[d] the majority of the Court for recognizing that judges can and must sometimes say enough is enough.”
  • Jeanne Woodford, former San Quentin warden (paraphrased by LA Times columnist Steve Lopez): “Woodford told me California has run an aggressive ‘catch and release program,’ in which we send tens of thousands of parolees back to state prison each year for violations, many of them minor, that could be handled more cheaply and easily at the county level. In her opinion, we incarcerate “many more prisoners than is necessary for the safety of the public.”
  • Inimai Chettiar, policy counsel, ACLU: “Foremost, reducing prison overcrowding will actually lead to less crime and safer neighborhoods. Our extremist sentencing policies have bloated our prisons so severely that not only are they unsafe, unhygienic, and unconstitutional, but also excessively costly and actually a detriment to public safety.”

Also, a programming note: There’s, predictably, been a flood of commentary on Monday’s Supreme Court decision ordering California to bring its prison overcrowding crisis under control. Also predictably, much of that commentary is starting to get repetitive or otherwise non-illuminating, so I won’t attempt to keep a comprehensive archive going (not that such an archive wouldn’t be useful for, well, archival purposes — if I weren’t super-busy this week with other projects, I might take it on, but alas, SCOTUS doesn’t consult my schedule when timing the announcement of its decisions!). But of course, I will certainly keep linking selectively to those more provocative or informative responses, such as those listed above, that I believe to be worth your reading time. Of course, please add further suggestions in comments if you think I’ve missed something!

Rounding Up the Brown v. Plata Commentary

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Here’s a (non-comprehensive) roundup of coverage and commentary on yesterday’s Brown v. Plata decision. Please also visit the California Correctional Crisis blog — they’re the experts and they call the opinion “a mixed blessing”: given his framing of the issue, “Justice Kennedy sets the stage for the state to avoid early releases by recurring to damaging, malignant techniques, which will only increase mass incarceration in the long run.” Doug Berman’s Sentencing Law & Policy blog also has several helpful posts on the decision, and will surely have more to come.

  • Adam Liptak’s solid summary of the Supreme Court’s ruling, in the New York Times. Also in the NYT, analysis of how the decision might factor into California’s ongoing fiscal woes.
  • Lyle Denniston of SCOTUSblog on how the majority and dissenting opinions seem to have different visions of what the majority opinion actually entails.
  • The Los Angeles Times explains how Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan, which would transfer low-level inmates down to county jail, could achieve the required population reduction without “releasing” anyone from custody. More on that plan from the SF Chronicle‘s Bob Egelko. (But, the plan would cost an increase in taxes, and if there’s one thing California voters love, it’s refusing to pay higher taxes even while demanding super-expensive criminal-justice policies.)
  • Press release from the Prison Law Office, the Berkeley-based prisoners’ rights law firm that’s been litigating this case for 20 years. A handy nutshell summary plus links to a wealth of documents from throughout the litigation.
  • Forbes blogger Ben Kerschberg has a well-done round-up of quotes and facts on the situation in California’s prisons.
  • The always-interesting Dahlia Lithwick on the Court’s inclusion of photographs in the opinion.
  • Tim Lynch of Cato provides some context on Justice Kennedy’s interest in prison reform.
  • Helpful backgrounders from KQED’s Bay Area news blog and KALW’s Informant blog.

Commentary from California pols:

  • Gov. Jerry Brown: “As we work to carry out the court’s ruling, I will take all steps necessary to protect public safety.”
  • CDCR Secretary Matt Cate on reforms already under way to shift the lowest-level offenders out of state prison down to county jail: “What we do best is focus on high-risk, high-level offenders. That’s always been the traditional role of prisons, you know. The governor was really surprised to learn that California had 47,000 offenders that went to prison last year that served 90 days or less.”
  • State Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley: “Our prison system is an expensive failure. It is a threat to both the public safety and the financial well-being of California.”
  • An AP roundup of additional quotes from California politicians.

California editorial boards:

  • SF Chronicle: “The Supreme Court’s ruling to end California’s shameful and dangerous prison overcrowding demands an answer from Sacramento, not more rhetoric and legal dodges.”
  • San Jose Mercury News: “The governor and Legislature need to stop whining and begin making changes that meet civilized standards and will make Californians safer.”
  • Los Angeles Times: “the truth is that experts have been suggesting responsible ways to ease prison overcrowding for years. One way is to create an independent panel to revise the state’s haphazard sentencing guidelines, which all too often result in excessive terms that worsen overcrowding.”

And lastly, my take:  Read the rest of this entry »

Supreme Court Upholds California Prisoner Release Order, 5-4

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For years the medical and mental health care provided by California’s prisons has fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements and has failed to meet prisoners’ basic health needs. Needless suffering and death have been the well documented result. Over the whole course of years during which this litigation has been pending, no other remedies have been found to be sufficient. Efforts to remedy the violation have been frustrated by severe overcrowding in California’s prison system. Short term gains in the provision of care have been eroded by the long-term effects of severe and pervasive overcrowding.

Brown v. Plata, 563 U.S. — (2011)

Today a 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court affirmed a federal court order requiring California to reduce its prison population to 137.5% of design capacity. Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority, joined by justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justice Scalia wrote a dissent joined by Justice Thomas, and Justice Alito wrote a dissent joined by Chief Justice Roberts.

You can download the full SCOTUS decision as well as other documents from the case here, from SCOTUSblog. The initial order was issued in August 2009 by a special three-judge panel of judges, as required for prisoner release orders by the Prison Litigation Reform Act. I tweeted some highlights from the opinion and dissents here, at Twitter.

The Kennedy opinion is notable, actually, for a relative absence of Kennedy-style flowery rhetoric. Instead, it focuses on the concrete details of suffering documented over the past 20 years of litigation over the California prison system — complete with a photo appendix. It seems like the lawyers at the Prison Law Office (no relation to the Prison Law Blog!) did an excellent job impressing upon the Court the severity of California’s overcrowding crisis. It probably also helps on that score that Kennedy is from California (and Breyer, too, whose brother is a federal judge in California).

I’ll try to read the opinions more closely later in the week and provide more detailed analysis. I’ll also do a roundup later in the week of notable commentary. In the meantime, here’s a roundup of initial news reports:

For an introduction to the California prison system, see my December 2010 post “Truly Appalling.” Here are some of my other earlier posts on this case and related matters:

SCOTUS Might Take Case on Jailhouse Strip Searches

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Adam Liptak noted earlier this week that the Supreme Court appears likely to grant cert in Florence v. County of Burlington, in which a New Jersey man was arrested, detained for over a week, and repeatedly strip-searched for a supposedly unpaid fine. (Failure to pay a fine is not a crime under New Jersey law — it’s a civil offense — and in any event, the fine actually had been paid.) More info on Florence here at SCOTUSblog. Liptak points to cases out of Atlanta, San Francisco, Philadelphia upholding jailhouse strip searches after any arrest, no matter how minor the charges. So for readers who want more background, I thought I’d note my earlier coverage of some of those earlier opinions. Here are two posts from the archives:

This line of cases should be extraordinarily troubling for civil libertarians. When you combine cases finding no Fourth Amendment violation when the police arrest and detain you even for very minor offenses — even offenses that aren’t actually arrestable offenses under state law — with cases finding no Fourth Amendment violation when jail guards strip-search you after booking on a minor offense, basically we’re giving the police a green card to find any pretext to have anyone they don’t like arrested, jailed, and strip-searched. Read the Atwater dissent, Part II, if you don’t think this could be a real problem.

Written by sara

March 11, 2011 at 11:32 am

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