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Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Holds Prison Officials Not Accountable for Prisoner’s Extended Incarceration

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that prison officials are not legally accountable to a prisoner for any incarceration beyond his release date. Alston et al v Read & Simmons, No. 10-15332, slip op. (9th Cir. Dec. 14, 2011).

Cornelius Alston was convicted of second degree robbery in 1991. While on parole from the robbery sentence he was convicted of two counts of promoting a dangerous drug. Alston was sentenced to ten years in prison for the first count and five years for the second. In his November 1997 order, the judge ordered Alston’s sentences for the two counts of promoting a dangerous drug to run concurrently – the period of imprisonment equals the length of the longest sentence or somewhere in between. A release date for Alston was calculated as August 4, 2007 by the Offender Management Office of Hawaii’s Department of Public Safety (DPS). In December 1997, the sentencing judge issued a second order requiring all of Alston’s sentences, including the one for the robbery, to run concurrently. DPS only received a copy of the November 1997 order.

Until 2005, Hawaii law required sentences issued at different times for different crimes to run consecutively unless the court ordered the sentences to run concurrently. DPS implemented a new policy to confirm their practices to state law, and then reviewed all their prisoners’ files. In June 2007, Alston received a letter from DPS that recalculated his release date to November 17, 2011.

Alston then sent several letters to DPS arguing that all of his sentences were to run concurrently, not consecutively and his real release date was still August 4, 2007. Since DPS only had the November 1997 order, Alston’s request was denied. Alston subsequently obtained an amended judgment reflecting the judge’s December 1997 order. Alston was released the same day the amended judgment was issued, December 27, 2007.

Alston and a group of similarly situated state prisoners brought suit under 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983 against the two DPS officials who were responsible for the “erroneous recalculation” of his release date. The district court granted a summary judgment to the DPS officials holding their actions did not violate state law. The district court did not grant either DPS official qualified immunity since there were questions of material fact as to whether Read and Simmons had conducted a proper investigation of Alston’s claims that his sentence was incorrectly calculated. The two DPS officials filed an interlocutory appeal of the denial of qualified immunity.

Government officials are “shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). The copy of the November 1997 order which was in Alston’s institutional file was silent as to whether the sentence was to run concurrent or consecutive with previous sentences. DPS officials were not required to investigate an overdetention claim in these circumstances by obtaining the prisoner’s original courthouse file. Thus the conduct of the two DPS officials was reasonable. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued qualified immunity to the two DPS officials.

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